Generally conversations are about taking turns. First you speak. And then I say something as a response or reaction to what you just said. When I have finished it can be your turn again. And the conversation twists and turns according to both of our inputs equally. We are focused on each other and the conversation is created between us for our mutual benefit, enjoyment, information exchange etc.
A counselling conversation is a different experience. Both parties are focused on one person, and the roles are clearly defined beforehand. The conversation is still created between us, but it is clearly intended to be for the benefit of one of us.
Active listening is a large part of the session to session counselling experience. It is important to note that while all counselling will involve active listening, active listening is not counselling or therapy. Although it can be therapeutic. Clear?
How do you know that you’re being actively listened to? The person listening to you is focused on you, and what you are saying and how you feel about it. Their responses will be about you and what you have told them. They might ask a question to understand it more clearly perhaps. Or even offer an observation about how they understand it, or links they can see.
What they will not do is tell a long anecdote about the time something similar happened to them or tell you how you should be feeling or dealing with the situation.
This is not an everyday everyone kind of experience.
Yes, it is absolutely something that you may experience with a friend, if your friend is the listening type. And it may be something you feel you do for your friends. If you’re really lucky, or have worked on this together, you may have a friendship within which you can take turns at listening to each other. This is a huge gift, and that friend is to be cherished, and well done you for being a brilliant friend.
But this isn’t how it is for many people, in many relationships.
The experience of being actively listened to can be an important one, for many reasons and in many ways. And of course, this will be different for each person depending on their context and past experiences and what it is they’re seeking from this type of exchange.
For some people it is having an opportunity to finish their thought. Often we have a thought – for example I don’t like the dark. But then we stop thinking about it – I know I don’t like the dark, what more is there to it, and we move on with our day. But if we stay with that thought a little longer, follow it’s thread, we can discover the rest of that sentence and learn a little more about ourselves in the process. Which can be transformative. I don’t like the dark because… the dark makes me feel …. Not liking the dark affects my life in this way…. And, maybe, even, I don’t want to be constricted by the dark… so I’m going to work on … to make it different and so I can live a little more freely.
For other people it can be a chance to say The Thing out loud. You know, The Thing that is too big or scary or shameful to ever see the light of day. But even though it can’t be said out loud it is always on your mind, affecting how you think and feel and act. To say The Thing in the presence of another can be a huge relief. And often the other is not as overwhelmed or scared or ashamed of The Thing as you are, and once it is out in the air between you you can start to feel less overwhelmed or scared or ashamed too. And maybe, unlikely but maybe, it is as big or as scary or as shameful as you feared it might be, well now you have an ally to help you figure out what to do with it.
And for someone else it can help provide a fresh angle on a long established and familiar problem. Simply by asking a question you may not have thought of by yourself, or noticing something you hadn’t spotted, can guide you to think about it in a new way.
And for another person, maybe someone who hasn’t had much experience of being listened to at all, being given space to be the centre of someone else’s attention could be a transformative experience. It could be the first time that anyone has shown them that they are interesting and likable and valued, and thereby helping them to grow their confidence and self-esteem.
Maybe you are reading this thinking oh yes, for me the benefit might be something Ruth hasn’t even thought of yet. Maybe you’re reading this and feeling like this is something you’d like to experience, but without any clear idea of how that might feel or benefit you. All options are absolutely fine.
As luck would have it, I will be offering a limited number of free half hour active listening sessions on 29th January 2024 at the next Friendship and Health Hub at The Space, Burston. Please do check out their website (https://www.thespaceburston.com/events/the-friendship-amp-health-hub ) to find out what other free activities you can take part in. And if you are interested in a free half hour of being actively listened to by a qualified and experienced psychotherapeutic counsellor then simply send me an email to book.