My colleague, a psychotherapist and a Spiritual Companion, was talking about her work in a psychiatric ward with a young person who had been badly traumatised.
‘The sessions were completely silent?’ I asked.
‘Yes. This young person froze the moment that any older person walked into the room. So I kept quiet and waited.’
‘Did you ever speak?’
‘Yes finally in the fourth session,’ my friend replied. ‘I could feel the tension in the room relaxing and the atmosphere changed. The first words I said to the young person were: Can you feel the change in atmosphere in the room?’
‘And what happened?’ I queried.
‘My patient nodded that she felt it. That was the beginning of the conversation which helped lead to recovery.’
‘And what were you doing when you were silent in those first sessions?’ I asked.
‘I was guiding my breath to be calm. I prayed for healing. I opened my heart. I wanted to be a reassuring presence.’
This conversation moved me. I was touched that deep in our health system, in an inner city psychiatric ward, in the middle of our goal-driven and intense world, there was the space for this composed and wise approach. In old-fashioned language this used to be called ‘good bedside manner.’ In spirituality it might be called ‘co-presence’. In therapy or early years schooling ‘whole body listening.’
THREATS OR REASSURANCE
It was particularly relevant to me because in Spiritual Companions we teach listening skills and I was becoming increasingly unclear about how best to do this. At the same time I was affected by another colleague who said that he disliked people who listened ‘professionally.’
‘It’s the way that they lean into me,’ he said, ‘their faces slightly screwed up and their intense focus. It feels as if they are waiting for me to share a particular type of personal information and they will not back off until they hear what they want to hear. It’s intrusive and pushy. It shuts me up. I want to escape.’
I knew exactly what he meant. I had been on the receiving end. I even did it myself when I was younger, waiting for a client to disclose their emotions and feelings before I relaxed and gave them approval for being a ‘good’ client. In fact I was just gratifying my egoistic need to prove that I was a good helper.
That is definitely not true listening or helping. In fact, to name it at its worst, it is a subtle abuse of power over someone who is vulnerable.
So it was beautiful to hear my colleague talking about the three sessions of complete silence in which trust and safety slowly grew.
This is similar to Gerda Boyesen’s wonderful story, which I often tell, about when she came over from Norway to London.
She was the founder of Biodynamic Psychology and there were many people who wanted to be her clients. She made appointments to see them, but found that she was frustrating them with her bad understanding of English, often asking them to repeat what they had just said. So she decided just to keep quiet, to sink deep into her body, be a reassuring presence and occasionally make comforting noises to show she was listening. Without any of her usual therapeutic questioning, but just her warm presence, her clients started to open about themselves faster than she had ever previously experienced.
Silence and a warm reassuring presence did more than all her expert professional enquiry.
How then can we best teach these deeper listening skills? It might seem very simple. Be quiet. Be calm. Be relaxed in your body. Simultaneously be attentive and fully present to your companion.
But there is a problem here. The moment that you are asked to be attentive you may experience an arousal, a very mammalian response based in survival instincts. Instead of becoming calm, the call to be attentive may trigger you into a hyper-vigilance as if you were on the hunt or being hunted. Be alert or die!
This style of aroused and forced listening is obviously not what we want. If we listen in this hyped up state, then we transmit a threatening message to our companion. Our body language and ambience are anxious. The adrenalin in our sweat even sours our aroma.
It is obvious, isn’t it? That kind of intense listening is bad practice. Its actually frightening for people. There is a threat! Is this a hunt? Am I the hunted?
But there is this other kind of highly attentive listening which is deeply relaxed and reassuring. I want to suggest to you that you have probably already learnt it in the classroom of life. But perhaps you have not yet noticed that you learnt it.
Here for example are two widespread circumstances where you have most likely listened calmly and with full awareness.
The first is when you were with a friend, a family member or a loved one who was ill or in pain – and you just sat patiently with them. Your companion may have been asleep or restless or chattering. You may perhaps have sat for hours or days, aware of their breathing, their movements and their needs. You have done that, haven’t you? You also respected their space and if they wanted to be left alone you withdrew. Listening, fully aware, relaxed, heart open. No arousal or hyper-vigilance, but completely present, connected.
The second is when you have been in nature. Surely you have had quiet times in nature, relaxed, aware of the noises, the aromas, the touch of breeze against your skin, noticing everything, but calm, connected and at ease.
Those two situations – sitting with someone who is ill and being quiet in nature – contain the body language, the ambience and the feeling of true full-body listening and co-presence. You can already do it. And if you have done it once in one kind of situation, you can do it again in another.
But this skill does not come with a diploma or a stethoscope, does it?
It comes from something healthy and normal in human nature – our natural inclination and ability to be empathic, connected and benevolent, a healing presence and a force for good.