“I feel like she’s not really listening to what I’m saying. Like she has this idea of what my problem is and goes off on a tangent and gets all excited ‘cause she thinks she’s figured things out, but what she’s saying has nothing to do with what I’m trying to tell her.”
I could have said this about my own therapist once or twice, but this was a quote from a friend of mine who quit counseling after just four sessions. Two other friends
said the same thing within a year of that experience.
When I told my counselor that the words she’d just emoted at me didn’t make sense to me, we stopped working on my anxiety and focused on communication. Two counselors breaking down the barrier that had thrown itself up between them had a pretty good chance. We’ve been together for three years now.
But my friends didn’t have that experience. Nor did they have the time, energy, or resources to remain vulnerable to someone who gave the initial impression of presupposition and poor listening skills.
After listening to accounts of their experiences, I don’t think the counselors failed to listen. I think they failed to communicate their listening. But how is a client to know the difference?
The “Feeling at Me” Phenomenon
I have encountered a bizarrely rampant communication glitch in counseling, church, and casual conversation that I have termed “feeling at someone.” This occurs when the speaker is so consumed by their internal experience of the conversation that they spew words and sentences in poetic, sentimental paragraphs without bothering to cons
truct a thesis and supporting statements.
In other words, their feelings are so strong they don’t actually hear the nonsense coming out of their mouths.
In counselors, it’s usually a mixture of empathy and excitement. We all got into this profession because of an innate desire to help people and fix problems, and so it’s natural that we will feel those intentions pretty strongly. But far too often the volume of our compassion drowns out the prefrontal cortex’s determination to make sense, and that is when communication between client and counselor dissolves.
Consequences of Failed Communication
My friends blamed themselves for therapy not working. Counselors were professionals, right? They’d all heard me talk about my classes and books and training on how to listen, develop and maintain the therapeutic alliance. So, obviously, they were the ones who’d dropped the ball. It’s taken me a long time to undo that damage, blending counseling and friendship to persuade them that sometimes the issue between client and counselor is the counselor’s fault. I doubt I’ll ever convince any of them to try therapy again.
In today’s neuro-centric counseling industry we spend a lot of time diminishing the role of the logical, intentional part of the brain in order to convince our clients they can’t just will-power themselves through their problems. But in doing so, we may have let ourselves off the hook when it comes to our own feelings. Empathy is all well and good, but we ne
ed intentional communication in order to nurture the type of integrated relationship required for good counseling.
Clarity is Crucial
We must ground ourselves through our compassion, or we will lose control of our message. Communication theorist Paul Watzlawick wrote “we cannot not communicate.” If we do not put skill and effort into choosing our words then we leave empathy to chance. The deck is already stacked against our clients.
What is it you want them to know? How do you say it?
Did they hear what you intended them to hear? How can you know?
Critically constructing statements and questions may feel like trying to bring too much calculation into an organic setting, but if we are as capable of intellect as we are of sentiment then the one can be no less authentic than the other.
Choose your words wisely before they carry you too far downstream from the client.
Incidentally, this is the second draft of this blog post because the first one contained a chaotic display of my frustration about this topic. I slept on it, meditated, and came back with focus and an outline. We don’t always have the luxury of such a break in our work, but when we practice intentional communication with our words in all parts of our lives, in
both writing and speaking, it will improve the frequency of it occurring in session.
Feeling is not enough. Feeling must make sense, too.