You ever had a counselor who echoed whatever you said? You said, “I’ve had a hard week.” And he said, “You had a hard week, huh?”
Or if he was a creative echoer, maybe he changed it up a little from time to time. You’d say, “I had a hard week.” And he’d say, “So your week was difficult.”
Empathic, kind, caring listening can heal. But when a counselor just echoes you, you often can’t really tell if they’re really hearing you. Anyone can echo words back. It’s a game we learn to play as kids to infuriate our siblings, in fact! Remember this?
“Stop echoing me!” “Stop echoing me!”
Echoing is a technique of supportive therapy, and therapists who echo you a lot imagine that they’re practicing “reflective listening.” Sometimes they just echo you word for word. At other times, they change the wording. Some try to reflect more than what you said, and this is where real resonance can happen, when someone acknowledges what you said and takes it a step further, in a way that’s deeply accurate and helps you to feel more of the feeling behind your own words.
Some clients mistakenly think that all counseling is reflective listening. And reflective listening can be maddening! Especially when it involves no real reflection on your words.
Other counselors steer clear of reflecting much on their words, and go instead straight for solutions. You say you’re angry, and they tell you why they think you’re angry, or what they think you should do about your anger. “Oh, you’re angry? I have this worksheet on the five steps to communicating anger in a healthy way.”
Or, “Oh, you’re angry? That’s good! You should express your anger.”
Or, “Oh, you’re angry? You need to learn to take responsibility for yourself and stop blaming others, and then you won’t be angry.”
Most of the time, things aren’t really said this simplistically, of course! But it can feel that way!
So if reflective listening isn’t helping me, but I don’t want a torrent of advice either, what’s left for a therapist to do?”
There is so much that a therapist can do that goes beyond parroting your words or advice-giving.
Here are some of the favorite things I’ve stumbled upon:
- Genuine reflection! Rather than echoing your words back, your therapist might reflect out loud on how your words hit them in that moment. A client of mine was complaining about a landlord of hers that sounded super unreasonable. And, at one point, I said, “Hey, can you give me her name and phone number? So I can, like, never call her?” She burst out laughing, and that became a natural launching point to more discussion. The fact that she knew I was on her side and shared her indignance helped her to move on to another piece of what was happening for her.
Another example of genuine reflection is when a client shares something difficult, and the therapist says, “Wow…..I’m just trying to imagine what that must have been like. I imagine I’d feel enraged, but like there was nothing at all that I could say or do. Is that how it was?”
If the client says that’s exactly it, with feeling, then I know we’ve landed on something important. If they say, “Well, not really like there was nothing I could say, but kinda like whatever I said would be used against me, but I had to speak up anyway,” then that moves us in another direction. It’s interactive, and everything the client says informs my next response. If your counselor is responsive in this way, she may sometimes be warm, and in the next breath be offbeat or funny, or be indignant on your behalf, or be feeling delight at some moment you shared. This kind of listening is more than reflection. It’s being with you, being affected by you. This kind of relationship can heal, the one where you feel not just seen and heard, but you feel felt.
2. Relational reflection: This is yet another layer of genuineness a counselor can bring to the encounter with you that can bring things up to a whole new level. You lean forward, and she leans forward too, delighted by your approach. Or you share a story, and she’s visibly moved by it. Or maybe you say something that really throws her off guard, and rather than going “neutral” (fake neutral!) or attempting a “counselory” response, she says, “I’m thrown off-guard right now! I’m not quite sure what to say.” She lets herself be visibly impacted by you. This is deeply healing when others have walked on eggshells around you. Or when no one, ever, has really seemed to stop and be moved by your words, your pain. Or when you haven’t had someone express genuine delight in your presence.
This kind of relationship and interaction can be life-changing, showing you what a genuine, feeling relationship can be like. If you’re struggled with relationships, this will inspire healing, a whole new experience that you start to take outside the therapist’s office and into other relationships in your life.
3. The “experiment”: This is one I learned in a training on Sensorimotor Psychotherapy training, and it’s used in somatic experiencing to some extent, as well. If I’m doing this, I encourage you to notice what happens when…..And then we try something. If you struggle to set boundaries with people, I might ask you to say, “no,” just that word, and imagine what happens in you when you do that. If you’re struggling to reach out to new people, I might ask you to simply imagine reaching out to me, and notice what happens then.
These kinds of experiments have so much possibility, and very often, they help clients to connect with emotions in new ways. Sometimes, when I ask someone to feel a boundary around themselves and imagine that they can let people in and they can keep people at a safe distance, it’s life-changing right away.
Or we might do a verbal experiment. I might wonder if you’re struggling with feeling good enough, so I’ll ask you to notice what happens when I say, “You’re good enough!”
Or, “You’re worthy of love.”
The possibilities with this are pretty much endless, and it’s so much different from simply echoing your words back and it’s so much different from giving advice. This kind of therapy leads to whole new experiences within yourself.
Therapy can be interactive. It can bring you new experiences, new feelings. It can reconnect you with yourself and with other people.
When clients experience this kind of therapy, they say things like, “I thought I would just gain more insight into my problem. I didn’t know a completely different feeling was possible.”
They say, when the genuine relationship has been the missing piece, “I feel like a need is being met that I didn’t even know was there, and I feel safer and freer in my whole life now.”
They say, when we find a resonant experiment, “Wow! I can really do that?”
They say things feel new. They say that they feel relief, hope, connection.
This kind of therapy is possible for you. And there are other possibilities besides the ones I shared here!
You do not have to resign yourself to a therapy where you feel like you’re doing all the talking, or where your therapist simply offers tools and strategies. Keep looking for a therapist until you find one that helps you to experience something new. If you struggle with relationships, find a therapist who will relate to you in a way that no one has before. If you’ve been talking and talking and you know your intellectualizing isn’t helping you that much, find a therapist who does more than work with your thoughts.
If you’ve been stuck in your emotions, unable to move past tears or rage that seem to take over, find a therapist who knows how to help you to feel something different.
It’s a key to a healing therapy: Having a different experience than you’ve had before. And a different experience than you’d get at home with a very good parrot!