"You Don't Need a Therapist, You Just Need a Friend!"
"You don't need a therapist, you just need a friend!"
Sound familiar? I've certainly heard it. You might have said it to yourself, or maybe you had someone say it to you when you told them you were thinking about going to counselling. Clients have told me that they've thought it, and that they've heard it from others. It's an idea that exists in our culture -- that therapists really just do the same things that you really should be able to get from a friend.
It's true that one function therapists serve is to be good listeners. And if all you really need is for someone to listen to you, to share in your joy and your pain, then maybe a good friend is enough -- if you're lucky enough to have a friend who can truly listen deeply and reflectively (see below). Certainly good friends are important, and an essential part of a solid support network!
But even if you do have that kind of friend, sometimes you might still need more. Sometimes we really need someone to give us their undivided attention, and to accompany us unflinchingly through whatever difficult feelings we are experiencing. Sometimes needing this feels like asking too much of a friend. Sometimes even the best friends aren't up for it when we need it. Sometimes we need that kind of undivided attention over and over again, which makes it hard for a friendship to really feel reciprocal -- which is ultimately quite important for friendship sustainability. (I would argue that good therapists can, and should, be able to offer a lot more than just deep listening, but that is the subject of another blog post for another day.)
Sadly enough, the truth is that many people don't actually have the kinds of friends who can listen the way you probably need to be listened to, when you're suffering or struggling. Moreover, even good friends don't automatically have the best listening skills. I have often thought that Therapeutic Listening 101 ought to be taught at the grade school level, again in junior high, and again in high school. Heck, we should offer all humans an annual refresher course in this essential skill. If you had parents who were really good at listening to you, witnessing you, and truly hearing you, then you probably internalized these skills -- and you are probably a really good friend to those who are lucky enough to be close to you! I'd venture to say that you are pretty lucky, and fairly rare. If, however, you are like so many people I've met, then you probably didn't get much good modelling of these skills.
To that end, I wanted to offer up a short list of what I consider to be the essential practices of Therapeutic Listening 101. These are things to practice and to experiment with, rather than prescriptive rules for all conversations. Many conversations between friends don't follow these guidelines, and don't need to. But the next time you find yourself with a friend in distress, you might try some of these suggestions. You could also share them with someone you are close to, and ask to practice them together. Notice how it feels!
- Just listen. Let the speaker say whatever they need to say, and don't interrupt at all. It might feel unnatural, but see if you can practice not even making comments or asking any questions at all. Try this one out just to notice how different it feels from what you normally do, and to become aware of what your usual tendencies are. (Note: You might want to warn your friend that you are going to try this out, in case it feels really weird to them too!)
- If you find that you simply have to respond in some way, experiment with non-verbal replies. Nodding is good. Sighing in empathy is good. Mirroring facial expressions is good. "Mmmmm" and "Uh huh" can work well too. "Oh wow" is sometimes a good one.
- Sometimes, of course, you do want to respond with actual words. If that is the case, don't try to talk the speaker out of their feelings. This one is so, so common. See if any of these sound familiar: "Oh, it isn't that bad - look on the bright side." "You'll feel better soon." "Well, it could be worse - I have a friend who..." "Well, don't you think maybe [insert rationalization designed to reframe speaker's feelings here]." See what it feels like to NOT say any of these things. What if you just let your friend/partner/child have whatever feelings they are having? What comes up for you? (Just remember: feelings never last forever. They tend to rise and fall like waves.)
- Related to the above, don't offer advice unless it is explicitly requested. See what it feels like to listen without having to solve the problem. The urge to offer solutions is very common, and comes from a well-intentioned place. But often it is received by the listener as a way of trying to move the conversation past whatever difficult emotions are being expressed. And sometimes it feels hurtful, or even condescending, depending on the advice that you offer!
- Try not to get into "evaluative mode." Which is to say, try not to automatically analyze what is being said in order to decide whether you agree or disagree with it. Just listen! Your job as listener is to understand your friend/partner/child better, not to take a position with regards to their experience.
- If you ask any questions at all, make them simple clarifying questions, or inquiries to learn more about the speaker. "What was that like for you?" "How did you respond?" "What happened next?"
- When a friend is going through a lot, and you don't know what to say, you can say that. "Wow, I'm so sorry that happened to you" can be a wonderful thing to say. You can also try sharing the feelings that came up for you in listening. "I noticed that I felt really sad on your behalf when you told me about x..." Offer this as a reflection, not as a way to shift the conversation over to you.
As I said above, these are starting points, rather than rules to be followed. You may find that listening in this way feels really different from what you normally do. If you are practicing these skills with a partner, you may also find that it feels weird or uncomfortable to be listened to this way! Both sides can take some practice, and your comfort level with them will depend greatly on your personal history. See if you can just remain curious about what it brings up for you - and extend compassion towards yourself.
A final note: If you are a parent, learning to listen to your children in this way can be one of the biggest gifts that you give them. I highly recommend Hand in Hand Parenting and Aha Parenting if you want to read more about how to put this kind of thing into practice with young children. Good luck!