Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Listening As Action

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 22, 2015

Why am I harping on the value of listening? For one thing, I find myself irritated when I get interrupted. Similarly, when someone has the patience to let me finish my thought, I have gratitude and calmness. My ideas, the way I construct my sentences, what I choose to say and to whom I choose to say it to, are all ways in which I define myself. I need a caring ear for me to examine my way of thinking, to hear what I say and tell me what it feels like to hear what I am saying. This is particularly true in times of great confusion and uncertainty. Few people, in my experience, can tolerate me finishing my thoughts. So often, I observe that in the middle of my idea, the subject subtly changes and I am left feeling like I could not finish my experience. I observe this witnessing other conversations, as well. Person A talks to Person B and as time goes on, maybe 1 minute, maybe 5 minutes, the conversation turns to something that Person B is more interested in talking about. Yes, there needs to be mutuality in relationships, and Person B should have the opportunity to talk to Person A, but at what point should the conversation shift? Everyone has to cope with being cut off, with people losing interest in their stories, with the inevitable self-centered pivot of Person B. Yet, in times of psychic pain, that shift can be intolerable because Person A wants to examine their thinking, their fantasies, their ideas in the context of an important Person B. When Person B can be there for Person A in this way intimacy ensues. I would venture to say that we all need people to hear our stories, no matter how trivial they may be. Now, let’s imagine that Person A feels disappointed by Person B and Person A feels there is nowhere to turn. Psychotherapy can serve as this bridge for Person A to either help Person B be a better listener, or find Person C to help her through her life’s journey. Person A may also benefit from psychopharmacology and Person A may also benefit from socialization and mindfulness, but what can really help Person A is the opportunity to examine how she thinks. This requires a skilled listener. Examining how she thinks, Person A can then come to learn how she carries forward beliefs from her past which interfere with her ability to connect with Person B so that Person B can be a good partner for her. These are the elements of in-depth psychotherapy. It is low-tech, but it is high-impact. As humans, we depend on other humans for growth and development. Technology is not going to change that.

14 Responses to “Listening As Action”

  1. Jon said

    Not trying to turn the conversation (too much :), but there seem to be at least two aspects to listening.

    The first is passive – just giving an ear. This allows the speaker to think through her own thoughts. When this is done, many a new insight can be gained.

    The second is active – compassion and understanding. This requires the listener to comprehend what is said and to be able to offer good comments or guidance. Much harder. This is where part of the art of psychotherapy can show its beauty. Yes, there is no replacement for psychotherapy by psychopharmacology in this situation. Psychotherapy is both art and science. While there is an art and science to developing psychopharmacology, from what I read its practice is more cookbook and procedural.

    This only scratches the surface of a very deep subject. I look forward to your further comments.

    • Well hello Jon!
      I would not agree that “giving an ear” is passive, in that listening requires active attention to both the speaker and to the thoughts generated by the speaker. The “active” part you describe as “much harder” in my mind is less important in that the opportunity to allow a person to talk is, in large measure, a luxury that few people experience. Yes, psychopharmacology can be cookbook, but so can psychotherapy, especially now with the “T” therapies which are very constricted in their scope. Psychopharmacology offers much needed relief to patients, but it can be used to limit the therapeutic interaction of talking and listening. The depth of this subject is illustrated by Eleanor’s comments about Mark Solms’ work, in that the individuality of the brain is best understood by listening to the nuances of dialogue. Patience, time, and curiosity are the key ingredients. Both psychopharmacology and the “T” therapies force the therapist to upend those basic principles of healing. Thanks for chiming in!

  2. Ashana M said

    I would hope there is something inside people that makes them want to listen, that they are genuinely interested in the experiences of other people. It seems evident that some people don’t have this. They are the people that seem to listen out of mere politeness–there’s some kind of affective piece missing in their listening that makes it appear as though they are merely waiting in line for the slide. But I don’t think we are all like this. I know I feel alive when I listen in a way that is special and different from the way I feel alive when I talk. I hope others feel that too. In my mind, the conversation shifts from Person A to Person B when Person A begins to miss the sense of aliveness that comes from listening and when Person B begins to crave the sense of aliveness that comes from speaking.

    • Interesting. Most people feel alive when speaking and not listening. Hence listening is becoming a lost art. Woody Allen is famous for saying that the reason people listen is to wait for their turn to speak. I agree that the “feeling alive” is key to the interaction, and so the point of my post is that interrupting, or changing the subject, can serve to deaden the person speaking, and if this happens repeatedly the person learns not to speak and then to feel “dead inside.” Psychotherapy can reverse that feeling by helping the person to come alive again. Relationships with good listeners can do this too. Thanks.

      • Ashana M said

        It isn’t my personal experience that people feel alive when listening but not speaking. People who are impaired in terms of their ability to attach to others are like that though–they are noticeably different than other people, and are exhausting to be around, because there is no “pay-off” in terms of a sense of connection. They are like listening to a lecture on a topic that doesn’t interest me.. They might make up a larger percentage of the people in your life than mine.

        • Yes, I agree and to add on, those who “drain the energy” of the relationship often wonder why they are so lonely. To help someone understand that they are the author of their troubles, and as such, they can change the script, is the essence of psychodynamic psychotherapy. Insight into “boring” others is a good first step to questioning why they cannot attach.. I am not sure that there are more people in my life who come alive only when speaking, but I do think that speaking, generally speaking, generates more narcissistic gratification than listening does. Thanks.

          • Ashana M said

            I think there probably are more people in your life who come alive only when speaking, simply because I try to avoid having them in my life at all. I know one person who is like that: I try to talk to him as little as possible. The nature of your work alone would up the numbers beyond one. I agree speaking generates more narcissistic satisfaction that listening. Listening generates a satisfaction in being connected, as does speaking. I think people have a greater need to be admired when they cannot connect. If you don’t connect well, other human beings exist for very little else.

  3. Eleanor said

    Shirah I’ve been so glad to see your latest blog posts centered around the importance and healing power of “listening”…, interested, “listening.” I took a while to respond to this because the number of thoughts going through my head could have fit in several analytic sessions, or filled up a small book……probably more ;-)! Being listened to, especially when it involves psychic pain, confusion, fears, negative feelings, etc, is absolutely vital….no question. This is very low tech for sure but absolutely necessary for mental relief and healing… However, with that said, it can be more complex that it sounds. Real world listening to someone like me for example that has an obvious psychodynamic orientation in deeper thinking and feeling, can be challenging for the listener. I totally get that….. I On the other hand, I can’t be a genuine listener to someone who by words and actions, needs to be seen as a “saint”…ie handling whatever stressful traumatic event or illness with, “grace, beauty, courage, and a incredibly positive example for all”….All I want to say in situations like this is “hey let’s get real here”. So both genuine listening AND voicing our psychic pain, fears, negative feelings, or whatever, can both be challenging and complex for many different reasons for us all. Hope I’ve made a little sense here! These are my views only and realize many will see things differently.

    • Hi Eleanor-I think you are talking about the defensive person who creates a false self so as not to feel their pain, and if so, these people can be very difficult to listen to. As such, psychotherapists/psychoanalysts are trained to diminish these defenses and help that person create relationships in which there is a more genuine exchange. Yes, in a highly defensive person, or a person who copes with stress by increasing defenses, listening can become almost unbearable, creating a greater sense of isolation. As such, psychotherapy is critical to helping this person understand his defensive posture. Having said that, the effort of listening with a mindfulness about why it may be difficult is a good first step towards developing deeper experiences with others. Thanks, as always for your comments.

      • Agree Shirah…wish more folks were aware of these defensive maneuvers in creating the false self….that was actually one of the points I was trying to suggest. Example….When my daughter was 9 years old I had to stay with her in the children’s hospital for a month because she had a surgical complication and ended up requiring 4 surgical procedures. My psychic pain was overwhelming but I “smiled a lot”….to much but maybe I looked “courageous or brave”….?? Anyway, one day one of her physicians saw me smiling on the elevator and replied “surely you couldn’t be smiling all the time”. Fortunately soon after this, the physician referred my daughter to a child psychoanalyst and I was subsequently referred to another psychoanalyst. The real healing listening could begin thanks to this wise referring physician who in so many words was suggesting “get real”.

        • Wow, Eleanor, what a great story. My wish is for all physicians to be that sensitive. I wonder if that would happen today with the transition to medicine as “shift work” and less focus on the personalities of the patients and their families. Thanks.

  4. Shelly said

    It’s interesting how people of other countries think of Americans: Last week I decided to put on my “game face” and smile more, and try to listen as much as possible. Whenever people talked, I listened. Whenever someone asked how I was, I said “fine!” People right away said, “Shelly, is that an American fine, or a real one?” It was very interesting to me that people know the difference between real listening and the glossed-over “fine.” They know when someone doesn’t want to talk about themselves or not. Where I live, Americans are thought to be fake, and not too “real.” Not a real compliment if you ask me!

    • Interesting. The BS monitor is higher in other countries. I value genuine feelings so perhaps I would be more comfortable somewhere else. This is good to ponder. Thanks.

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