Empathic listening versus therapeutic strategies

I’ve just recently cracked open a book titled, “Favorite Counseling and Therapy Techniques”. In it, a bunch of therapists who’ve written books on particular modalities of therapy offer up, in a few pages each, some of their best techniques and how a therapist might implement these techniques with clients.

What fascinates me most so far is discussion in the beginning of the book about how some therapists declined to outline any techniques, saying things like, “I don’t use ‘techniques’; I’m just there for my clients. I’m centered on the person I’m meeting with, not some technique.”

This intrigues me. A lot. Because I, too, often find and feel that the most useful thing I can do with a client, a fellow human being who has walked into my office, is to be there with and for that person in a profound way. I believe that much healing is done in relationships, just as so many wounds are created through relationship. I believe that listening attentively and really hearing a client often helps to facilitate healing, and that offering a “solution” prematurely can stop a client from feeling heard and gaining the traction he/she needs.

At the same time, techniques are very useful things to have in the context of a relationship where care is conveyed. The book’s author discusses why he believes that techniques are often useful, and one of the reasons is that it spices up the therapy. If a client is feelingĀ  stuck, and all the talking in the world isn’t helping, it may be time to bring in a technique to help the client to process things differently. Thinking about the same problem the same way over and over gets people stuck.

The author of the book also cites a study where folks who’d come out of treatment were asked to list the most powerful things for them about their treatment. He says that the majority of them listed a technique of some sort that had helped them.

This got me to thinking.

The most helpful ingredient in therapy, the most important predictor of therapeutic success, is the client sensing the therapist’s empathy. But the techniques are what clients list on forms that ask them to say what helped the most.

It makes me think on back when I was in elementary school. I notice, these days, that I still use some of the basic math tricks that I learned in 5th grade. If I were asked to fill out a questionairre today asking about the most helpful thing my teacher did for me was, I’d probably mention one of these math strategies I learned. They’re memorable, and they still help me.

But what enabled me to learn them so powerfully from this teacher was something beyond the strategies that’s hard to explain on a questionairre. It was her humor, her presence with her students, her playful wink when she gave us a new trick we could use in school. That’s what made her strategies memorable: her presence.

As a counselor, I believe in the power of empathy and a therapeutic relationship to help effect change. I will never espouse just one or two techniques as the keys to success in counseling.

At the same time, the more techniques I learn, the more choice I have, so that I can work with clients and bring in diverse ways of thinking. Some will resonate with some clients and some will resonate with others, and some of my clients will come see me mostly so they can feel heard and find their own strategies.

Virginia Satir talks about how, sometimes, people change one limiting belief for another. When I learn a cool new technique, I don’t want to become constrained by my belief in that technique any more than I become comfortable with “just” listening to people. The point of learning new things is to expand my choices and to help my clients to expand theirs. This happens through a combination of the empathy I show and the techniques I use.




Author: Michaela Lonning

I'm a counselor in Corvallis, Oregon, and I work mostly with intelligent and sensitive people who are struggling with a sense of connection to themselves or in their relationships. Near Corvallis? Come see me. Not near Corvallis? I work with clients around the world via Skype: Come see me.

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