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Effective Therapists Don't Just Listen

They must do a lot more than that.

Key points

  • It is common to want to keep talking to friends about emotionally upsetting events in our lives.
  • But this unloading can lead to compassion failure and a loss of ability to problem solve.
  • Effective therapists don’t just listen; they help clients find practical ways to cope with their concerns.
Photo by Cliff Booth from Pexels
Source: Photo by Cliff Booth from Pexels

‘I thought I had better arrange to see a therapist,' Avril told me, ‘because you can’t keep going on and on to your friends about the same old thing, can you? They get sick of it! Whereas you...’ Then she smiled at me and said, ‘You’re paid to listen, aren’t you?’

Yes and no, in that order.

Belgian psychologist Bernard Rimé once investigated how often people offloaded about an upsetting situation to others. It turned out to be a lot. The more intense the emotion experienced, the more people wanted to talk about it—over days, weeks, months, and even years. He found the same result across continents and cultures, the only exception being for the emotion of shame, which people tended to want to keep to themselves.1

Psychologist Ethan Kross refers to this experiment in his book Chatter: The voice in our head and how to harness it. What’s more, he says, over-venting in this way makes people less capable of solving problems.2

And that is why my second answer to Avril’s question is no. I am not paid to listen. I do not present myself as someone who will listen, but as someone who, having listened, will help people to address the problems holding them back in their lives.

It is why the emphasis in the human givens approach is to bring people out of unhealthy, repeated self-talk: ‘I’ll never find a decent partner’; ‘I don’t have the confidence to stand up for myself’; ‘Things will always go wrong for me'—and help them see the bigger picture.

Avril wanted to tell me about how yet another relationship had ‘inexplicably’ gone wrong. ‘All my friends have lovely partners. I’m the unluckiest person I know. I’m so trusting and loving and I never see it coming!’

I suggested we take a forensic look at the pattern of these inexplicable relationship failures. I learned, among other things, that she had texted her latest lost beloved up to 20 times a day, just to say how much she appreciated him and to see how his day was going. She wanted to do things for him like clean his flat or collect him from work in her car ‘as it was on my way home and I didn’t mind waiting.’

This was all very blissful and flattering for him at the start. Then he stopped replying swiftly, if at all, to her tsunami of texts, or would ask her not to pick him up because he was doing something else after work. So she began to need continual reassurances that he really cared. And then, gradually, the reassurances became less and less strong...

The pattern is obvious when presented in this way, but she genuinely hadn’t seen it. She had not recognised that the way she threw herself into a new relationship was smothering (with only the details changing), often abandoning her female friends in the process—until she needed their shoulders to weep on.

Directing her to dissect the details of her behaviour in this way enabled her to step outside the situation for the first time, which had the effect of calming her down and enabling her to look at it without the high emotional arousal that was stopping her from thinking straight.

Indeed, we human givens practitioners often talk about clients needing temporarily to borrow our brains when they are in that highly emotionally aroused state. I had a client so overwhelmed by her circumstances that she felt paralysed. She had to be helped to see that she needed to prioritise finding somewhere to live, as the lease was up on her flat, rather than worrying about a conference presentation she was giving in three months, a relationship she was unsure about, and a concern about whether she was really in the right job.

A student referred to me by his college because of his terrible state of anxiety started off talking about how the anxiety was a family trait. However, it quickly emerged that his own anxiety stemmed from his inability to get his coursework started because he had so many ideas that he didn’t know where to begin—and it was due the next week.

I spent the session asking him questions about the project and, in answering, he was able to clarify what to focus on, the supporting evidence he needed and where to get it, how long it would take him to complete each section, and how he could fit it into the timeframe. It was down to earth and practical, and exactly what he needed at that moment, because high emotional arousal had made him incapable of thinking and planning for himself.

Listening endlessly would not have helped any of those clients. Focusing their attention on how they could behave differently did.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

1. Rimé, B (2009). Emotion elicits the social sharing of emotion: theory and empirical review. Emotion Review, 1, 60–85.

2. Kross, E (2021). Chatter: the voice in our head and how to harness it. Vermilion.

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