Listening Hurts — A Therapist’s View

What is listening?

Listening is taking in another person.

It is letting myself have an experience while the other person is talking.

It’s very active.

There is the kind of listening when I am trying to follow a story — all the characters involved and the details. That kind of listening taxes the brain but it’s pretty straightforward. He said this and then she did this and then… the most complicated problems reduce to a set of facts that I organize in my brain and try to understand what is being conveyed.

For particularly complex stories or issues I’ll stay at that level — because I know that’s where the person is speaking from — they are working to understand something and I must understand their problem to be able to help.

Most of the time, though, I am listening with more than my mind. I am letting myself feel — emotionally and physically — while the person is talking.

I am feeling things about the things they are saying. Empathy, agitation, compassion, curiosity — it’s all happening inside me.

I am also feeling things in response to how the person is speaking. And to the tone of their voice. And their body language.

The taking in of someone this way — the openness required to feel this person.

It hurts.

Not all the time.

Sometimes it is such a pleasure.

But I have to be open to whatever the listening might evoke in me — I can’t just be after pleasure.

And that kind of openness — to experience and respond is really what listening is.

Listening is creative because it is a discovery.

When we’re listening for content it can get boring — in our head we are thinking “I know that,” “I don’t agree with that,” “I understand that.”

But listening to someone to really hear what they are trying to communicate about their lives requires a kind of raw openness that is creative.

What do I mean by creative?

I mean investigatory. Not knowing the end before it begins.

Which is terrifying because anything can happen and anything can be overturned. And sometimes my worst neurosis or traumas or fears are the precise topic of investigation in a session.

And sometimes my clients hold differing views on issues that I hold dear.

So when I hear something that upsets my whole being, listening asks that I feel that upset.

That I not close myself off and argue or critique or make some kind of fake interpretation or empathic statement that takes us away from what is being said.

Listening asks that I am curious. And open. That I feel the support of my chair and the life of my inhale and my exhale and I experience the truth that I will survive this. And that my work is to get curious about how I feel.

And to try to understand together with my client their experience.

So listening hurts.

Listening is not preparing the platitude with which you will respond while a person speaks.

Listening is not passive reception of information.

Listening is raw and active.

When we listen we allow the speaker to lead us across the terrain of their inner world and ours.

Listening costs something. It requires something. And it is new every moment in the doing of it.

The listener is as alive as the speaker and the experiential response of the listener is the gift they can offer.

I am gnawing on this right now. Because listening is hurting a lot right now.

And the alternative is unacceptable.

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