Listening is such an underrated skill and there are so many ways in which the helper can go wrong. You have to immerse yourself in the world of the person with whom you are working, not just the words and content of what is said, but the tone, the physical characteristics and movements, the relationship between these aspects of communication etc. Just as for the growing child, the transitional object creates an imaginative space for development between the child’s emotion and the external world , so the good listener has to try and create a similar thinking space in which the client can discover new ways of being. In doing this, the helper tries to put their needs to one side – we are only able to do this because we are protected by the professional role and the time boundaries to the contact with the client. Some clients can get angry about this and suggest that there is some kind of inherent hypocrisy to the helper’s role. With adolescent purity, they can imply either you are committed to their needs wholly and without these boundaries, or your help is worthless and dishonest. Workers can sometimes be drawn into this and find the work impossible or become personally embroiled with the client.
The most talented listeners in my experience can put themselves to one side almost to the point of losing themselves altogether. One of my first team when I started out as a manager described this feeling of ‘not being there’ and the anxiety this caused her – she was of course one of the team members most able to create the sense of secure and concentrated attention for those with whom she worked.
Those who have concentrated on describing listening skills use the term ‘active listening’. This refers to the fact that it is not much use listening intently if the client has no idea that you have ‘heard’. Active listening also refers to the need for listening to be more than factual and accurate – it needs to be an engagement with the imagination and emotions. A client who is telling you something whilst also showing some strong emotion, is not going to feel heard if you simply demonstrate that you have heard the words they have spoken. In intense interviews, in responding to the whole of a person’s communication, you can sometimes find that you can respond to something about the client that they have not yet found words for, and may find you are regarded as having remarkable powers of insight. This takes us to another set of anxieties that merit some discussion.