Last post: listening.

This post:  not listening.

I used to have a lady, whom I loved,  who did my hair.  She was truly a sweet, bubbly soul.  Optimistic.  Loving.  She amused me in many ways.... the least not being that she never stopped talking.  She would ask questions, I would get one word out, and then she would plow on with whatever thought was next in her head.  She would ask me about experiences I'd had in my past, and then, without stopping to take a breath, she'd say things such as, "Weren't you just so mad/angry/frustrated/ecstatic/fill in the blank?"  It truly never stopped.

And then one day she said, "I would be a great counselor, because I am so good at helping people with their problems."

I didn't respond.  Out loud.  I loved her and loved her hair cutting and coloring skills, but there's no way I would have sat in her therapy chair.

It was all I could do to refrain from giggling.

It is not a counselor's responsibility to solve a person's problems.  It is an individual's responsibility to move forward to solving his/her own problems.  It is a counselor's responsibility to listen, listen, listen, validate, re-frame, gently challenge and let the person come to the solution (solution) that is best for him or her.  (There might be a little more to it than that, but that's a good start.)

What happens when we don't feel listened to?  Well.  That's a pretty easy one, right?  Think about the last time you felt that a best friend, partner, parent, sibling, child, etc. wasn't listening to you.  What might have followed?  Misunderstanding.  Frustration.  A sense of shutting down.  Anger.

Maybe an argument ensued.


There is so much that is implied with being truly listened to.  When we're listened to, we feel validated.  We feel understood.  Our defensiveness comes down.  Maybe we feel like now that the problem has been hashed out, we're a little more released to take action.  And when we're not listened to?  Exactly the opposite.

(Before I start this next paragraph, please remember, as is stated in "Legal Issues" above in the pages, that nothing in this blog is intended to diagnose or treat.  The following is merely a couple of anecdotes about how difficult listening can be.)

When I participated in marriage counseling with the former spouse (ooooh, we're getting a little personal now!), we were speaking in session about how critical it is for couples to truly communicate their needs to each other, and how it critical it is for the receiving partner to listen and respond.  Former spouse indicated that the past week had been "exhausting", as he felt I was trying too hard to listen.  He said, "I shouldn't have to tell her what I need.  She should just know."  The marriage counselor tapped his pencil on the desk a few times.  Cleared his throat.  Stated, "I'm not sure that's a reasonable expectation."

Former spouse did not listen to that piece of advice.  (That is not why the marriage ended.  But it did not help.)

Today, when I see couples in therapy, I often find that communication is a key problem.  People haven't quite practiced how to be gentle, clear, firm and honest about what they need.  People haven't quite practiced how to actively listen, rephrase and ask for clarification.

These are not skills we are just born with.
It would be easier if they were, maybe.
Actually.  That would definitely be easier.

If you're in couples counseling with me, we'll inevitably do an exercise. This one is not complicated, but it requires a lot of set up. Here it is:  one partner speaks for five minutes while I model active listening.  When that person is finished, I model rephrasing and asking for clarification, and then I ask the person who was speaking how it felt to be listened to.  I then ask the partner who was observing what s/he noticed, and if s/he has any questions.  Then I complete the exercise with the other partner and listen to him/her.  Then I have the couple practice with each other and I elicit and provide feedback.

This can take A Very Long Time.  It takes an entire 50 minute session (usually more than one), and it's usually something that we practice for weeks.  (That's ok by me.  I'm in it to see change, so if it takes awhile, it takes awhile.) It can be a very frustrating thing for couples to go through, and often, I see conflict increase a little while things are getting hashed out.  (Most counselors give a little spiel that things will often get a little worse before they get better ... we're bringing up emotional topics, practicing new skills ... change takes courage.  And sometimes a glass of wine [as long as we're free from addiction issues].)  But then?  After awhile?  I can usually tell when mini breakthroughs happen ... because the couple will come in to my office (or right now, I'll come to their home, as that's my current modality), and there will be a sense of peace and love that wasn't there before.  Not perfect, but something has shifted.  There's even a sense of pride and smugness.  O, how I love that.  They absolutely should be proud of themselves.

Active listening is no easy task.  It can exhaust you.  Sometimes when I come home from work, I need an hour to myself, to just ... not listen.  I love my job (capital L), but I need that slight break.  We do the hard work (I as a counselor and families as family members) because it's worth it.

It should be easy, I know.
If it were so easy, though, the issue wouldn't come up again and again in our personal lives.

This is how this post ends:

"Being heard
is so close to being loved
that for the average person
they are almost indistinguishable."  -- David Augsburger


  1. Anonymous on June 23, 2013 at 6:28 PM

    LOVE this. You teach me much, grasshoppa. "Willow"

  2. Lisa on June 23, 2013 at 8:21 PM

    Willow, YOU teach me much. I have no idea what I'm talking about.

  3. Anonymous on June 24, 2013 at 8:31 AM

    That's because it is coming from deep in your heart, not your brain. Your heart knows SO much and you "listen" to it well.


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