Increasingly, clients calling about beginning therapy say they are looking for a therapist who is “active” or “interactive”. This usually means that the client wants the therapist to speak openly and even frequently, to disclose how the client and his or her situation(s) are viewed. Recommending actions to take, specific techniques and “tools” to use to improve things, and some therapist personal self-disclosure round out the preference for this kind of therapist.
Not Just Listening
In these interviews, I hear from people that what is not wanted is the therapist who “just listens”. Most people who want to avoid that therapist style have apparently experienced it previously, often terminating that relationship within the first few sessions (and usually without confronting the therapist about their dissatisfaction.) “I just couldn’t relate….” is what I often hear.
The truth about how the therapist can foster the most effective therapeutic relationship may be found at some point in between this apparent dichotomy. Or, the truth may lie in a way of thinking that lies completely outside of it.
The Client Relationship
The way I approach this question is not about the quantity of listening and talking. Talking and listening are only secondarily related to whether the therapist is able to “keep pace” (“keep up”, “stay with”) with the client, how the client(s) are doing, and how the session is going.
Keeping pace requires both listening and talking. And, listening is not limited to understanding spoken words; it includes the therapist reading non-verbal “messages”. Overall, the therapist must effectively make a mental “map” of the client. This is a multi-level listening/looking/thinking process.
Keeping pace is not enough; a therapist must be able to “lead”. Leading is built upon effective pacing, moving forward by presenting key differences from what the client has presented as their current understanding. A phrase that I’ve heard many times is that leading presents “news of a difference”. Without a good “lead”to build on, the therapist’s next attempt to keep pace will not be smooth, and the case (the clinical discussion) will not move forward in that moment.
From this brief description of therapy, it’s evident why therapists’ who focus heavily on listening and even understanding can seem slow and unproductive. When pacing and leading are done well, therapy feels very “interactive”. Good therapy involves talking and listening, and that’s not the half of it.