What Therapy is Really About and Improving Your Listening SkillsJan 11, 2022
When I decided to pursue a degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, common comments/questions I got from people were: “I would never be able to do what you do! I would never be able to decide if a couple should get divorced or not. It’s such a huge responsibility!” Or “Tell me what I’m thinking, I know you can tell.” Or “You’re so lucky you’re a therapist. It must be nice to always know what to do.”
Ummm. What? Are they actually serious?
After having similar interactions with many intelligent people, I realized the Therapy World is misunderstood. Too many think of therapy as a crystal ball with all the answers. Almost computer like - you input all the problems and the personalities, and BOOM! The computer (therapist) spits out the solution.
Actually, that would be kinda cool.
But that’s not therapy. Therapy has many layers. Therapy is having the space to stop, think and listen. Mostly to listen to ourselves- with the help of someone you trust. Therapy isn’t about asking the therapist for solutions. Therapy is about seeking internal clarity. Therapy is knowing someone is there with you and you have their undivided attention. Therapy is someone putting a mirror up to you and gently holding your hand while asking you to look inside.
Sometimes. The vision in that mirror is frightening. (And sometimes after brushing our hair and putting on a little mascara, the vision is already better.)
I once spoke publicly and said “Healthy people go for therapy.” I got slack for that. “Shifi, let's not pretend that it’s the healthy among us who go for therapy!”
But it is correct that going for therapy is a sign of health. Because we all have “stuff.” And healthy people aren’t afraid of listening to themselves and looking inward - oftentimes with the help of therapy.
An important step in therapy is helping people take responsibility for their own lives. Once they develop the awareness that they’re in the driver’s seat, change happens. They stop complaining about their cleaning lady, spouse, children, friends, neighbors, and teachers (written in order of importance!) and begin to realize that sometimes we can be a cause of our own suffering.
People arrive to therapy when they’re at a crossroad: Do I go left? Or right? The feeling of insecurity and confusion often push the client to make the first call to therapy.
The most important credential that therapists need - is the ability to listen. To what is being said. But equally important is, to listen to what is not being said. Listening to the silence. Listening to the heart racing of both the therapist and the client, listening to the tears, listening for what can be changed, and what cannot.
I’ve heard this line many times in my life. “You have two ears, and one mouth. There’s a reason for that ratio!” The first time that was said to me was by my third grade teacher who thought I spoke too much in class. Shocker, I know!
But the line stuck with me. And here I am. A Therapist.
AKA: A Listener.
Well, for the most part.
A public admission: Yes, yes, out of the Therapy Session, I, too, have room to improve my listening skills. We’re in this together!
The skill of listening to others needs to be developed by all of us. Because, in general, people STINK at listening. People already have their solution, advice and response formulated before the person finishes their sentence. Especially, parents with children, teachers with students, and husbands and wives. (Wives to husbands are always perfect.) (Ok, Joking.) We need to practice. We need to empower the speaker. We need patience to listen to their stories. We need time. We need to really care! And all this listening… may just keep people we love out of therapy.
Some key points about listening to others (and ourselves):
- Be okay with silence. Silence is therapeutic. Many people are uncomfortable with silence but learning to be okay with silence is a skill. Silence is powerful and often the person ends up finding clarity in those moments of silence. And you’ve helped the person gain clarity by not saying a word.
- Most often people are looking for listeners. Not for fixers.
- Be able to ask the speaker what they’re looking for. Empathy? A place to vent? Solution? Advice? A hug? It’s not awkward! Ask them directly.
- ENJOY your toddler telling you a secret and spitting in your ear.
- Listening is being able to hear what the other person is saying and understanding it from their perspective.
- Pause before responding. Sometimes, those few seconds before responding will allow you to fully process what the person is saying. It also gives the speaker a chance to continue - should they want to.
- Be curious.
- Be non-judgmental.
- And this one’s really important: Please! Put your phone down. Phones kill listening.
- And finally, don’t claim to have all the answers. Encourage the speaker to think for themselves. It’s powerful when they feel you believe that they have the answers within them.
Congrats!! You are now a (free!!) therapist!
To wrap up: People come to therapy to be heard. Mostly, to hear themselves. But also to be heard by another. Listening skills are required in all relationships - both in and out of the therapy session.
With developed listening skills, the people around you will receive the message they crave to get from therapy: I am here for you. I’m available. And you have my full attention.
VERY IMPORTANT: As promised, the Awkward Moments of 2021 List has been posted to the website! Most really made me LOL!
There are 2 winners! CHECK IT OUT! Both winners will receive 50% off my Social Skills and Emotion Management for Children of All Ages course! Feel free to email me more awkward moments as they happen and the list will be continuously updated! Check it out at www.ShifiLieberman.com
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