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Coronavirus, Counselling and Choice – or the art of listening

It is difficult at present to switch on the radio or television news without hearing more details on the current pandemic. But even if there is little choice about the subject matter we do still retain some freedom about how to listen.

That may seem an unusual observation to make.The process of hearing with sound travelling through the air and reaching our ears is surely automatic. Apart from actively shutting out the sound the fundamental biology of our hearing is something we can do little to change. That may indeed be so but we do however retain an ability to decide just how to engage with that listening process.

A relatively simple example is the division into active and passive listening. Passive listening can be when the television or radio programme is left on providing background noise to whatever it is we are doing. That may be reading or a car journey where the background noise is incidental. Perhaps it is for the benefit of someone else. But passive listening can also be deliberate. We tune into a concert, a play or a news bulletin because we want to listen. We want to lose ourselves in the music, to learn what is happening and to laugh or cry at the story. We are brought into that which is being produced. It envelopes us. We allow that to happen. We are moving from passivity to engagement but only as an auditory observer.

Active listening suggests an increased level of auditory dynamism. With active listening we may accept but we also consider. There is a process of questioning and of evaluation.  We look beyond that which is offered to understand a context and a perspective. We decide whether to allow that idea or that melody to stay within us. We elect whether to validate or challenge that which we hear. We decide whether to permit the commentary or music to provide a springboard by which we will move to a different sense of what is, to a different cerebral or emotional place.

I was reminded of this splitting when listening to a recent radio programme which focussed on the impact of coronavirus on mortality rates. The report referred to the relatively high number of deaths in the UK vis-a-vis other comparable countries. The news anchor seemed to imply that this reflected badly on the level of UK health services. I could have decided to experience this as a passive listening experience.  This is where information and in this case a statistic, is heard and registered. It forms part of the background story for the listener. It is received and accepted. That behaviour of passive introjection maybe sometimes be exactly what the producer of the output is hoping will occur as is the case with propaganda.

Yet on this particular occasion another contributor to the programme was quick to suggest an alternative perspective. If over time the UK health services has been successful in helping older people live longer the larger number of deaths may be an unfortunate reflection of that positive health work.  If so the argument went, serious respiratory illnesses, including flu and pneumonia as well as Covid 19 are always likely to be more deadly for older people then there should alas be an expectation of higher mortality rates for countries or areas with an older age profile. Each death at whatever age brings sadness but the chimes of mortality will eventually ring out for all of us.

I was actively engaged in listening to the discussion. The debate and the argument continued. That dialogue was a result of active listening, of questioning and challenging by the participants and I also became engaged albeit remotely in that active listening experience.

If we then move from national life and coronavirus into our personal world, the same division can apply to our interactions with others. We can decide when to be an active listener and when to be passive.  For example the siblings will squabble, the work colleagues argue and friends will debate. We can decide whether to regard these voluble interactions as just background noise or whether we want to become active involved in our way of listening.

This is not to suggest in any judgemental sense that one way of listening is appropriate and the other inappropriate. We should avoid a preconception that passive is lazy and that active is to be applauded.  Passivity can be commended. There may be many occasions when we just want to be. To listen to the play no matter how preposterous the plot. To hear a sad story and allow the emotion to flow over us. These are occasions when we will consciously choose not to challenge or become too involved.   Active listening takes energy particularly if there is a follow up and we may not want this.  To ask a partner why they have chosen to speak in a certain way invites a discussion and now may not be the time. Instead we just listen.

Yet there will be other occasions when we do want to be involved, to challenge and to deepen our understanding of what is.  Even if we are tired the subject, the relationship or the event is important. We become active listeners. We are not prepared to just accept. We want to know why in order that we can decide how to be with that news and whether to accept or to question the ideas that are being put to us. The picture is painted by others in words or some other auditory experience such as music. The decision on how to interpret the offering is one of each of us to make.

But just what has this to do with Counselling and Therapy. Why refer within a counselling blog to different ways of listening rather than write about CBT, Solution Focussed therapy or another counselling topic such as loss or depression.

Perhaps that is because within the therapy room we should also recognise that there will be a time to be active and a time to sit back.  For counsellors the imperative must always be to listen. Yet it is also important to recognise that clients will sometimes require far more than a seemingly passive reflection from the counsellor. Some may require input from an active counsellor who will comment on the narrative offered and offer appropriate observations. That may include a confirmation of the story heard or the provision of an alternative viewpoint involving perhaps a far more challenging counter narrative.

And that leads us back to choice. An existential reality for each of us is the freedom to choose.  In this case we can choose when to be an active or passive listener. We can also choose to be active or passive in the counselling room whether as counsellor or client. But whichever approach we decide to adopt we should always recognise that there is a choice to be made.