In my training to be a therapist we’d have labs where we would do pretend therapy with each other. We would sit in triads and one of us would be the pretend client, one of us would be the pretend therapist and the other would observe. The pretend therapist was supposed to practice her therapy skills while the pretend client talked about something casual. The observer would track if the pretend therapist seemed nervous — did she fiddle with her hair? Twiddle her thumbs? — and if she said “ummm” too much and if she was able to shut up and listen.
Shutting up and listening is the most important part of being a therapist but it can be hard especially at the beginning when you think you’re supposed to do something and listening doesn’t feel like something enough.
Being a good therapeutic listener means being absolutely there in the moment with the person you’re listening to. It’s a different mindset than regular conversation where there’s equal give and take because in session I’m not planning on saying something when she stops talking. Instead I’m listening.
- I’m listening to what my client is saying right then and there in that moment.
- I’m listening for her tone, I’m observing her body language, I’m noticing her choice of words.
- I’m listening in the context of what history she’s shared with me.
- I’m listening in the context of what her stated goals in therapy might be.
- I’m listening in the context of what I believe her path to those goals might be.
- I’m listening to understand her intended message and I’m listening for any unintended messages, too.
- I’m listening with the knowledge of what research says about the particulars of her experience and/or diagnosis.
But mostly I’m doing nothing but listening hard and letting the rest sort of happen in the back of my head.
When I first started out as a practicum student I felt too anxious to do all of that listening. I felt like I had to do something to earn my keep (and my client’s respect), which meant that I was forever trying to push things along or offer her something to prove she wasn’t wasting her time with me. Once I recognized that’s what I was doing and that I was making her session about me (and my need to prove my worth as a therapist), I was able to shut my brain up and listen.
Listening in session reminds me of meditation because it looks like doing nothing although it’s not easy to do.