Listening appears on Facebook from time to time as something we should do more of. I see this as not just true for those with, “psychological problems” (who doesn’t have any?) but for the healthy running of society in general. How often does a politician answer a different question to the one put by an interviewer? How often does the interviewer point out that a different question has been answered? Not nearly as often.

As I learned during over thirty years in nursing, listening is a skill that like other skills needs to be developed by all but the very few who have a real natural talent for it. Even then to be a really good therapist be that some form of massage or physical therapy or psychotherapy etc.

Listening involves more senses than just our ears. Anyone who has practised counselling or psychotherapy for more than a few years has probably had a client who answers yes while shaking their head or no while nodding! What then distinguishes a great therapist from a good one is how they react to the dichotomy they observe and this is clearly not a one size fits all answer. One client may just need to know that the therapist has noticed. Another may require the therapist to just hold on to the information for a time. There are many more responses that may be appropriate but all depend on the therapist really paying attention to the client and demonstrating that attention in their responses.

Now I am no longer part of the formal mental health system and practice massage and aromatherapy in Cambridge, I still find myself using the listening skills I learned. I have also learned more about observing the posture of my clients and others. This observation and listening does not stop at the end of the consultation. Some clients talk throughout the massage, whereas others fall asleep for most if not all of the session.

If the client is talking they will tell me what feels good and what doesn’t, when they want more or less pressure but often only if I ask! This brings me on to a very important point. Listening for any kind of therapist is an active process. Many clients are used to a medical model which at it’s worst encourages patients/clients to outline a problem and then accept a doctor or other professional’s solution. Even of the professional is accurate in their diagnosis and comes up with the right answer, this model does not encourage the patient/client to take responsibility for themselves and their condition but rather encourages dependency.  While encouraging autonomy and responsibility on the part of my clients may mean they need my services less, encouraging dependency is in my view an immoral way of working.

For me listening is important even when my client is asleep during the massage. I pay attention to their breathing, to any sounds that their body makes and as well as listening I notice changes in muscle tone as I work and will alter my massage accordingly.