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The Most Important Relationship Skill

People seek therapy for one reason: they are in pain.


Period. Full stop. That part is simple.


They've often tried everything they can think of to ease their own pain (which is laudable), and they're still in it. And 100% of the time, the pain is relational - it's pain due to the relationship with the self (True Self/False Self, the Idealized Self, the Wounded Self, the Disappointed Self, the Victimized Self, the Angry Self, the Hidden Self, etc.), with others (spouse, friends, family, children, coworkers, etc.), or with God (the sense of the Eternal, the Divine within and without, the Higher Power, that which is out of our control, etc.).


My first line of questioning in the first session or two is to figure out which of these three realms of relationship is presenting itself as the troublesome one for the client. Note: it's always all three. They're always interconnected. But people usually have a sense of which is hurting the most, and this is their primary complaint.


And before we can get into a dialogue and work on anything, I have to do something very important: listen. (It's always suprising and a little humorous when people think that as a therapist, I "talk" and "give advice" all day. I spend 90% of my working hours in active listening.) I ask a lot of questions in the first few sessions - about their pain, how long it's been going on, what they know about it, family of origin, wounds, trauma, career, present day family, present relationships, past relationships, physical health concerns, diet, exercise or lack thereof, pasttimes, hobbies, spiritual development, etc. The truth is: I could never know enough about every client. Every word they speak, every sentence they utter, every story they tell, every grunt, groan, laugh, moan, cry, scream, and whisper gives me another bit of insight and information I desperately need to step into their world as fully as possible and help them solve the puzzle of their pain. Once we both feel that I know enough to at least start the deeper work, the deeper work begins.


But the truth is: I could listen for weeks. Years. And I'd just be scratching the surface.


The relationship starts and is formed by listening. It's the first active tool I use in session. I can be as warm, inviting, and non-intimidating as possible, but if I don't listen well in that first session, the relationship will never develop.


So. That brings us to ourselves. Often, what I'm doing with individuals is listening to and for the parts of themselves that they've silenced. I've had to stop a client many times in session and say something to the effect of, "Hang on. Let's not skip over that. That's really important." There's a reason they fly right by it: there's pain attached. Likewise, what I'm often doing with couples is listening to and for both of them, translating what the other is saying in a manner they can hear, and teaching them how to do the same: simply listen. And some of the trickest work is delving into the voice of the Divine, the Eternal, or whatever my client believes God to be, and trying to suss out which is the voice of Love and which is the voice of Fear.


It all comes down to listening.


And always, in order to heal, I have to encourage and teach my clients to try to listen as I do. (NOTE: I am far from perfect in this!) I want them to listen to their own hearts with compassion, attention, and respect. I want them to listen to their spouse and family members with empathy and curiosity. And I want them to listen to God - the voice of Eternal and Perfect Love - with humility, wonder, and trust.


And yet, it's difficult! By and large, we struggle to listen to ourselves, others, and God. Why? Perhaps for the same reason my clients get anxious, impatient, and frustrated when I spend the first few sessions asking questions and listening. They want answers! They want solutions! They're in pain, and they want the pain to stop. NOW. I become the "magic pill" they want so badly. Quick. Easy. Give it to me fast! We live in a culture and an historical moment which has no patience for process. We only want results, and we want them now. Hence, a pill for every problem.


What does good listening require?


Time. Both the time for the conversation within yourself, with another, or with God and the time it takes in the conversation to allow another to finish before we begin to speak. The time it takes to digest what someone has said so we can respond intelligently and relevantly. I grew up in a family of people who talked on top of one another constantly. Interruption was the norm. So, of course, I entered adulthood with this terrible, self-centered habit. I remember receiving advice from a mentor early in my 20s... she told me to wait 3 seconds after someone finishes speaking before I respond. That was good advice! I appreciate it every time my husband points out that I didn't fully listen to him. I'm still working on it.


Curiosity. To be genuinely curious about another human being is a great gift. We are affirming so much about their personhood and value by showing curiosity. When curisoty is present, we listen attentively. We are less likely to interrupt or interject when we are genuinely curious. Curiosity means we want to know someone's rationale when they disagree with us. It means we are open to and want to know their experiences even if we don't share them. It means we find satisfaction and value in hearing them talk about their inner and outer world.


Patience. Listening requires enormous amounts of patience. The patience to wait for someone as they find words out of silence. The patience to wait through and in silence for another to find their voice. The patience to allow someone to adjust their words when they find more meaning in other words. The patience to let difficult emotions pass before important conversations can be started. The patience with yourself to breathe, think, feel, and let the words arise. The patience to wait on God, listening, trusting.


Humility. The very act of listening presupposes that we do not know everything. If we did, logically speaking, we wouldn't have to listen. To listen is to learn, and if we think ourselves to be omniscient, we struggle to listen because we think we have nothing to learn. In reality, we cannot possibly know the contents of another's mind or heart. We do not even know our own! Humility allows us to say, "I don't know what you think. I don't know why you think that. I didn't know what you felt. I don't know you as well as I thought I did." And even when we do know or at least we think we do, listening conveys a humble heart, willing to be subject to another's need to speak. If we believe in a personal, omniscient God, as I do, there would be no need to listen to us because God already knows all, but yet God listens. Why? Because listening is relational. It communicates, "You're important to me, therefore your words matter because your thoughts and your feelings matter."


Listening is simply how we connect. First and foremost, we listen.


How to practically listen...


To Yourself: Journal and go back and read your entries, make voice recordings of thoughts and insights you have, then go back and listen, and talk to yourself! Lovingly. Kindly. Respectfully. (Yes, this is healthy!)


To Others: Insist on times and circumstances in which you can be as present as possible for deeper conversations. Breathe. Look in their eyes. Apologize quickly and without defending yourself when you fail to hear another. Reflect back what you hear when someone takes a pause. Ask them, "Did I get it right? Do you feel heard?"


To God: Get quiet and get alone. Bring a journal. Write down what you hear within. Ask yourself: does this come from Love or Fear? If it's Love, trust it. If it's Fear, keep listening.


If we changed this one thing, if we gained this one skill, if we disciplined ourselves to listen with patience, curiosity, and humility, we'd change every relationship we have, starting with ourselves. There is no therapeutic process without listening. There is no healing process without listening. This is where it all starts.


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