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A few thoughts about listening, asking questions, and reflecting accurately.

02/15/2018 8:28 AM | Lee Richmond

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.


  • 03/02/2018 9:18 AM | Benjamin Allen
    Great post, Dr. Richmond! I continue to marvel at how powerful a device language is to constructing meaning in our lives. Through your instruction, some self-reflection, and practice with clients, my listening skills are slowly improving. Just yesterday I was working with a student of a different cultural background (ethnic, gender, and age) who felt distressed when others didn't give her the attention she desired. She commented that others did not 'respond' to her. To which I followed up with a question: "What kind of response would you have liked to receive? What kind of response would have made you feel that you had their attention?" This opened many outlets for discussion and gave the counseling session a new direction, merely because I wanted to know more about what a "response" looked like from the client's frame of reference.

    Our job as counselors gets more difficult as the culture changes and fails to appreciate the weight of language. In my experience, students today are not taught grammatical structure, vocabulary, or spelling in their mandatory English classes as they once were. The general populace gravitates toward vague descriptors, preferring slang and text-speech abbreviations. These rarely clarify meaning and more often obscure what truly resides in the person's mind. Our society has grown lazy and complacent in its use of language. For this reason, your blog post is so timely and valuable! Counselors must work hard to decode clients' language and listen attentively. Effective use of this skill can impact the therapeutic relationship, the client's ability to take action, and, ultimately, the outcome of a counseling session.

    Thank you for sharing!
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    • 03/08/2018 11:22 AM | Lee Rchmond
      Thanks for responding. You said:"Our job as counselors gets more difficult as the culture changes and fails to appreciate the weight of language" I couldn't agree more.
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  • 03/07/2018 11:05 AM | Elda Schwartz
    Lee’s blog reminds us that counseling skills are complex. Counselors are listening for the words and most importantly, the music. Reflective listening has been a mainstay skill that we learned in our training programs but as she mentions we need more than that.

    Listening, in the sense described here is a deeper, understanding about an individual from a different worldview and standing away from one’s own standpoint. It is a way to understand where people are coming from, both literally and metaphorically. It is also compatible in working with diverse populations, whether from gender, a cultural or regional point of view and also with generations.

    Tapping into the way the person expresses themselves, listening to the type of words they use can be ways to help form questions to do this type of listening. These are the skills that help to listen more deeply and for the participant to know whether you are on the right track in understanding them or not. The questions need to be done sensitively, using some of the other person’s wording so they have a sense that you understand them. Sometimes summarizing what they have said can be helpful.

    One way to tap into this type of listening is to work with the Photo Metaphor Card Sort, a tool made from my photography and in conjunction with Marilyn Maze PhD. In running an extensive pilot study, it has been interesting to hear the different ways people see the same image. The photo images resonate with them, may shore up memories, experiences, dreams and more. There are many different reactions. Some images provide commonality too that seem to be universal human values. The image of the woods in the fall season, for example, is widely appealing with happy memories, at least for those who chose that image amongst their 5 top images out of a pack of 30. It is getting to understand what resonates with people, that opens up a great deal about themselves, not only for the counselor but for themselves. Sometimes they say that they have forgotten that… or I hadn’t thought of that till now…
    The photo images are a tool to help the counselor do this extreme listening. They act as metaphors. Metaphors are the highest form of understanding when listening. Reflecting on what they have said is not enough in this instance but photo images can lead to conversations that may not have existed before. For those doing therapy, they can be used as a therapeutic tool.

    I am interested if anyone has a response to what I have written.
    If readers are not familiar with the Photo Metaphor Card Sort, there are upcoming workshops on the Psycoun schedule.

    Thank you for posting this blog, Lee.
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PsyCoun Consulting, LLC offers training and consulting services related to psychology, counseling, and career development to individuals, professionals, corporations, and educational organizations.  For more information contact: info@PsyCoun.com

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