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The Art of Listening: Clients Want to be Heard

A view from the other side of the couch, CWa series, part 2.

Author: Martha Wakenshaw, M.A., LMHC

Posted on July 19, 2016

Before session, before settling into my slate gray upholstered arm chair, before opening my door and greeting my client, I engage in mindfulness practices that lay the foundation for listening. The kind of holistic listening that involves all the receptors of body and brain. I listen with my enteric system – “the gut” – the seat of intuition. I listen with an open heart and a relaxed but active brain.

Before session begins, I sit in meditation, cross-legged on my faux Persian rug. I let my eyes gently close and I breathe in and out to a count of four, pause, and breathe out for a count of four. I repeat this cycle until the breath breathes me and I no longer need to count.

Deep breathing is a well known mindfulness tool for centering, grounding, and calming both body and mind. It opens the channels for listening.

After meditation I do a few basic yoga stretches to loosen up my legs and unbind them from their crisscross configuration. I stand and shake out the stiffness.

Before greeting my client I practice CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). I know that my thoughts inform my feelings and I remember to show my client, in the words of Carl Rogers, unconditional positive regard.

I greet my client and have to restrain myself from bowing – that universal gesture that communicates honor and humility.

It isn’t always easy being the one sitting in the purple chair or the plush gray couch reserved for clients. Clients come in in all states of vulnerability and can be anxious, fearful, and angry. They run the gamut of emotions and I meet them where they are.

My mandate is to listen and listen well. Hearing is healing and subtext is important, both what is said and left unsaid. I avoid clichés like “I hear what you’re saying,” and instead join with my client in a posture of active listening. I allow for silences. I allow for listening to work it’s magic.

How do I know that my client knows I am listening? I watch for non-verbal cues and I listen to the tone and cadence and content of their words. I observe clients relax some, let their shoulders move gently away from their ears and perhaps deepen their breathing. Some clients have said to me, “you get it. You really get what I’m saying.”

Listening in and of itself is healing. There is no more key ingredient to therapy than that of listening. Listening is the scaffolding that holds up the tools of my trade. The art of listening is a practice and I have a passion for that practice.

Martha Wakenshaw is a licensed private practice Counselor on Bainbride Island, WA as well as a Guardian Ad Litem in Snohomish County, WA.  Read more about Martha here.