I was sat opposite the therapist. I started to tell him my stuff.
Ten seconds in, I noticed his eyes harden. It was subtle, but it was there.
He looked disinterested. I spotted a flash of contempt.
I paused and stuttered. I had to look away just to carry on. I didn’t much want to carry on at all.
Mercifully, two minutes later, the facilitator rang the bell.
This wasn’t actual therapy. It was a workshop, and this was an exercise.
It’s a good job. I couldn’t have done that for an hour!
We were doing author Nancy Kline’s listening exercise.
The workshop organiser secretly gave the therapist three thoughts to have about the client.
Then, in 2 minute blocks, the client talks and the therapist says nothing. They simply listen.
Yet as they listen, the therapist thinks each of the thoughts in turn.
The first block was thankfully over.
I didn’t know what thought he’d been told to have about me. But it felt horrible.
At least the next 2 minute block would be different.
I shared some more of my stuff.
Ten seconds in, I froze again. I had to look away again.
Wasn’t he meant to be thinking something different about me this time?
It felt exactly the same!
The same lack of interest. The same barely concealed contempt.
The bell rang again to put an end to my misery.
When I started to talk for the final time, his face changed. I could see he was interested.
For the first time during the exercise, I got a sense that he liked me.
It felt okay to share with him. The contempt was gone.
I kept eye contact. He smiled back, in an easy way. His head nodded.
I opened up more. When the bell went I carried on talking over it. It had felt pleasant. Like I was talking to a friend.
So now I was curious. What were the 3 thoughts the therapist was holding as he listened to me?
I even wondered if it was a trick – maybe thought A and thought B were actually the same, because they felt like it!
Thought A: You are a problem.
Thought B: You have a problem.
Thought C: You are amazing.
How fascinating that “you have a problem” felt just as contemptuous as “you are a problem.”
Kline’s exercise shows that what your therapist is thinking about you has an impact.
First, on the therapist. Then on you. Then on the quality of the therapy.
Some therapists are trained to find disorders and labels to pin on you. That leads them to hold the thought “you are a problem.”
You’ll remember how awful that felt when my therapist was thinking that about me.
Others are trained to drill down deep into the problems you have. That leads them to hold the thought “you have a problem.”
You’ll recall how that felt just as bad.
I do neither of those, and nor do I recommend them.
I’m interested in what you want your life to look like when therapy is over, and the strengths that you have to get you there.
My questions focus on finding the many resources and qualities about you.
I’m interested in the ways you are already coping. I want to know the strategies that have worked before, and which ones are kind of working now.
As I hear them, I connect to your genius. And guess what I tend to think as a result?
“This person is amazing.”
Not in some kind of phoney woo woo way.
But because listening to your qualities and unique strategies authentically leads me there.