Listening Skills

During a recent course I led, I took advantage of being able to stand in the role of participant and explore my feelings with a partner. I had a very helpful session with a student, Barry. Afterwards he said he had felt helpless at times because he didnt know what to do or what to say. From my point of view that wasn’t true at all. Just by being there Barry had been a great help. Also, at no point did he judge what I was doing or saying as good or bad. I felt an active sympathy and involvement from him, and that was enough. However, learning creative listening can aid the process still further. So below some useful points are listed.

1) There is no need to respond to what the person you are listening to says or does. It is their time of exploration their feelings, intuitions and creativity. Your main function is to witness, so do not be tempted to begin a conversation.

In one class in which I was teaching creative listening, Di, a rather motherly woman, could not stop herself responding every time her partner spoke. Di had years of caring motherhood behind her, and she couldnt get out of the role. So when her partner said something like, “Last week I had a real bust up with my wife”, Di would respond with something like, “What a pity. You shouldnt row with your wife like that. It doesnt do any good”.

Such responses are highly judgmental and are value judgements at that. If you are on the receiving end of such comments, they either irritate or lead you to feel you do not wish to expose your inner life to such a person.

2) More helpful responses could be given as a summary of what the person did physically, given at opportune times. Thus you might say, “At first you were quite still, then you crumpled to the ground.” If you can gain an impression of what the person’s movements describe in a mime or dramatic sense that is helpful too. So in the already stated movements we might add, “When you crumpled I felt you were expressing despair. You remained quiet for a while then got up with what seemed like a new strength.” If such information is given as an opinion rather than a fact, it allows the person to find their own response, and to see whether it fits their experience.

3) A statement of any overall theme you notice. So you might say, “Many of the movements you made and the things you said seemed to be about retreating.” Or, “Almost all you said seemed to have a note of complaint, as if you felt a victim.” While exploring a personal situation through talk or movement there is no need for the person to respond to these comments as in a conversation. It is enough to hear them and let their inner process respond.

4) Questions are a very powerful tool in such a relationship and should be used with great care. If a person is in the middle of a meditation in which subtle feelings are emerging, and you suddenly ask, “Has this got something to do with your mother?” you could draw them straight into an intellectual consideration of the question, inviting them to respond verbally. It would be much better to put the information as a suggestion, such as, “I am feeling this has something to do with your mother.” This does not call for an immediate response and so allows the person to carry on with their experience.

5) Beware of preconceived opinions about what the person is dealing with. I remember in one of my early experiences as a witness the woman kept rubbing her vagina. I felt sure it must have something to do with a repressed urge to masturbate. Fortunately I kept my opinion to myself, and it turned out to be about childbirth. If we do get stuck in an opinion, and pin it on the person, it can cause a powerful conflict between what is arising within them, and what we are pushing on them from outside. It helps to remember that our opinions on what someone else is experiencing are just that – OPINIONS. With experience our statements can be enormously helpful, but not until we have learnt some humility and discipline.

6) There are important questions, however, and these should be used at the end of a session. For instance, if the session is symbolic in some way, it is helpful to ask what the person felt it expressed. The person may have acted out being locked up in a small space, and when asked for opinions of what it expressed, say it felt just like their work situation, where they feel stifled and cramped. Having moved from symbol to life situation the next step is ask the person to explore how they might satisfyingly get out of the trap. At first this might once more be in symbols, but can be brought into everyday terms by discussion.

7) If the person uncovers an area of childhood experience that was painful, or any other important event, it is bound to have left certain habit patterns in them. Even when the stress of the event has been released, the habits will remain unless made conscious. Eddie had released the shock of being put in a hospital and separated from his mother at three. He went on to re-enact the scene where his mother used the threat of putting him in a home in order to make him obedient. The tensions had been released, but when Eddie was asked what the experience left him with, how it influenced his life now, he discovered previously unconscious habits. Namely, he had made an unconscious decision as a child never to trust a woman with his love again. This meant that in his marriage Eddie always kept a lot of his feelings cut off from his wife to avoid the possibility of getting hurt again, as he had been in childhood. Being aware of this pattern enabled Eddie to gradually take the risk of sharing more of himself with his wife.

Therefore the questions need to lead a) from symbols to insight linking with everday life. b) From past experience to what habits the experience left. From the awareness of the habit(s) to a re-assessment of what the person wants to do with that part of themselves now.

8) If the person contacts feelings that are not clear, they need to look at what they are experiencing to see if they can recognise having felt it at any time in the past. Andy, who had been put in an orphanage, from his unclear blitzed feelings became clear when he saw them as results of being in an orphanage. One cannot always make this sort of connection with feelings, but if you can it integrates them much faster.

7) Discussion of the session is useful in nearly every case, whether as witness and worker, or as a co-practising group. It helps to clarify and define what occurred. It also means the person exposes to other people what may have been hidden even from themselves, which in a sympathetic setting can be healing.

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