“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”
— Peter Drucker
|Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
The psychotherapist Carl Rogers (1902-1987), considered the most influential psychotherapist in history (Smith, 1982), is said to have taught us how to listen. As a result, therapists and counselors are taught a technique called reflective listening wherein the listener stops the speaker to summarize what they’ve heard. Through this means, we are taught, the listener is both affirmed, encouraged, and invited to further develop and reveal their deeper thoughts and feelings (Borgon, 1984). This is nonsense. Don’t do it.
At the start of his career, Rogers was dissatisfied with how therapists communicated with their clients and at the end of his career, when his ideas were widely accepted, he was dissatisfied with how therapists communicated with him. In typical pedagogical fashion, Carl Rogers’ message was diluted, trivialized, and recast in pedagogical form. It was restated in a form that could be taught to teachers as a formula, conveyed in textbooks, and tested by people who neither listened nor understood. It was made into a salable commodity.
What Carl Rogers advocated was not listening, it was understanding. And understanding is not strictly a verbal skill. At its root, understanding is associative and emotional; it is rarely declarative or intellectual. What a person says is rarely what they mean. What they say is a story, a narrative that carries a message in the way that a myth carries a lesson. You can memorize and repeat a speech, even translate into another language, and have no idea what it means.
Repeating the story is the province of scribes, computers, and tape recorders, not communicators. We’re not actually told to repeat verbatim, though many teachers of psychology think so, we’re taught to summarize. This is a slightly more enlightened version of Rogers’ insight but still more in the way of armor.
We’re told not to interpret, but a summary is always an interpretation. There are no extraneous elements in emotional communication, nothing that is your right to leave out. To pretend that you can present a Cliff Notes version of someone else’s story is a rejection of an invitation to become emotionally involved. In this bastardization of Rogers’ instructions for listening, counselors and psychologists are clinging to the behaviorists’ charade of objectivity and immunity.
There is no such thing as objectivity in human affairs. The only person who can hope to summarize their statements is the person themself, and in that they create a different story. For a listener to summarize is to interpret and reform. You may be enlisted as an expert, but replacing what you’ve heard with what you understand is pretentious.
The fallacy in reflective listening, the illusion that your selection of the words you think are essential is being confirmed, is made clear by the recognition that less than 10% of a person’s verbal intent resides in the words that are spoken. Not only is there a plethora of essential body language but a good deal of communication lies in the music of speech, it’s cadence, inflections, fortissimos, and rest stops. Not only is our silence significant, but different durations of silence convey different meanings.
Imagine being taught that to summarize a piece of music was a way of clarifying it. If you were to summarize Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with its leading notes, “Ta-da-da Boom!”, or summarize John Lennon’s “Imagine” by humming the tune, you’d be considered a musical moron. The same is true when you summarize another person’s emotional content with a parroted summary that begins, “What I hear you saying is…”
We’re told that this kind of parroting back affirms our attention and strengthens rapport. But any astute speaker knows far better whether you’ve heard and understood just by watching your face. You can be absent and still, with perhaps 10% of your attention, parrot back a summary of what’s been said.
What reflective listening affirms is not connection but disrespect, your lack of courage in putting your own insight on the line. You are shying away from the very dispute that the client is having with him or herself.
This is what astute observers will notice. I find this plainly obvious in the many demonstrations of this technique proudly presented to us by supposedly astute teachers of therapy, counseling, and coaching. This buffoonery is why the stereotype of counselors as artificial people continues to this day.
It is true that a speaker will feel the need to elaborate as a result of your parroting their statements, but that’s not because you’ve understood them, quite the opposite. It’s because you have not. They will elaborate because you don’t get it, and what you say demonstrates your inadequate understanding.
It’s also true the speaker will feel welcomed and emboldened to express their feeling, but that is more because of your absence rather than your presence. The counselor truly poses no threat not because they understand you, but because they don’t.
Understanding is not a position without risk. If you are to create understanding, then there must be risk, the risk arises because you must apply distinction and discernment. The more discernment you present, the more understanding you may have. Even if your understanding is wrong, your assertions still reveal an aspect of the truth. As is always the case, the exposure of error is more enlightening that the repetition of what is correct.
If you don’t presume, you won’t understand. Even the wrong presumptions reveal more than just regurgitating the words. It’s easier to learn what isn’t than what is, if only because there is more of it.
Everyone has a multiplicity of personalities that inhabit the same mind and body. Like the three Grey Sisters of Greek Mythology, our personalities share one eye and one tooth, which is to say one means of perception and one means of expression. While one of us presents, the others are either vying for or being protected from conversation.
To understand a person is to recognize their multiplicity. The most important statements are those that are not said and the deeper understanding lies in why these remain unsaid. The main story is always the cover story, a whitewashed fence. All of our houses are haunted by spirits.
Reflective listening presumes you hear with your ears and speak with your words. In reality, the important matters are both heard and spoken with your heart. Communication is established through a shared emotional channel, a channel that is open only in moments of synchrony.
Neurology of Expression
Emotions originate in our limbic system, but they enter our perception only when they reach our cortex. Communication is a higher level function.
Brainwaves give a crude but useful picture of three levels of cognition that roughly parallel the emotional, the intellectual, and the instinctual. Communication succeeds only when the brainwaves of the people we are communicating with are in synchrony with our own.
The brainwaves at issue are those in the slow, middle, and fast frequencies (Herrmann, 1997; Kam, 2021). You can match the predominance of a person’s brainwaves with the state of thought they’re in at any time. This isn’t precise but it’s generally true. It’s fairly easy to see when you compare a person’s affect with their electroencephalogram (EEG) on a moment by moment basis.
When I do therapy in person, which is rare these days, I like to monitor my clients brainwaves in order to confirm the style of thinking they’re engaging in at the moment. I now find this isn’t necessary as I’ve learned to identify it simply from paying broader attention. Even though the brainwave description may be superfluous it’s still a useful tool for this discussion.
Slow brainwaves, in the band referred to as theta, appear when you’re in a pensive state reflecting on memories and associations. This is a weakly verbal state, words come slowly and ideas are emotionally and intellectually multi-faceted.
A broad range of medium-speed brainwaves, in the band referred to as alpha, predominate when you’re in a verbal, declarative state. In this state your emotional connection is in abeyance and your thoughts are less emotional. You’re working to put your feelings into words, or you’re working with ideas that are intellectual.
We add higher frequency beta brainwaves to our cognitive mix when we become anxious, enervated, and quick to react. You can watch this energy appear in a person’s thoughts as their cadence of speech or movement accelerates. You can learn to see beta in their micro features. Their thoughts become distracted, and their saccadic eye motions explore the environment. These are our beta wave frequencies. The degree to which they predominate our EEG matches the level of our anxiety.
A person normally cycles through these levels and this cycling reflects a kind of integration. You cannot be in all states at once. Everyone develops a personal style of mixing states. We typically spend most of our time in the middle states. This is the verbal channel, and we oscillate with the amplification of the slower and faster states.
The slower state is reflective and more reflective people are recognized by their penchant of being thoughtful. The anxious state is reactive. We can set ourselves off or be set off by what we perceive around us. The reactive state is vigilant, not particularly careful, and quite tiring to speak from or listen to at any length.
We communicate best when we entrain our brainwaves. That is, when the speakers and listeners are following each other neurologically into their different brainwave states. Movies we call tearjerkers work because their tears become our tears. Action movies carry us into beta brainwaves, and thoughtful documentaries move us into the alpha state. If you’re not in the prescribed state, then you’re not going to “get it” regardless of your ability to parrot back the plot.
Real listening happens when you follow your client’s state. It may or may not be reflected in what they’ve said. Most likely, their real intent cannot be summarized. They’ll know if you’re following them because they’ll feel it. If you break communication to insert your verbal summary, then you demonstrate your lack of communication skill. Your inability to follow will be obvious to those who remain engaged.
Amazingly, counselors and therapists don’t recognize this. They’ve been brainwashed to think that reflective listening is smart and effective. To be heard authentically has little to do with words and certainly does not require your summary. It is assumed that you’re following and only those who cannot are in need of trying to prove otherwise.
You won’t redeem your lack of understanding by parroting back the whitewash. If you are paying full neurological attention then you know—and the person you’re speaking with knows—that words are just the booster stage of a multi-faceted payload. Communication with another is established in the emotional, intellectual, and instinctive mix of frequencies that are to words like music is to notation.
We all learn this to some extent, but we generally do not need or bother to make a skill of it. If you want to make a skill of it, engage all your senses. Most importantly, don’t listen to anyone who tells you to focus on the words.
Borgen, F. H. (1984). Counseling Psychology, Ann.Rev.Psychol., 35: 579-604. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Fred-Borgen/publication/16827917_Counseling_Psychology/links/54204a380cf203f155c4b389/Counseling-Psychology.pdf
Kam, J. W. Y., Irving, Z. C., Mills, C,. Patel, S., Gopnik, A., and Knight, R. T. (2021, Jan 26). Distinct electrophysiological signatures of task-unrelated and dynamic thoughts, PNAS 118 (4) e2011796118; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2011796118
Herrmann, N. (1997, Dec. 22). What is the function of the various brainwaves?, Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-the-function-of-t-1997-12-22/
Smith, D. (1982). “Trends in counseling and psychotherapy”. American Psychologist. 37 (7): 802–809. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.37.7.802. PMID 7137698.
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