Do We Talk So We Don’t Have To Listen?
Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 28, 2015
Talking and listening are different skill sets. Some people talk to stimulate conversation, whereas others talk so they do not have to listen. This art of conversation borders on the art of psychotherapy. When should I speak and when should I listen? This is the basic technique question of therapy. The rule of thumb is that listening kicks off a session, but when the talking seems to go to a defensive place, a place of boredom or cliché, then my job is to probe deeper into why the patient has lost his meaningful narrative. “I want to ask you something,” Ashley, sixty-nine, says. “I want your medical opinion about my friend’s cancer,” she continues. Why did she start off by saying that she wanted to ask me something, as opposed to just asking me something. Is she anxious about her friend, or she avoiding other, more meaningful things on her mind. She wants my “medical” opinion, but she knows I am a psychiatrist and not an oncologist, so the internet, likely has more information than I do. What is with this formality? I wonder. I have known her for many years and I see her frequently, yet the formality persists through time. Am I rude to avoid her question and ask her about her question, or does she know that I am going to do this, since we have done this dance for years? With Ashley, the opening remarks speaks volumes about her mental state; she and I have come to understand. She treats me like a boss that she has to interrupt in order to get her attention. She wants to flatter me by asking me my opinion. She does not know how to mine her mind for the internal gears which churn out pain and despair, and so she avoids the deep work by engaging me in a discussion about cancer. She avoids her fear of loss and her own mortality; issues which are bound to come up when a friend is facing a potentially lethal diagnosis. Like a good book, the first sentence sets the stage, but in this case, for Ashley, at this moment, it is all unconscious.