It is often said that many counselling clients claim that the most important and useful thing that they take from counselling is that they feel listened to and understood. No matter how good a counsellor has been at helping them to clarify, focus, or to facilitate change within them, their skills as a good listener might still feel the most important of all. This might be because there is a perception that bad listening is endemic in society, and that it is hard to find some who will fully listen to us. Perhaps there is truth in the saying that “home is where you can say anything you like cause nobody listens to you anyway. “
People have commented how good listening is a valuable though sadly rare aspect of life, throughout the centuries. The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus understood the importance of good listening when he said: “we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Maybe the world would be a better place if more people followed that wisdom! General George C. Marshall, more recently, gave this as his formula for working with people:
1) Listen to the
other person's story;
2) Listen to the other person's full story;
3) Listen to the other person's full story first.
The Many Different Types of Poor Listener
Poor listening comes in many different forms - and I am sure most of us have met quite a few of the poor listeners I will mention below.
There are those who give our thoughts short-shrift or are just waiting for an opportunity to steer the conversation around to them. At its worst, most of us will have experienced this in a narcissistic friend who gave us a few seconds on our problem and then interjected with something like, “oh yes, I’ve got that problem too...” then the rest of the conversation is about that. And then there are those people who have a very small attention span and can’t listen to anyone or anything for more than a few seconds - long-time teachers will tell you how this situation has got worse over the years – probably since the advent of television and computer games. There are those that are outright rude and will reply to any attempt to talk about personal matters with a put down such as, “ooh, don’t tell me about that, I don’t want to know!” Or there is the opposite type of person - the one who definitely DOES want to know! But they only want to know so that they can spread around whatever you tell them as gossip –probably adding quite a bit extra for spice. Then there is the listener who hears your words but cannot read your emotions and just doesn’t pick up the subtler clues; or those who have “enough problems of their own,” or who don’t want to hear about your successes, but are more than happy to tell you about theirs. There are also those that switch off when you try to talk to them, those who are impatient, those who filter everything you say through their own experience and values, those who are busy thinking of how they can reply to you rather than listening to you, those who will judge everything you say, those who are “know-alls” and insist that you do everything their way. There are also the more subtly useless ones – those who appear to listen and will keep nodding but don’t actually have any empathy, sympathy or interest in what you are telling them at all – they are effectively giving the impression of listening and understanding but have switched off internally.
With all those types of bad listener around, we are lucky if we do have one friend, work colleague or relative who is a good listener and does not model any of the above behaviours. David Augsburger stated that “an open ear is the only believable sign of an open heart,” so if you are surrounded by poor listeners, the problem can cut quite deep.
How Good Listening is Central to Counselling
"Deep listening is miraculous both for listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand. Sue Patton Thoele
Counsellors are trained, highly focussed, deep listeners. I could write pages about the many things that a counsellor can help you with, but those things all belong in different articles. Good counsellors are trained to listen and to listen well. We don’t just listen to people’s words, we listen to the tone of their voice, their body language and their mood. We notice how they walk into the room, how they sit down, what they do with their hands, how they breathe, how they change from one meeting to another. We pick up on both overall patterns and subtle clues and learn to use our intuition. For instance, we sometimes offer tentative perceptions about what people appear to be feeling but not saying; and we learn to listen to our own responses to what people say in such a way that these don’t filter out the other’s message but highlight and focus it. Counsellors call this sort of listening Active Listening and there is a real skill to it. It is something that is hard to achieve without real practise – and counsellors get lots of that. In addition to this, of course, a counselling room is set up so that there will be a minimum of distractions – there aren’t many places where you can get that undivided attention and focus in this busy world of ours!
Many of my clients tell me that the experience of being truly heard by another person is a deeply healing experience. Along with the listening comes empathy, acceptance, non-judgemental neutrality and a certain amount of experience and knowledge that comes from having done a lot of training and work with and about people with a wide variety of problems. The listener not only feels understood and completely heard, but the listening also reveals that there is someone who does have a genuine interest in their life and general wellbeing. A good counsellor won’t tell you what to do, but they will help you to clarify, help you see lots of different angles on issues, help you explore options and above all help you to get in touch with and value your true self. In short they will facilitate your own change and growth - and most of that springs from being a highly trained listener.
David is a fully qualified and BACP registered Person Centred Counsellor. You can book a session with him by ringing 07578 100256 or emailing him at David@eastcheshirecounselling.com