Monday, December 17, 2012


There are times when people tease me about what I'm choosing to do for a living.  I even tease myself!  The more I study and dedicate myself to my craft, the more I realize there is no such thing as sanity, that many issues seen as black and white are hardly so, and that listening is a lost art.  That's right, simply hearing what someone has to say is somewhat gone with the times!

Have you looked at how we communicate with each other?  A large chunk of it is cyber communication in the form of emails, messages, texting, Facebook, and I'm sure there are plenty of others that I'm leaving out.  These forms of communication all leave out a critical detail: subtext.  We as humans communicate the majority of what we have to say through HOW we say something, not what we have to say.

So as we read an email, or a text message, we're missing a huge chunk of what is actually being said.  A simple one-word phrase like, "Right," could be interpreted many different ways!  If you're like me, it sounds like, "riiiiiight," but it could also be affirming, positive, negative, neutral, sarcastic, or a multitude of other things!

And if you're also like me, sometimes it's easier to communicate via cyber communication.  There are times when I've crossed my fingers that someone would not answer their phone so that I could just leave a message.  Or times when I would rather carry out a conversation over text than in person.  How sad for myself to choose to miss out on the beautiful intricacies of verbal communication for something trite.

Glancing over Internet message boards, Facebook posts, and listening to what people come into therapy for, there is a general theme amongst them.  All they want is to be heard.  At least that's what I'm getting from everything.  Sure there are those "trolls" who just go around trying to stir up trouble, and there are individuals who will stop at nothing but try and convince others of their stupid way of dealing with issues.  But for the most part, all I see is a genuine desire to be heard.

In the voice of Scrooge, "Well poppycock, surely people can still hear.  Their ears are still attached, words are still inscribed, other men are still responding!"

Yes this is all very true.  But when was the last time you really heard someone.  This isn't something passive like listening to music (although when I listen to music it's anything but passive).  Listening is so much more active!  Why do you think there's a business surrounding active listening.  It's called therapy :)

Would you like to know what one of the biggest secrets of therapy is?  I think one of the biggest secrets is that all therapeutic approaches (humanistic, cognitive behavioral, psychodynamic, rogerian, feminist multicultural, adlerian, existential, gestalt) are all the same!  Well, let me rephrase that a little...  When studies are done comparing the effectiveness of one therapy against another, little difference is found.  All therapeutic approaches have the same effectiveness.

Right now I have a mental image of a lightbulb over your head exploding into a million pieces.

Studies have shown that all of these different kind of therapies have a lot in common.  While they approach what treatment looks like, how change occurs, how one becomes ill and what specific techniques to use as treatment differently, there are many similarities.  I think one of the biggest amongst them is empathic listening.

Something that we frequently bring up in class is the phrase, "When all else fails, just listen."  Like I mentioned previously, this is active listening.  This is paying close attention to body language, vocal inflections, connotation, themes, emotions, and many other things.  From all of that information, our job as therapists is just to pick out what's relevant.  While this may be challenging at first given the torrent of information we are presented with at times, soon it becomes easier.

As I really engage with my clients, and begin pulling out what they're really trying to communicate, something magical happens!  The whole mood in the room changes.  Even with someone who is feeling very depressed (I know from my own experience being a client in therapy), the energy in the room picks up, even if it's just slightly.  The emphatic nodding of a client who feels understood, the huge flood of tears that opens up when you pick out what they're really saying, or the way their body just looks lighter when they leave your office.  It's all just beautiful.

Now I'm not saying that I am always an active listener.  That is definitely NOT the case.  Being an active listener is a skill that must be put to use and trained before it becomes habit.  I think our natural state is to multitask and to pay as little attention as is required, but still get enough to get the job done.

It's no wonder people get frustrated with other people.  When communicating, there isn't enough time taken to really process the information.  Only key phrases or words are picked out.  And especially with cyber communication, our hunches as to what those key words or phrases are can be way off.

Want to show people how good of a listener you are?  Seriously, you should try this!  You'll notice a huge difference.  Just summarize!  Sounds easy right?  Probably not as easy as you might first believe.

When actively listening, you gotta turn off that little voice inside your head that's thinking of what to say next, or pointing out flaws in their argument.  You have to LISTEN.  It seems like you have to think of what to say next in order to keep the conversation flowing, but that's really not the case.  After you hear what they have to say, summarize what they said.  Or maybe even not what they said, but what they were trying to communicate.  Once after listening to a client speak of her frustrations with friends of hers, all I said was, "It sounds like people just aren't getting it," to which she instantly began to cry.  So I didn't even summarize exactly what she said, I pulled out what she was actually trying to communicate.

Wow, a whole blog post about communication.  Now that's an interesting concept!

So the next time you read something, or hear something, and your brain starts going a mile a minute ready to take on their challenge, just stop for a moment.  Before you blast them, or tell them that you completely understand, make sure you actually know what they're trying to talk about.  I think you'll be surprised by how your conversations will change for the better.

And for those of you who like to pretend that everyone can read your mind, they can't!  In order for communication to be effective, you actually have to TELL people what's going on inside that delightful brain of yours!  I know I can be especially guilty of this.  People have enough going on inside their own heads to really concern themselves about what's going on in yours, unless you tell them what's going on.

Open up.  Listen.

1 comment:

  1. So I feel like you're trying to say that we should listen more... right?