Monthly Archives: February 2013

Listening to the radio … or not!

I don’t listen to the radio very much, and one of the reasons is about to unfold. A few weeks ago, after a young woman had taken her own life, there was a lot of discussion about the legal process in rape cases, and whether or not it should change. It is something that rightly stirs up strong feelings, and I tuned into a programme that advertised itself as discussing the complexities involved. Perhaps that’s what it became after 10 minutes, but I was too annoyed to listen for that long. It turned out to be one of those ‘discussions’ which was nothing to do with dialogue and a lot to do with dominance – winners and losers.  No –one was interested in other people’s perspectives, but just wanted to prove their own point, repeatedly….. like a political ‘debate’ where one side of the House shouts at each other.

When I finally get to be in charge, things are going to be different. Every primary school is going to teach children how to resolve conflicts through words. All those existing under funded projects to teach conflict resolution are going to become mandatory, and we are going to learn at last that listening and being listened to can produce healthier and more effective solutions to many of our current dilemmas. And the media is going to light the way with wonderful examples of intelligent conversations where people think together, and work out how to manage differences.

In the meantime, it makes me very appreciative of the psychotherapy world, where at least some of the time people are struggling hard to genuinely listen to others, even when their ideas and opinions are different.  Group therapy[i] in particular offers an opportunity to get beyond the adversarial and into genuine dialogue. The formula may be very simple: each party has the opportunity to be heard, uninterrupted. Those who are listening discuss their understanding of the points of view, and what they think might be going on, whilst the ‘protagonists’ listen. Then everyone talks together about what they have understood from the conversations so far. What usually happens is that the ‘third parties’ can say things that enable the protagonists to soften and begin to listen: they can both support them and challenge them. When the whole group then join together in conversation, something has shifted. Once it becomes possible that “I” could be wrong rather than “You” have to be, then we are really talking!

Of course it doesn’t always have a happy ending, and it may be revisited over and again. But the rewards are worth waiting for and worth working towards.

[i] Interestingly, Group Therapy FM is one radio programme that I do listen to, because it manages at times to do exactly that!

Short term counselling and sketching

I’ve been doing more drawing lately, and it’s obvious that I want to run before I can walk. I want to be able to draw sparse, economical sketches that tell you all you need to know in 6 or 7 lines. Instead I end up laboriously shading and detailing, just to make the drawing seem credible.

In the other part of my life, as supervisor to a group of experienced counsellors, I have been giving a lot of thought to the particular demands of short term working.  Listening to accounts of their work, it struck me that my struggle with drawing – economy of line – was not entirely unlike their struggle to use a very limited number of sessions to the best advantage. Amongst the stories are some very impressive accounts of economy of line, where the therapist has been able to capture some essential and convincing elements of the client’s narrative within a very brief time frame.

We are working in a context where time is increasingly compressed. Outside of the world of private practice there are very few examples where time is as long as the client or patient needs. (I am very aware of my own privileged position, where I have on-going long term relationships with my supervisees.) But although we lament the passing of a more golden age where counselling could mean anything from 3-30+ sessions with one client, there is something very miraculous in those encounters where something significant and therapeutic is captured within the shortest amount of time. It is like the line drawing, powerful in its apparent simplicity but based upon practice, experience and skill. Intuition may play its part, but it needs to be intuition that has had the benefit of self-examination and self-reflection, rather than taken for granted as wisdom.  (But this is a familiar hobby horse, and I don’t want to be distracted from the sketching analogy!)

It seems to me that if the therapist never has the opportunity to do the equivalent of the long, painstaking and detailed drawing, they are unlikely to develop the skills needed for the sparse but beautiful sketch. The increasing requirement for working in the smallest time frame demands skills that can only be honed in longer term therapeutic relationships. Once we close down all the places where long term work takes place, where can we learn these skills?

©Chris Rose2013