What’s the point in listening? The world today seems to be dominated by transmission, by the process of ‘liking’, by folk seeking communities where one’s viewpoint will readily be accepted without the need to negotiate or listen.
One thing that I couldn’t get my head around when I started my training as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist was that somebody could start to get better just by the process of listening – how could that be, I wondered, naively. The last few years has been a process of understanding just why that is the case and how it is that I could deploy this powerful tool in the service of others.
My considered view as to how listening is at the root of improvement in mental health has a number of different strands. Firstly, there is the aspect that the listening does not have to be reciprocated, that there isn’t the pressure of having to listen back in return. It has also got to do, in my opinion , with a commitment to listen more than once, in order that a chain of meaning is established over a number of encounters. The reason for this is that it is seldom that meaning is generated in a single conversation. Rather, meaning typically occurs over time and over a number of encounters. And, in this context, the effective listener picks up and references the changes in the narrative that helps to fill in the canvas that the speaker creates. And the final element which I believe is critical is the dimension of witnessing – this being that we are providing an audience an a memory regarding what has been disclosed.
And this is what I have learned. Some might say skeptically “sure, isn’t that what families, priests, friends etc have done forever?”. But the point I wish to make is that I think that, in these days of the very busy society, that there is a lot less of this type of listening available. I hear in the clinic the continuous refrain that there is no significant ‘Other’ for people, and thus people are not listened to and don’t feel that they have anybody witnessing their lives.
So, this is my modest understanding coming out of all I have learned over the last few years. Not much, perhaps, and certainly not sophisticated. But I guarantee to you that what I mention about effective listening is among the greatest gift we can offer to those who suffer. And, most certainly, it is a critical element in improved mental health.
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(Tom Conlon works as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in Midleton, Co. Cork and in Dublin)