Much of what we learn in professional preparation is the reflective response. We are told to listen carefully if we are to respond reflectively to both feeling and thought. However, in most instances instructors in counselor education programs spend more time teaching the reflective response than teaching how to listen. There is an implicit expectation that because we have been listening and responding throughout our lives, as long as we learn to listen with accurate empathy and occasionally paraphrase we will obtain all of the material necessary to reflect upon.
In fact, listening effectively and deeply is a skill that does need to be learned, and it is not easy. It is hard enough to listen for thoughts, feelings and intentions without listening for other things. However, to listen deeply takes more: it necessitates withdrawal from one’s own perception of things. We need to hold our own ideas in abeyance in order to recognize how the person speaking perceives the experience, thought, intention or feeling that he or she is trying to convey. In other words, we must perceive things as much as possible from the speaker’s frame of reference. This may sound simple, but it is not. it requires an understanding of the culturally laden idiomatic and metaphoric language that is used. For instance, examine the sentence that follows. “Outside it is snowing, bitter cold, and chilling to the bone.” In ordinary language the words are easy to understand. After all, just about everyone has seen snow and has felt cold. But, when one deconstructs the sentence and deciphers what each word means, one must consider context. For example, examine the word, “outside”. Outside of what? Outside of the house, the place of work - these are the places commonly thought of. However, outside could mean outside of a tent, an apartment, an igloo, or a means of transportation such as a train, bus, airplane, or ship. And, geographically, where, is the location of “outside”? This is important to know, because in the sentence “outside” relates to snowing and to cold.
In a Washington Post article titled “There really are fifty words for snow,” David Robson, lists some that are spoken in the Inuit tongue. What kind of snow is the snow in the sentence: light, heavy wet, dry? Furthermore, bitter cold is a metaphor that has various meanings depending on context. What is bitter cold to most people in Mississippi would probably not be described as bitter cold by most people in Minnesota. Temperatures that are bone chilling (another metaphor) in southern Alabama differ from bone chilling temperatures in northern Alaska. Furthermore a 20-degree sub-zero temperature may not be bone chilling in the Artic where people expect it and dress accordingly. Hence, the importance of the “check-out”.
To give a response that is deeply reflective one must listen closely to the context of ordinary day to day language and even more closely to metaphor. In poetry metaphor is meant to stir the imagination of the reader. Conversely, in counseling, meaning is in the mind of the client and not in the imagination of the counselor. The counselor needs to make certain that he or she can grasp what is in the client’s mind. For this to happen the counselor should ask insightful open-ended clarifying questions and not simply say “uh-huh” or “what I hear you saying is.” To further complicate the matter, idiomatic and metaphoric language are often culture-specific, thus difficult to decode if one is not from the culture of the speaker. For this reason, accurate reflection requires a slowing down, allowing for silence, contemplation, and enough trust in one’s intuition to not feel afraid of asking the questions that will make meaning visible.
It is only when we know and understand that we can accurately reflect. Extreme listening is what we do in to unmask metaphor and recognize the cultural underlay that inheres in the idiomatic speech so often embedded in ordinary language. To hear both noise and nuance and distinguish one from the other while making sense of each in context, to listen not only to what is said, but also to what wants to be said, this is the not-so-easy mark of the experienced counselor.