Dear counselor, or the art of listening, revisited

Some people are easy to listen to, from a counselor's point of view.

Some of the time, I consider myself one of them. We are easy to listen to because we say things like "such-and-so happened" and then we start laughing, crying, shaking, yawning. We say things like "I'll find a solution, I'm going to try this, I love you, I feel sad, mad, happy" - and then, with the available attention, we proceed to discharge. Or, even if we don't discharge, we are entertaining, encouraging, pleasant to listen to. The counselor will just naturally come up with some contradictions under these circumstances and we'll discharge sooner or later, maybe a day or a year later. Occasionally we even say things like "there is no hope, I dislike you, counseling is for the birds," but since we are laughing or crying when we say it, we're still not hard to listen to.

Because I am easy to listen to, I have received a lot of good counseling over the years. In addition to alert and relaxed attention, people have given me effective contradictions. They have reminded me that I am intelligent, capable, good, worthwhile, attractive, courageous, etc. when I have forgotten. They held out hope when mine was out of reach, encouraged me to expect more when I underestimated myself and others. They refused to believe my fears and, last but not least, convoyed their delight in me. By and by, my life changed from one of near-overwhelming chaos to one that I am generally delighted with.

Some people, on the other hand, are hard to listen to.

Some of the time, I consider myself one of them. We say things that seem like a call for action, and we say them without discharging right away. Things like "I am stuck, nobody cares, now what?, It's my fault, It's your fault, You're not helping me, I'm going to give up, Give me a direction," etc., etc. After a little or a longer while of this, my counselors often stop listening and either try to "fix " me, tell me how they are feeling, or give me advice. Sometimes the "fixings" they come up with are good contradictions to what is going on for me, and things proceed satisfactorily. (Their telling me what they feel or their advice seems to work sometimes, because I may get mad, or start laughing or crying; but it always gets in the way in the long run.) Most often, the one contradiction that I need and that doesn't occur to people is that you pay attention while I sound that way, alert and delighted attention, or a close facsimile. I am indeed hard to listen to then. But if you do, you are wordlessly expressing your conviction that I am capable, fine, smart; that there-is hope and that you know I can find my way out. I may feel somewhat abandoned by your silence, and may have to tell you so or even question your skill or caring. But most of us have some old abandonment and uncared-for feeling to get rid of. If you are touching me and looking pleasantly-almost-relaxed, I will sooner or later notice the obvious fact that you are there, loving me, having faith in me.

So the next time things sort of bog down in my session, remember that I am not hard to counsel; nobody is. Neither are you a bad counselor. What may be going on is that I am hard to listen to that day - and if you can bring yourself to listen anyway, without impatience, with confidence and delight in both of us, you will be a good counselor to me.

Marion Riekerk
Seattle, Washington, USA

Last modified: 2016-12-20 06:43:20-08