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A version of this first appeared in The Network of Alcohol and other Drugs Agencies (NADA) newsletter in 2020. NADA is the peak organisation for the non government alcohol and other drugs sector in NSW. Light edits have been made for this blogpost.

I was a great husband before I was married. 

I was a great parent before I had kids.

I was a great psychotherapist before I began clinical practice.

In my clinical practice, given my years of training and experience, I thought one of my most potent skills as a therapist was listening.

I was wrong.

Years later, I came to realise that I was really listening in order to speak, instead of speaking in order to listen. (You see, like many of us, I’ve been trained to dish out X treatment for Y problem, so I was inclined to get into the order of business and get down to the “real treatment” as soon as I can).

A therapist job requires a different kind of listening. When we are attempting to help and to heal someone who is carrying invisible wounds, we need to listen to the person into speech.

If we stop to think about it, isn’t it bizarre—and almost magical—that when two people are engaged in deep conversation with an intent on helping … change happens? Talk isn’t cheap if we see the deep value of two people coming together and engaging in the conversational nature of reality.  

Especially when working with people who are dealing with addictions and complex trauma, their pieces of the bridge are often broken, fragmented and shattered by deep ruptures in their close relationships and attachment bonds that mold a significant part of their inner lives. Thus, our work begins as bridgework. 

Writer, teacher and activist Parker Palmer provides a useful analogy to think about how we can approach with a form of deep listening: 

If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out. But if we will walk quietly into the woods, sit patiently at the base of a tree, breathe with the earth, and fade into our surroundings, the wild creature we seek might put in an appearance. We may see it only briefly and only out of the corner of an eye – but the sight is a gift we will always treasure as an end in itself.

Unfortunately, …[we] go crashing through the woods together, scaring the soul away. In spaces ranging from congregations to classrooms, we preach and teach, assert and argue, claim and proclaim, admonish and advise, and generally behave in ways that drive everything original and wild into hiding. Under these conditions, the intellect, emotions, will and ego may emerge, but not the soul: we scare off all the soulful things, like respectful relationships, goodwill, and hope. [1]

As a scaffold, I find it useful to think in terms of the following 3 layers of listening:

  1. Will Say,
  2. Won’t Say, and
  3. Can’t Say.

1. Will Say

Listening to what a person “will say” to you is the most important step. Too often, because of our training in the therapeutic endeavor, the helping professional tend to underrate this critical step. 

When my oldest daughter was 6, she asked me, “Papa, where did I come from?” I was flustered. Must I already start to explain the intricacies of relationship and sexual reproduction already? Isn’t she too young to know the details? Maybe I should ask her mom to response instead. So I did what any seasoned therapist would do. When you are asked a difficult question, you reply with another question. “Tell me, sweetheart, why do you want to know?” She said, “Cause my classmate said he came from Sydney. I wanna know where I come from… Perth or Singapore?”

Here is a list typical “will says” that clients would explicate in a typical clinical situation:

Someone Who Is…“WILL SAY”
Socially anxiousI’m afraid of meeting new people.
Sent for anger managementI get pissed off with people/ I care a lot about inequality.
DepressedI am feeling down.
Traumatized from adverse events I use drugs.

2. Won’t Say 

At the second level of the scaffold, we are now entering into the metaphorical “woods” that Palmer described earlier. This territory is the first touch of vulnerability. We need to not only listen intently, but also give words of invitation, honor and empathy in order to assist the unfolding of a deep conversation.

Someone Who Is…WILL SAY”“WON”T SAY”
Socially anxiousI’m afraid of meeting new people.How they might think of me.
Sent for anger managementI get pissed off with people/ I care a lot about inequality.I don’t want to be let down again.
DepressedI am feeling down.I have experienced a loss.
Traumatized from adverse events I use drugs.I’m seeking relief; I’m afraid. 

3. Can’t Say

If what a person “will say” is the explicit, and a person’s “won’t say” is the implicit, a person’s “can’t say” often speaks to the fundamental relationship he sees of himself that is a linchpin of suffering. 

Socially anxiousI’m afraid of meeting new people.How they might think of me.I am not likable. 
Sent for anger managementI get pissed off with people/ I care a lot about inequality.I don’t want to be let down again.I feel powerless.
DepressedI am feeling down.I have experienced a loss.I am weak.
Traumatized from adverse events I use drugs.I’m seeking relief; I’m afraid. I feel too raw and vulnerable/ I don’t deserve good things to happen to me.

When we are in the domain of “Can’t Say,” we need to have a full appreciation of the level of weakness and raw vulnerability for the person to reveal this part of themselves. As the founder L’Arch and Faith and Light communities, the late Jean Vanier says,

We all have a deep fear of our own weaknesses because my weakness is what makes it possible for someone else to crush me. So I create mechanisms of defense and compulsion to protect myself. We all have protective systems designed to prevent people from seeing who we are. [2]

In Times of Complexity 

The challenge we are presented in the healing profession is to resist the urge of dealing with complexity with more “complex treatment models.” It is not uncommon that when we experience a “stuck” case, it is not that a more advanced treatment approach is needed. Typically, more fundamental issues are often missing, like coming to a consensus of what the focus and direction of therapy is (See this blogpost for an indication of the effect sizes goal consensus and other therapeutic factors have on outcomes).

We must hold steadfast not to describe a person as a “complex case.” (This is like our version of “Won’t say,” i.e., “This is a difficult case.” and “Can’t say,” i.e., “I’m highly specialised and work with treatment resistant clients.”)

When we take the time to listen to the depths of a person’s multi-layered stories, we find that most of our lived experienced are steeped in complexity. It is the listener who constructs the notion of “straight-forward case” or “complex problems.”

Besides, we must not fall trap into dealing with complexity with velocity. 

We must not skip the “Will Say” and “Won’t Say,” and rush into the “Can’t Say,” even if we think we can see it a mile away at the beginning. 

When someone is hurting in times of complexity, they need community. Instead of “crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out…[and] scaring the soul away,” we can offer the seeds of healing but cultivating a slow climate of welcoming the “soulful things.” A deep conversation, in and of itself is worth it.

Begin by asking, “What’s on your mind?”

Listen to the unfoldings and then take one step further and ask, “What else?”

Then take another gentle step inviting a conversation of the inner life and create an invitation, “Would you be willing to share with me what you are struggling with on the inside that people cannot see on the outside?”

We need to go at the speed of life and not at the speed of light. Sometimes a person just doesn’t know how to say it as yet… until he is listened into speech.

[1]  A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, by Parker Palmer.
[2]  Listen to the interview with Jean Vanier, The Wisdom of Tenderness.

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