Listening vs. Talking in Therapy

I contacted an old friend/colleague to talk about using her office space on a part time basis while I’m getting my practice up & running. We talked about many things; got caught up about what had happened and to whom, and the lamentable fact that insurance reimbursement for psychotherapy hasn’t increased in something like thirty years– among other difficulties.  While I was running my mouth about something I noticed her responses– “Umm-hmm.  Umm-hmm.” The classic  response. We all get into the habit. It’s not surprising that the parodies you see on TV and in movies always include the therapist nodding and saying “Umm-hmm.”  And (to me) the interesting thing about it is that there is actual research about what makes people talk in therapy, and you guessed it– when the therapist nods and goes “Umm-hmm” the client will, in fact, talk more.  And silly as it may sound, when the therapist asks the trite question, “How do you feel about that?” the therapist really does want to know how you feel about that.

So why don’t we all sit at home in a comfy chair with someone who will just nod, say “Umm-hmm,” and occasionally ask us how we “feel about that,” and feel better fast, while also reducing our carbon footprints and generally avoiding a lot of inconvenience?

Actually, you’re welcome to give it a shot if you want. One goal that people (therapist and client alike) frequently have in therapy is for the client to have more open, intimate relationships outside of therapy, so the client won’t have to use the therapist. But one of the main reasons for having a professional relationship with a therapist is that the therapist is a trained listener. Yes, you’re hoping that the therapist, after digesting what you’ve said, will give insightful feedback that will change your life for the better. So is the therapist, frequently. But that’s like catching lightning in a jar. It happens, but not as often as we’d like. But even in sessions where it doesn’t happen, the therapist is listening carefully and clinically, and thinking about how to say something– or to not say just yet– that will forward the client’s therapeutic goals.  It’s the quality of the listening– and the thought process behind it– that makes a therapy session feel therapeutic. copyright James Matter 2013


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
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One Response to Listening vs. Talking in Therapy

  1. James, this is really interesting! You’re really getting me thinking. I’ve been focused on creating a more loving relationship with myself in the past 6 months. thus current therapy, especially with focus on Somatic Experiencing has helped me immensely. Rolfing too. But I forget that one of the main goals is creating healthier relationships outside of therapy. Sheesh! Thanks for writing!

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