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By Tim Stein

Meditation from Gifts of Recovery.

In communication, the most important skill to master is listening.
Therapy lesson

There are many ways to make a point or convey a message: analogies, metaphors, straight talk, etc. However, none of this will work if the other person has their “walls” up. When others feel heard, they tend to lower their walls. By first putting our energy into listening, it is easier for others to feel heard. Once they feel heard, it is easier, and often automatic, for them to lower their walls. When their walls are lowered, they can more easily hear us.

Am I putting energy into listening or only expressing? Have I allowed others to feel heard so that they can more easily hear me? What gifts await me as I master the skill of listening?

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In our practices, therapists employ a variety of skills with our clients such as storytelling, educating, consoling, guiding, pattern recognition, translation of intended messages, boundary setting, representing others’ experiences, providing effective reality checks, and sometimes listening. However, listening is the most important of these.

I am reminded of a saying, “Before they are done talking, if you are formulating a response, defending your position, or fixing a problem, you are not listening.” As therapists, when we first lean heavily into truly listening, all the other skills at our disposal work more effectively. We better understand our clients. We are more able to be truly and accurately empathetic. The guidance or information we provide will be more in line with our client’s needs. To be truly effective as a therapist, it is essential that we excel at listening.

Listening also makes our work easier. Clients come to session week after week and discuss the actions they need to take to create the changes they desire, and yet they have not followed through on these actions. This phenomenon happens for a number of reasons, but one of them is our client’s resistance to what we are sharing with them. If a client feels we are simply giving them a behavioral prescription, they are less likely to follow that advice, regardless of how effective it may be; their walls are up when they don’t feel heard. When we listen attentively and deeply to our clients, they feel heard, and they more easily absorb what is being offered. No matter how much knowledge and experience you have, you will be more effective when you start by truly listening. Once your client feels heard, the other skills you possess will become more effective in supporting change. As therapists, it is essential that listening is one of our more practiced and consistently used tools.

The people in our non-therapy life deserve to be heard as well. It can be challenging for us wounded healers to listen deeply to the people in our life when we are feeling exhausted or managing vicarious trauma from our day at the office. In order to be present for those in our life, we must, as our recovery has taught us, practice self-care. If our work life is impacting us, it is necessary to actively address the impact of our work and increase our tolerance. This must be fully committed action. As we are reminded in How It Works, “Half measures availed us nothing.”

When we are drained, we may shortchange the important people in our life. It can be easy to give solutions because we spend our days navigating personal challenges with others and have a volume of knowledge and information. However, as with our clients, simply providing answers is not likely to be helpful. Those in our life want and deserve to be listened to and supported in a meaningful way. While many of our clinical skills can be a help or hindrance in our personal relationships, listening is a clinical skill that our personal life deserves.

Lastly, as wounded healers, we are wounded. We have likely spent much time identifying, understanding, and healing our wounds, but they likely still impact us to some extent; like our recovery, this work continues. The emotional wounds that lived at the core of our addiction influenced how we interacted with others. Some of us embraced codependence. Some of us excelled at seduction either sexually or with a magnetic personality. Regardless of how our addiction influenced our interactions, it is likely that truly listening was not a strength. In codependence, listening is used to figure out how to keep the other person happy and connected. In seduction, listening is used to identify ways to keep others intrigued. If our wounds continue to interfere with our ability to truly listen to others, it is our responsibility to return to the work of addressing and healing those wounds.

Listening is an essential skill which we should consciously apply to all areas of our life.