Back to Listening

royalty-free-ear-character-clipart-illustration-432494I remember reading a comment by Dr,. David Burns, author of The Feeling Good Handbook, to the effect that he’d done a lot of training with people who were licensed psychotherapists of various kinds who were many years away from internship training– who had apparently gotten away from basic therapy skills. The first of these, of course, is listening.

So what is listening, really? First, let’s make sure to say a couple of things it really isn’t. First, it really isn’t waiting for your turn to talk. while good listening obviously involves not interrupting, it is certainly far more than waiting for your turn. This is the most common mistake we make when listening. The other person says something that we want to respond to, and from that moment on, we’re tuned out– not listening to the rest of of what they say while waiting to respond to the early thing. Listening also isn’t interpretation  of what someone says, guessing what they mean, or jumping ahead. These things actually get in the way of listening. And with couples trying to communicate, they can be especially troublesome– partly because when a couple’s been together awhile, a partner can make some pretty good guesses as to what is about to be said. But a guess is not the same as knowing. 

In addition, listening also involves your eyes– listening, in effect, to someone’s nonverbal behavior, waving of hands or slumped posture; all the other things in addition to the words. Don’t forget tone of voice, of course. Sarcasm & irony are almost always conveyed by a contrast between the verbal content and the tone of voice.

Listening involves clarifying– Do words mean the same to you as to me? In one group exercise I’ve done around anger, we ask people to list words that express anger– from “annoyed” and “frustrated” through “enraged,” “going ballistic,” or “off the hook.” Then we have people think of different degrees of anger and rank them from one to ten, where one is barely noticeable and ten is “if I act out, I’m going to jail.” Then we have people assign number values to the words. A word might ranked a three by one person and a nine by another– so the same word means way different things to different people. For some people (and in some cultures), saying “yes” as a response is more likely to mean “I hear what you say” than “I agree with you.” So listening quite frequently means feeding back to someone what you think they said, and getting confirmation or clarification.

Listening is a skill which is not limited to therapists! A good friend, an intimate partner, a parent with a child– all have tremendous incentive to be good listeners. In the world of business, sales people are taught to be good listeners in order to determine what a customer wants. Listening is more than half of communication. Feeling heard and  understood is sometimes all a person wants. But it’s certainly the first thing we all want.


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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