Hello everyone. It’s been a little while, but lets jump right into a topic.
I know I have heard the statement many times before—and have used it myself from time to time—that a counselor is a professional listener. Also there is the argument that we as people so rarely listen to what is being said to us by others because we are just waiting for our turn to talk in the conversation. I don’t disagree, at times. But I want to say something new about this professional listener/waiting to talk argument.
If counselors are professional listeners, then we are also professional interrupters.
The art of this skill is finding an incongruous way to interrupt a person that not only doesn’t derail the narrative, but actually adds to it, and perhaps even deepens the experience of the person talking (and being interrupted).
It takes a lot of practice. And this kind of interruption is not about what I want or am thinking about, it is more like I am trying to fill in some of the gaps or color whatever it is the client is sharing. It certainly requires active empathy and staying with a client’s shared experience.
I would say that a good half of my interruptions of a client are done so to confirm or reaffirm emotional components of what is being shared. Sometimes I just want to validate what is obvious or I want to bring awareness of an emotion into whatever is being shared. It may sound complicated, but I don’t know if it really is.
Client: And there I was on the train having this conversation with a stranger about the death of my sibling.
Me (interrupting): That sounds like it was intense.
Client: (thoughtful pause.) Yes, yes it was.
Me (now validating): Can you say more about how it was intense for you?
See how that works? It’s great. And it is very much an extension of being a good listener. Imagining myself on that train talking to a stranger about a death would be intense. How could it not be? I picked the word intense because I didn’t want to assume a particular emotional state, like scary or sad. That part can get further defined later. The word intense opens the door for either of those later. Either by me or by the client.
Now, the same example with a bit of a twist.
Client: So there I was on the train having this conversation with a stranger about the death of my sibling. Then we talked about chess. And manchego cheese.
Me (interrupting): Wait a second. On one hand you are talking with a stranger about your sibling dying and then you also talked about chess and cheese. Those are very different topics. Can you remember what you were feeling when you were talking about those topics?
Client (somewhat suspicious): What do you mean?
Me: You mention death, cheese, and chess all in the same conversation. I wonder if talking about cheese or chess AND death had a way of making it easier for you to open up. Maybe even a way of trivializing or distancing yourself from the painful topic of your sibling dying.
Client: Oh. That. It just felt like another whatever topic. Something that people do.
Me (interrupting again): If I am hearing you correctly, it sounds like talking about death is not bringing up a lot of feelings for you. Not a lot of emotions. It’s like talking about cheese or checkers for example.
Me: It sounds kind of like maybe it makes you feel nothing, or perhaps numb is an accurate feeling?
That’s how you can interrupt and bring emotion back into a conversation that doesn’t seem to have the emotion one would expect.
So, that’s a little bit of professional interrupting.
For next time, and the post is already half written, I will focus on interrupting our own negative and/or critical self talk. Which I think honestly is the more important tool to sharpen for our lives. I think you will like it. It involves a car crash and the helpful and the not so helpful ways to talk yourself through it.