Listening and being listened to (1.10.23)

There are many types of counselling, but one thing is central to them all: the act of attentive listening.

When I did my first counselling training course, the first thing we did was a simple listening exercise. We got into pairs and took it in turns to speak. One would speak for a minute while the other listened without interrupting. Then, after a minute, the listener would repeat back whatever they had just heard. I was blown away by the experience of being listened to! It struck me that - never mind counselling - this is what the whole world needs! If we all simply listened to each other, the world would be a better place.

Some people have such little experience of being listened to that when it happens, as part of counselling for example, it can feel strange, even uncomfortable. But, on the whole, I think most people want to be listened to. Unfortunately, it's relatively rare in a relationship to have two people actively give each other this kind of attention, with each really trying to understand what the other is saying. There is a joke: ‘A bore is someone who only talks about themselves while we want to talk about ourselves.'

When I feel listened to - when I feel I have been heard - I feel valued. The more I feel heard and valued, the more I will want to share, and intimacy will grow as part of a two-way relationship.

According to theory, when a child enters the world, if no-one pays them attention, they won't even realise they exist, let alone feel loved. If no-one notices me - if no-one tries to understand what I am saying, thinking or feeling - then why would I imagine I matter? This is how many of our problems begin: our caregivers, as much as we might love them, weren't always the best listeners.

So, whether we're talking about counselling or relationships, let's listen. I'm sure we'll all be better for it.

By Mike Brooks, psychotherapist