What Is Your Therapist Listening For?

Counselor takes notes and listen to person who has mildly frustrated expressionAdvice is cheap.

Advice puts the onus on the listener and not the speaker.

Advice is often a quick fix—a mere Band-Aid on a wound that needs more persistent care.

I can usually detect someone’s frustration when, as their therapist, I pointedly do not offer advice. One of the skills therapists learn early in their training is one of the hardest, for both the therapist and the person in therapy: sitting in silence. But drawing out more information from people is a psychotherapist’s most useful tool. After all, your therapist is a trained listener, not advice-giver.

That does not mean your therapist is merely looking at you and listening while you talk. Any skilled therapist will be listening acutely for specific signals, which they then use to guide the direction of the conversation over time.

In general, your therapist is listening for three things:

1. What You Really Want

Nobody knows you better than you. That is why advice so often fails to help you move in the direction you want to go. Ultimately, you have the answers to your questions, though they may be buried under the expectations, hopes, and dreams of others.

It is actually pretty rare that people ask us what we really, truly want. We spend so much of our energy and efforts trying to meet the needs and desires of others. This is true for concerns large and small. It has to do with how we spend our weekends, what we eat for dinner, the career paths we choose, whom we marry and when, whether or not we have children.

In a variety of ways, your therapist is asking you, “What do you really want?”

Answering that question can bring about changes you may never have expected—some joyful, some scary. But in the end, the answer comes from you and nobody else. The essence of your answers are what will guide you closer to the life you want.

2. Change Talk

Speaking of changes, I am rarely surprised when I hear someone hint at something in their lives they wish would change. When I reflect that desire back to them, people often respond as if it is the first time they had thought about it.

Your therapist is listening for your change talk. It usually starts with a tentative, “Maybe I could …” or “I wonder what would happen if …” or “I’ve always thought it would be interesting to …”

Your therapist is listening for your change talk. It usually starts with a tentative, “Maybe I could …” or “I wonder what would happen if …” or “I’ve always thought it would be interesting to …”

When I dive deeper upon hearing something like that, usually those sorts of statements are brushed off as a pipe dream. Your therapist intervening to examine change-talk statements may require you to face some of your deepest fears. This could be a fear of failure, fear that it is too late to try something new, fear that you are lacking in the talent, charm, or financial means necessary to follow this line of thinking. The reasons I hear why people cannot take even the smallest steps toward their dreams are usually more creative, varied, and unpredictable than I could imagine.

That is the point of intervention for you and your therapist. Change talk is where the work of therapy begins.

3. Your Self-Regard

Many people are shocked when they finally recognize how hard they are on themselves. Over time, we develop core negative beliefs about ourselves which we mistakenly believe to be the truth.

Your therapist is listening for those types of statements. Don’t be surprised if your therapist picks up on a core negative belief about yourself and challenges it. Such beliefs, that we are not “enough” in some way, seep into our subconscious so much that we do not even realize how critically we speak to ourselves.

Confronting those beliefs are some of the most demanding aspects of therapy. But it is possible, even likely, that if you think you are not enough, your therapist does not think of you the way you do, and they will reflect that belief to help you develop a more positive (and realistic) self-regard.

So while your therapist may guide your conversation in certain directions, it is not to offer you advice. It is so you can both learn more about what you truly want. And, eventually, so you can both learn what steps you think are most appropriate to take.

Shall we get started?

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Alena Gerst, LCSW, RYT, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Francine

    June 5th, 2018 at 9:18 AM

    When I tell them I go to therapy, my friends ask me why I don’t just talk to them. THIS is why. We need friends, but what’s really useful when we’re stuck is to have someone who hears everything, not just what we want them to hear, and tells us what we NEED to hear.

  • Carol S.

    December 17th, 2018 at 9:21 PM

    I like that you mentioned to read the blogs of a counselor. It makes sense that you could discern whether or not they would be a good fit for you by reading some of their writing and learning about their past experiences. I want to find a counselor to help me with my anxiety. I will keep this in mind as I search.

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