I have a former graduate student (you know who you are) who always talks about using magic. If she wants something to work out a certain way, she simply “casts a spell” to make things right. Of course, like most of us, she expertly avoids paying attention to evidence refuting her magical abilities, while studiously attending to moments when it appears her spells have somehow affected reality.
This was all in good fun. We were driving many miles back and forth to an internship site at Trapper Creek and in some ways her spells were designed to counter my tendency to construct a firm deterministic viewpoint. Although I agree there are many mysteries in life and that there’s likely room for magic, I get quickly impatient with too many attributions about magic, miracles, past lives, and sinister ghosts in the halls of the female dorm at Trapper Creek Job Corps.
Despite my general avoidance of magical thinking, I find myself very intrigued with this old quotation of Freud’s that Steven de Shazer turned into a book title:
“Words were originally magic and to this day words have retained much of their ancient magical power. By words one person can make another blissfully happy or drive him [or her] to despair . . . . Words provoke affects and are in general the means of mutual influence among men [or women].”
I do think words have powerful influence . . . but it’s equally true that what we don’t say—the nonverbal, and listening in particular—can be just as magical. All this is a way of introducing the following excerpt soon be published in the 2nd edition of our Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice textbook as food for thought this Monday morning. Here it is:
The Magic of Person-Centered Listening
Person-centered listening isn’t in vogue in the United States. It might be that most of us are too busy tweeting and expressing ourselves to dedicate time and space to person-centered listening. The unpopularity of person-centered approaches also might be related to the prominent “quick fix” attitude toward mental health problems. And so, call us old-fashioned, but we think that if you haven’t learned to do person-centered listening, you’re missing something big.
Years ago, when John was deep into the “Carl Rogers” stage of his development, he decided to create a person-centered video recording to demonstrate the approach. He recruited a volunteer from an introductory psychology course, obtained informed consent, set up a time and a place, welcomed a young woman into the room, and started listening.
Lucky for John, the woman was a talker. It’s much harder to get the magic to happen with nonverbal introductory psychology students.
It wasn’t long into the session when John attempted a short summary of what the woman had said. He felt self-conscious and inarticulate, but was genuinely trying to do the person-centered listening thing: He was paraphrasing, reflecting feelings, summarizing, walking within, and doing all he could to be present in the room and make contact or connect with the “client.” After his rambling summary, there was an awkward silence. John remained silent, trusting that the client knew where to go next. And she did. She cut through the awkwardness with a disclosure of having been sexually molested as a child. John continued listening non-directively as the woman told her story, shed a few tears, and spoke powerfully about her journey toward building inner strength.
The demonstration recording was a huge success . . . except for the fact that the audio was terrible. To hear the powerful disclosure and share in the magic of person-centered process, John had to force his class of 15 graduate students to gather within three feet of the television in perfect silence . . . which was also rather awkward.
The lesson of person-centered listening is that sometimes when you put it all together the client can take you places you never knew existed. There are many things about our clients that we’ll never know unless and until we listen empathically, communicate genuinely, and experience respect for the other person with our heart and soul. As Rogers (1961) said, “. . . the client knows what hurts. . .” and so it’s up to us—as therapists—to provide an environment where clients can articulate their pain and re-activate their actualizing tendency.