My interest in listening
There is nothing more important to me than listening. My interest in it originally arose from my family position as “the runt of the litter.” I ended up feeling convinced that “nobody listened to me,” which became a script for me. While I have transcended that script (to some extent) in recent years, I have never lost my interest in or respect for deep listening.
From what I’ve seen, listening to a speaker (or to one’s self) or observing in one form or another is the basis of therapeutic approaches founded on gestalt, encounter groups, psychodrama, rule reconstruction, Byron Katie, rebirthing, vipassana, Zen, est, Enlightenment Intensives (EIs), Self-enquiry, Vedanta and many others.
My own study of listening comes from participation in many of these practices, most notably Cold Mountain Institute encounter groups and est Comunication Workshops. In recent years, my accent has been on EIs. Because they specialized in speaking and listening, let me say more about them.
EIs occur over three days (sometimes more) and involve two people in a dyad format taking turns speaking and listening. Topics would include tell me who you are; tell me what life is; or tell me what another is. EIs were developed by Charles Berner and are based on Ramana Maharshi’s Self-enquiry model.
EIs are so effective because they allow participants long spaces of time to observe and reveal their unfinished business. They engender a process of deep speaking and listening until whatever the charge or blockage at the bottom of the incompletion is is seen and completion occurs. The aha! that often happens EI describes as a “direct experience” of the truth. Fritz Perls might call it a gestalt and Werner Erhard a “transformational moment.”
My study of listening was also affected by several other factors. One was my intention in sociology doctoral studies to become a group therapist, an intention that remained incomplete. But, for a year or two, I provided counselling services free to anyone I could induce to volunteer as a client.
It was during this time that I moved from selling solutions to clients to just listening. More on that below.
My studies of listening proved invaluable when I presided as an adjudicator at refugee claims for eight years. Listening at those times was impacted by translation from another language into English and unfamiliar patterns of gesturing, spacing, and timing.
I also draw on my own use of counseling and therapy services.
I have never been a counselor or a therapist myself though I think counselors and therapists are the professionals who might be most interested in a piece on listening.
Value of listening
I am convinced that most people come to a therapist to be heard.
I don’t mean by that being heard on a single point, or even a few points, before the therapist takes back the agenda. I mean being heard on their whole story. By the time people get themselves to a therapist’s office, in my experience, their story has become so involved that they no longer know it or understand it. Their first priority is to tell their story.
Moreover, clients tell their story, not simply for the therapist to hear, but for they themselves to hear as they speak it. They are the most important listeners in the therapeutic relationship.
Please allow me now to change my vocabulary and, instead of talking about “clients” and “therapists,” let me talk about “speakers” and “listeners.” However, my discussion still relates to listening in a therapeutic context.
What’s the problem?
In my opinion, in our society most people don’t listen. They either talk to themselves while the other is speaking, mutter “uh huh” mechanically, fade out, or offer advice and help.
Our automated world has much less white space than our manual world did. People complain of having too little time for anything but keeping up.
Moreover, listening skills are seldom taught. We may even be unaware that we are not listening, just as we may be unaware that no one is listening to us. But the lack of listening we get and the lack of listening we give may be matters that bring us to a therapist.
Not being in touch with ourselves, going against our own grain, wanting to know our own mind on a matter can, if left unaddressed, result in profound holding patterns in the body. Wilhelm Reich called what resulted “character armouring.” Many people end up in pain because of what they have not communicated or do not know about themselves. To help them out of their knots, they need to be heard deeply. Right down to their bones.
How listening works
One of the things I've noticed about speakers that I've listened to is that they often feel the need to tell their story three times before they declare themselves complete.
The first telling conveys what happened; the second conveys how they felt about it; and the third serves as a review to see if anything of significance has been left out. The third story is not a complete telling, but a sort of scan and sometimes can happen in a fraction of a second, as listeners pause to go over their story in their minds.
I watch all gestures and body positioning for hints as to the speaker’s meaning. I listen to tone, pitch, and breathing. I watch for metaphors that will unlock meaning. Everything is grist for the mill.
I enter into a listening session with the understanding that the listener is highly intending to get something very important across to me and that it’s my task to unravel whatever that message might be from what the speaker says.
Because most people receive very little listening, many people speak in chapter headings. They seldom get the opportunity to say what constitutes the meat of their story and I give them that opportunity. It is up to them to say when they have thoroughly conveyed the rest of the chapter. I do not distract them or redirect them. I further the action with my very limited interventions, but I do nothing to block it.
If I failed to comprehend what the speaker said, based on my feeding back to the speaker and the speaker confirming or denying the accuracy of my understanding, or if the speaker showed sudden and unexplained resistance to my feedback, I would back up to the last point of agreement and then begin listening again.
Speakers listening to themselves
Earlier I said that the most important listeners are the speakers themselves, who listen as the words are said. If you think about it, when one writes an account of something that happened, it isn’t easy to convey emotion. The smilies and other emoticons recently invented do not recreate the emotion with the same intensity with which it was originally experienced (or resisted).
Speaking has the advantage of allowing speakers themselves to hear the emotion that is blocked or that flows along with any particular segment of the story. I have listened to people say, “I didn’t know I felt that way” or “I didn’t realize how much that event affected me.” While it is important that they get their drift, it is also important that they get how they felt about events. In listening to themselves, they are realizing important aspects of the truth of the situation that writing or even thinking about it will sometimes not reveal. The presence of a therapeutic listener provides the occasion for their speaking and their speaking reveals hidden layers of the truth.
The ease of listening
On the day that I switched from selling solutions to listening, my task as a “counselor” became a whole lot easier.
Prior to that time I had been doing what Jay Haley called “problem-solving therapy.” I don’t care any more what name one gives to one’s own therapeutic approach. For me, most therapists fall into one of two types: therapists who primarily sell solutions and therapists who primarily listen.
I was selling solutions, but few of my “clients” were buying them. I was frustrated that my interventions were not successful. They were frustrated that I was interrupting them. Inevitably, they returned to their story.
How the light suddenly went on I do not recall. But that day was a red-letter day for me. Everything about my “practice” became simpler and less laborious. Clients effortlessly moved through their story, reaching the moment of insight that lies at the end of it happy and satisfied.
I didn’t need to sit there madly searching for an insight. I didn’t need to worry about whether they saw that I was not listening, but searching for an answer. In fact the biggest chore I had to do was to continually take my own agenda, put it aside, and keep listening.
There were certain therapeutic consequences. Gone was the usefulness of the fifty-minute hour. Listening often took more than fifty minutes and if I did not stay the course the value was often lost.
Moreover, many clients completely finished their business in one session and did not return. Any therapist who expects a long-term relationship with a client will be disappointed. Once the story was completely told and the insight gotten, the knot in consciousness was removed. No further work was generally needed on that issue.
If I tried to take the listener back into the upset at the heart of the story, I would encounter resistance and could start a new cycle of upset. In fact, most of my “clients” usually wished nothing more than to complete our exchange and leave immediately. They seemed most interested in telling their loved ones what they had just discovered. My best contribution was to get out of the way.
A really interesting aspect of this kind of therapeutic engagement is its apparent invisibility. A therapeutic listener may gently steer a conversation, through mirroring and questions, but, if they have done their job well, it will be seamless and their contribution will be invisible.
To see this, one has only to listen to a speaker describe the listening session, which they usually will do with no reference to the listener, as if the listener had been no part of the matter. This again calls for egoless participation. Just as we put our agendas aside during the listening session, so here in not receiving the slightest acknowledgement for our role, we are called upon to put our egos aside again. Listening is an excellent spiritual practice of egolessness.
What is completion?
Completion is what listening and speaking aim to bring about in the speaker. Completion is the experience of relief and release that accompanies the truth of the situation being finally told.
To arrive at a point of completion in the case of a deeply-entrenched matter, EIs teach that one has to deliver one’s communication with at least the original intensity of emotion with which the resistance or blockage was constructed in the first place. If I wish to wail when I think of my Mother dying in a housefire, then I must wail. If I want guffaw when I think of something the principal did in elementary school, then I must guffaw. I will not arrive at a point of completion by merely saying “I want to wail” or “I want to guffaw.”
Now that can be embarrassing for some. That embarrassment may stop them from speaking and thus from completing. That same embarrassment may be what has stopped them all their lives. To a large measure, the extent of my listening, revealing the extent of my commitment to their completion, is what will induce them to focus in and go for a complete communication, in spite of how embarrassing it may feel.
I have seen people at EIs go through deep psychic wounds. The EI listener provides the enfolding arms, so to speak, that made intense sharing possible.
Completion arises immediately following a moment of intense inner insight, which has been called an aha!, a gestalt, a direct experience of the truth, a transformational moment.
I found the aha! itself often accompanied by what I thought of as a “contextual flip,” the sudden transcendence of an old way of seeing things and the sudden arrival of a new way. This contextual flip and aha! could be described as a radical discontinuity in knowledge that, when it occurs, is attended by intense and deeply-satisfying consequences.
If I hold on to the old way, the aha! might have few lasting consequences. But if, in the midst of an aha!, I completely let go of the old way of seeing and openly stand there with the new, I might have an intense experience of the truth of the matter that is so profound as to bring about a completion of my unfinished business and a release from the knot in my consciousness and musculature that lies at the centre of my existing holding pattern.
This is certainly what therapeutic listening, in my books, aims for.
With the occurrence of this aha!, speakers arrive themselves at the “solution” to their dissonance or “problem.” There is no need for me to find or sell a solution to them.
Does feedback help?
As my practice of therapeutic listening progressed in university, I felt less and less inclined to intervene in any way in a speaker’s communication. If I did intervene at all, it would be for one of two reasons:
(1) To confirm with the speaker that I was “in the game” – that is, that I was both listening and willing to share, if needed, at the same level of commitment that the speaker was sharing from. All it took would usually be one instance, at the most two, of a comment like “yes, I’ve been in that situation myself” to establish with the speaker that I was in the game.
(1) To offer feedback at critical junctures of the story that would help the speaker over a moment of helplessness or confusion. That feedback might take the form of a question to confirm my understanding. “Am I correct in thinking that you said…?” “Truing up” or recovering my own understanding of the story assures me that what the confusion or helplessness the speaker is experiencing is not related to my listening. It may also bring clarity to the speaker.
Or it might take the form of mirroring. Mirroring would consist of statements like “you look hurt” or “you sound confused.” If successful, this feedback would furnish the speaker with the information needed to go deeper and see what the roadblock consisted of through seeing the source of hurt or confusion.
My use of questions and mirroring, however, would be kept to a minimum.
One form of feedback would involve me saying how I see the speaker, what they sound like, and what I feel in response to their story. Another form is a comment of an interpretive nature. I would advise others starting out in listening to avoid interpretation for months, if not forever.
I’m still reluctant today to offer my interpretations of the speaker or their situation. I have proven myself wrong so often that I question the value of offering my interpretation. Instead I concentrate on observing the accuracy of my listening and spreading my awareness like a net to catch any interpretive nuances in the speaker’s communication or unintended gestures.
I predict that clients will return to a therapist, if they need to return at all, in inverse proportion to the depth of their listening.
What does the listener contribute?
The listener contributes a “second self.” The listener helps the speaker over the logs and through the creek - first and foremost by being there - non-judgmentally present to the speaker. I would rate feedback as a distant second to being there. Completion can happen in the absence of feedback, but it is unlikely to happen in the absence of the listener’s presence.
A large measure of the speaker’s satisfaction lies in seeing that someone else got the story as they told it. Speakers want to be “recreated” or “gotten” as they have gotten themselves. Near the end of their story, I may feed back my understanding to date to see if I am on track.
Once they are complete, I may also feed back, in a very brief fashion, my fuller understanding to show them that they have been completely understood, but not in so full a manner that I keep them from leaving while still in touch with the full majesty of their inner seeing.
I find that knowing that I have been fully heard increases my confidence in the validity and intensity of my own work. But the listener who keeps me fixed on themselves by holding me in a session past this point, who insists on giving me advice at this point on a matter they see as important, can cause me to utterly lose touch with my insight and thereby lose much of the value of the session.
What would likely happen if I offered a solution?
Depending on how close to the beginning I intervene, I found that most of my “clients” resisted my solutions and stubbornly returned to their story.
Try an experiment if you like. Offer someone solutions from the first line of their story on, at regular intervals. Notice, if I am correct, that the sooner you intervene, the greater the intensity of their resistance.
When I was practicing listening at university, I went on faith that the speaker would, if I listened well, arrive at their own solutions. And usually they did.
Most of my “clients” from my university years regarded my interventions as interruptions. If I intervened once or twice, they would be superficial in their replies to me but then return to their story. If I intervened persistently, they would become quite distracted and annoyed. But the longer I listened patiently, the deeper they would go into their story and the closer they would come to the blocked experience that lay at the centre of it.
As a therapeutic listener, I no longer offer solutions. Perhaps that is why EIs are designed in such a way that the listener does not intervene at all in the speaker’s turn, except to say “thank you” at the end. Speakers have complete freedom to deliver their communications. EI works its effects without the introduction of “solutions,” therapeutically understood.
I seldom know ahead of time what I will encounter in the course of speaking. So to interrupt me is to prevent me from finding out what’s down there. That would be the exact opposite of what I want from a therapist. I would prefer no interruptions. Only that behaviour which furthers the action is welcome.
Our being a “second self” to the speaker or client, our being there for them, being present, plays a key role in the rare event of inner perception happening, if it does.
What blocks the listener’s listening?
Our own unfinished business blocks us from deep listening. As a speaker at EIs, I used to go through the same story - like the story of my Mother’s death in the housefire – again and again, seeing where the remaining resistance lay until I was finally complete with it. As a practice, I consulted my in-breath to see if there were any holding patterns left as I inhaled, any drag. When there was absolutely no drag, I knew I was complete. I could breathe again, literally.
But that kind of time to process is not currently available in therapy as it is currently set up; that is, out of the fifty-minute hour.
Usually, we don’t know what our unfinished business is until it is revealed to us as we go through our own speaking about it. However, if we listen to ourselves, we can sometimes pick up the ring of authenticity, which to me is the hallmark of unfinished business.
If therapeutic listeners have unfinished business, it can have several impacts. It can cause them to listen imperfectly. The more unfinished business, the shorter the attention span and the greater the impulse to interrupt.
Incompletions can also cause their speaking to sound unprofessional and unconvincing. Therapists who try to talk authoritatively over top of them look unprofessional and sound unconvincing to me.
If I hear the ring of uncompleted business in my own voice, I own that I am unfinished in the area and put aside any agenda that arises out of that business.
While therapeutic listeners may have trouble speaking over top of incompleted business, they may have far less trouble listening. In EIs, since the listener does not intervene in any way in the speaker’s communication, the impact of the listener’s unfinished business on the speaker is reduced that much more.