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The Phenomena of Active Listening as a Therapist

Updated on June 30, 2013

Being Truly Present

What I’ve discerned regarding being a competent intentional interviewer and indeed a listener in any capacity, within or outside the milieu of Therapy, is that it is done most capably when one is entirely present within each individual moment with the person being interviewed. At this point in the development of my skills this is sometimes difficult to achieve. When one is frequently referring back to a checklist of skills and actively attempting to remain one step ahead of the interviewee, in order to not be caught in a moment of uncertain silence, it is of course impossible to remain sufficiently and mindfully in the moment.

While considering this, activities in which I am able to attain a, “flow,” as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, of deliberate moment-to-moment consciousness come to mind. I find myself almost entirely capable of this level of mindfulness both while playing and teaching music and while teaching Martial Arts. These are experiences for me that are peppered with moments in which time appears to have been suspended and I am operating from a place of mindful, ego-transcending consciousness in which I am cognitively neither in the past nor the future but rather entirely in the moment with my students. These instances are not haunted by my regrets or obfuscated with concerns regarding the unknown but rather entirely dedicated to my client. I’m reminded, of course, that this was not always the case with either of these activities. There was a time when I did both of these activities in a tentative, self-conscious manner and it was only after developing a relative level of proficiency, as a consequence of many years of consistent improvement-oriented effort that I was able to engage in these activities while staying grounded in a kind of timeless moment-to-moment flow.

This is, of course, a necessary process for attaining such a mindful state while executing any activity requiring a level a skill. And activities not requiring such a level of skill do not usually provide one with the enthusiastic impetus required for such mindfulness.

These thoughts are encouraging, because it assures me that given enough practice and intentional effort, I can come to grasp the skills of interviewing and counseling in much the same way that I came to grasp the skills of teaching music and martial arts and through this competence come to be consistently more present with my future clients.

Learning How to Listen

I think that remaining present does not preclude some level of preparation. While teaching, even at my best, I operated from a lesson plan instead of simply engaging in extemporization. The counseling corollary to this would be a functional treatment plan. But still, as I have learned from teaching, your plans need to be the subject of revisions and properly pliable in order to be truly useful. More importantly, you have to be confident enough as a teacher to follow the instincts that tell you that one plan is not working and that something either modified or entirely different needs to be attempted. The value of this elasticity I’m sure is of like import for the treatment plans and for the effective treatment professionals within the counseling profession as.

The metaphor of a dance is so perfectly apt. I had an Aesthetics professor who wrote on the phenomena of non-choreographed, spontaneous dance. He wrote, and I’m paraphrasing, that the mental state antithetical to that needed to dance well in a spontaneous way is self-consciousness. It’s very difficult, in fact probably epistemologically impossible, to be both simultaneously conscious of the moment and of oneself in the moment. To do so requires a latent reflection upon the immediate past that takes one out of the ever-fleeting present.

Further, by remaining present with a dance partner you can naturally respond to one other in a purely authentic way. This seems the idyllic way to interact with a client. The idea of Rogerian authenticity is almost necessarily a consequence of such collaboration.

Still though, even authenticity, requires some degree of temperance. I always operated from a specifically delineated role while teaching and as such behaved accordingly: treating and reacting to students within an acceptable framework. This kind of appropriate reserve in counseling is also a mandate. Regarding the client and their situation within a non-judgmental, perpetually positive, and professional paradigm is not only preferable for counseling but is the ethical standard.

I realize now more than ever that people want to tell their stories, perhaps more than they want to hear someone else’s often times. I often regarded social interaction as a necessary interplay of mutual contribution and disclosure. I have a better understanding of how a conversation can derive all of its content essentially from one side and simply be reflected back by a purely reciprocating side and what this can do for the person providing the content. The use of the basic listening skills, such as reflection of feeling, reflection of meaning, paraphrasing, and summarizing has shown me clearer ways to make someone else feel assured that they are being heard and understood.

To be so attended to, I have found this semester through in-class and out-of-class experimentations with these skills, is an experience that makes people feel profoundly understood and grateful. I believe that truly knowing someone else can be difficult and we spend much of our lives and our effort within those lives trying to be fully known to each other. Though this is a striving that we may never achieve to the degree to which we would like, the empathic listening skills are tools that can greatly catalyze the process.

Reflections of Oneself

In the past I had always used other people’s stories and the ways that they interpreted themselves within the world as a means to sculpt my own world view and my own view of myself within that world. Whether I agreed or disagreed with these interpretations from others, I found value in the means by which such diverse viewpoints can more clearly delineate the schema which I had assigned to my own relationship to the world and to the people within it. Those things people said that resonated with me helped to ossify the substance of my own perspective and those things that I found discordant to my sense of moral and aesthetic sensibility helped to chip away, hone and polish the shape of that substance. By such a process of definition by both endorsement and negation I found that all points of view could have value in the formation of my own outlook. Though I still find such a process helpful for myself, I think that I better understand the value that a decidedly less evaluation-ridden regard can have within the paradigm of helping another person to heal.

From long experience I have understood the import of merely being listened to from time to time. It is an experience that is cathartic and affirming and I now feel I can better offer such an experience to others and will increasingly be able to do so with the mastery of my counseling skills. Sometimes this is the best thing that we can do to help someone else. So much of human interaction isn’t aimed at eliciting a solution from the person with whom you are commiserating, but rather driven by that person’s need to know that they are being heard and understood and that their perspective has value to someone else. Offering this to another is often so much more significant than offering them a solution which they may already have or for which they may not yet be ready.

What I’ve learned about myself as a listener is that often I have been missing out on the wonderful value of listening well. But further, I have learned that this is very much a skill and as such can be improved upon to the tremendous benefit of people who need someone to truly listen to them. I’ve spent much of my life trying to find a calling, as it were, and I think that the insights and deeper meanings that I will be capable of distilling from what people tell me as I continue to learn to listen well, might just be the key to realizing that calling.


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