“It is amazing how much people will tell you if you listen in the right way” (Pratchett,T 2015 P37)
For many years I have possessed a beautifully bound but well-worn notebook that is never far from me when I read. The notebook contains all the sentences that jump out at me, those rare moments when something in me connects and aligns with the author. I wrote down the Terry Pratchett quote when I was reading his small and perfectly formed account of Alzheimer’s and his own mortality, ‘Shaking Hands With Death’. I read this particular volume when I was a Counsellor in training and this quote seemed to capture the very essence of communication between a therapist and their client, and yet…. What is the right way to listen? How can I, as a counsellor, listen so intently that my clients will connect with me and begin to share their inner lives?
I am a humanistic practitioner, so the theory suggests that three core factors need to be in place (Rogers, 1961). Firstly, I must be empathic, whereby I enter the client’s experience and journey with them as they explore. I must be congruent, meaning that I can be authentic with my client and show them my true self. Finally, Rogers writes, a therapist must be non-judgemental. I habitually ask my clients what they get from therapy that they do not experience in their normal lives. The response is often that other people will judge them. So, is that at the heart of listening the right way?
As counsellors we receive a great deal of training in how to listen. I have known clients for whom listening is all that is required. To know that in the noise and hubbub of their everyday existence there is one person in their life who will listen to them, intently, with respect and without judgment. There are other clients who require something else; something more; someone who is active and on their team; someone with that x-factor that connects with them and their idiosyncratic life experience and thus enables change. The recognition that each client is utterly unique and requires from the therapeutic encounter something utterly unique in return.
Theories abound as to the reason the therapeutic relationship is central to the process of change. For example, attachment theory suggests that a strong therapeutic bond is essential because it provides a healthy experience of relationship which heals ancient wounds. I believe this can be the case, and there are other factors at play. In his acclaimed book, Lost Connections, Johann Hari considers the numerous ways that modern life has fractured our connections with each other, our own bodies and nature, resulting in huge rises in depression and anxiety diagnoses. Connection alone can make the difference.
I have heard all sorts of negative feedback about counselling over the years and have come to the conclusion that often the central issue is that the person speaking has not found the right therapist for them. One size does not fit all.
For this reason, I encourage potential clients to shop around because the relationship a person builds with their therapist is central to the work they do together. When I am contacted by someone seeking a counsellor, I suggest that we have an initial (free of charge) conversation. We can have a chat about what brings them to therapy, why they contacted me in particular and what their expectations are. During the course of the conversation they will be able to gauge if I have the x-factor they need, if we can build rapport, if they have a sense that I am the right fit for them at this particular time.
I often flick through that beautiful notebook of quotes and read the sentences within. After all these years, they still connect with something inside me, just as I still feel allied to past clients with whom I experienced a genuine rapport. The clients for whom I listen in the right way.
Hari, J (2018) Lost Connections, London: Bloomsbury
Pratchett,T (2015) Shaking Hands with Death, London: Corgi Books
Rogers, C (1961) On Becoming a Person, London: Constable
Helen Clarke is a qualified Humanistic Integrative Counsellor based in Coastal West Sussex. She specialises in loss and the associated physical signs of profound loss, such as palpitations, sleep issues, panic attacks, vivid and recurrent dreams, unexplained aches & pains, a sense of immediate and physical fear or overwhelming sadness. Follow this link for more information on Helen’s private practice. https://safespacesussex.co.uk& follow @sussexcounsell1 on Twitter