Listening Like a Therapist
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who really listened? It’s remarkable, isn’t it? Perhaps we go through most days with so many distractions and interruptions that we aren’t necessarily aware of all the things that compete for our attention. But when someone truly listens to us, we notice. There’s something affirming about knowing that you are being heard.
It’s also one of the common accusations that people in relationship often throw at each other: “You never listen to me!” Just as there is something affirming about being listened to, it can be maddening when you actually want someone to listen and they don’t.
Therapists see listening as a skill; it’s not something that just happens. It has to be developed and refined and worked at. So what does it mean to listen like a therapist? And, how can it impact your relationships?
Listening is an activity. It’s a process. You can’t just let the sound of someone’s voice wash over you and say that you’ve been listening to them. It is a skill that requires attention and energy. It might seem minor to point out that listen is an active skill but it’s an important distinction. Too often we think that we can “just sit and listen.”
To listen well, prepare yourself to listen. Remove the distractions. Put the phone away. Turn off the television. Wait until the kids are in bed. Sit in a position where you can turn directly towards the person who will be speaking. You are about to do the important work and it’s important that you look the part!
Our energy has to be focused on a couple of things. First, and probably most obviously, we have to pay attention to the two ways that people use to communicate. We have to pay attention to the words that they say. These words have meaning and when we really listen we are noting the words that people use. But we also pay attention to the things that people don’t say. Every eye roll. Every tear. Every laugh. Every nervous smile. Every soft touch. All of these things convey meaning and our brains are really tuned into pickup up these cues. When we pay attention to both channels, we get a higher resolution picture of what our partner is trying to communicate.
The words “You’re such a great person” said with a soft touch on your arm has a very different meaning from the same words said with an eye roll and a snicker.
Both channels are important and both channels are necessary if you’re going to listen well.
But listening doesn’t stop there. The second focus of energy for therapists that are listening well is to paraphrase. Once the person has finished speaking, therapists will reflect back to the speaker what has been understood. “What I'm understanding is.... ” is a great sentence stem that therapists use when they’re paraphrasing. These reflections are offered without any kind of judgement and their purpose is to confirm that the speaker’s message has been heard. If the speaker feels like the therapist missed something, then the speaker should absolutely offer that up; the therapist might even ask, “Is that about right?” This back and forth continues until the speaker feels as though the listener has gotten it. At that point the conversation might continue with the next idea.
When people are able to incorporate just these two ideas into their conversations, communication will absolutely improve. Too often, we don’t make the effort to confirm that we really understand what the other person is saying. Than, in and of itself, is enough to cause problems. When we make that effort on the front-end of the conversation, can prevent a lot of misunderstandings. When we reflect what we understand it has the additional effect of helping the speaker feel validated. Dr. Sue Johnson, a noted couples researcher and therapist, often says that people just want to feel like their situation and their reaction isn’t out in left field. People don’t want to feel alone or odd. By conveying that we understand we also are sharing that another human being “gets” what’s happening; their situation makes sense.
The Hardest Part
There’s another source of potential problems though and this is often requires the most energy for therapists. Sometimes, as a listener, you may hear something that triggers some difficult emotion. Maybe you’re being accused of something that you feel like you didn’t do. Maybe the speaker is talking about a painful memory that reminds you of something from your own past. Emotions are really powerful and when they show up in intense ways, they can prevent us from being able to listen well.
Therapists have to learn that they can keep their own emotions under control; it’s essential. Imagine a session where a client talks about losing a loved one. Chances are that the therapist has lost someone important to them at some point too. However, if the therapists attention moves from truly hearing and understanding their client toward reliving their own painful memories then that client doesn’t get what they need. For all of us as listeners, if we become defensive when we feel accused then our energies move from listening toward mounting a defense. When you understand that these emotions that get triggered are important and you can place them aside in order to engage with them later, you are able to listen at a deeper level.
Listening is not just something that happens. It’s something that we do. It requires action, energy, and attention. It’s also a skill that we can learn and get better at with practice. And it can have a powerful impact! More often than not, we feel ignored, blown off, or unimportant. How amazing when someone comes along that is willing to put everything else on hold and pay attention to us and the things that matter to us? Whether you’re listening to a friend, loved one, or a coworker, these skills help people feel like they’re important and that you value them.
So why not give it a shot? Find a friend or a loved one and ask them to simply talk. They can talk about their day, about something they’ve been thinking about, or something that’s important to them. As they’re speaking, periodically interject. You can even start with “It sounds like…..” or the very therapeutic “What I hear you saying is…..” I think you'll find your conversations will be richer and more satisfying than ever!