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  • Reverend James Squire

I Have a Secret

I had recent conversations with a physician whose generic response to my questions was, “Remember we talked about that. There was so much covered that it is understandable that you don’t remember that point. Remember we talked about that.” After several of these exchanges I severed the relationship. She didn’t know my secret and few others do as well.

Perhaps one of my most important learning experiences, in addition to being a laborer in a steel mill, was doing another graduate degree in psychology at Duke and doing an internship at the same time in counseling at Duke Medical Center. I knew I was being trained by the professors and supervisors who were the best with classmates who were the best. They all made it an awesome educational experience.

I can remember every word of every important exchange that I am in when I can’t remember much about food that I ate at a great restaurant. People are important to me. Food not so much. This level of remembering did not come naturally to me. It was taught to me at Duke.

I had read Richard Chessick’s book, How Psychotherapy Heals, where he emphasized empathy and unconditional positive regard for the patient (suspend judgement), but he left out something that could be, in my opinion, just as important. Remembering everything about the exchanges.

It comes naturally to actors and singers where I am always aware how singers and actors can remember every word of a song or a script until it becomes naturally part of them. I stand in awe of their ability to do that.

At Duke, we had to write verbatims after contact with certain patients. We were trained to focus intently and completely on the person who we were counseling. We had to fully enter their world. These word for word documents of our exchanges were required. Just to keep everyone on the level, some exchanges of sessions were recorded.

The supervisor would go over every exchange. He wasn’t interested in what you wished you had said as his focus was on the actual exchange itself. Counselors need to be doing meta-listening which means focusing on every nuance, hearing every emotion, and paying attention to what is not said. Listening to what is not said can be more important that hearing the spoken word or seeing the body language of another.

I found it frustrating, humbling, and embarrassing in the beginning of the process to learn how to do this which takes intense focus. It sounded easy enough for me to do. It turned out to be very difficult but important if not critical. Your mindset has to be total focus on the other.

If you are an actor, particularly an understudy, or a singer, you know how hard this can be for people like me who had to be taught this skill with a recommendation needed from supervisors to bigger things in the process.

You can try it out yourself. Watch a drama on TV that has dialogue with this deep focus as your mindset, tape the drama for 15 minutes (later you can extend the time), turn off the TV and see how much of the exchanges come immediately back to you. You have to write them down. Then watch the recording again to see how you did. It’s even harder than the understudy’s work at a Broadway musical because you are getting one shot to get it right. Some of you will be able to do this. Others, like me, will struggle with it at first.

If there is time after a session, I also reflect on what I could have done differently, meaning better, to be helpful to the other person. This is for the important exchanges only not for the everyday conversations.

I can remember many of the 1000(s) of students’ names that I have taught. I can remember exactly where I taught them in classrooms for classes. I can’t remember their class year, but my spouse who is aware of this “gift” can’t figure out why I can’t remember basic stuff like turning on a loaded dishwasher or running an errand or what we had for dinner at a great restaurant.

Two stories will serve as examples of the importance of meta-listening.

One of my friends is a recently deceased trial attorney who made a fortune in handling Workers Compensation Cases. I asked him what was the most important class that he took in law school to be so successful as a litigator. His response was, “None of them! What helped me to be a good litigator were the drama courses I took as an undergraduate. I could read a jury quickly, and most important, those classes taught me how to remember every word in an exchange.”

When I was working in a parish in Swarthmore right after Duke, I started a counseling center with some like-minded people for the people of Chester who did not have many services for counseling. We saw some pretty scary people at the center. One of my colleagues was a former Roman Catholic priest who was gifted in theory, practice, and meta-listening to the point that he was caught off guard and attacked by a client. I was in the room next to his and could hear furniture being moved and some loud language. When I ran next door, his client had already leaving in a rush past me. When I asked Bill, what had happened as he gathered himself together, his first words were, “I wonder what he was trying to say before he became so angry?”

Richard Chessick needs to add meta-listening to those other important ingredients of empathy and unconditional positive regard. You need to have all three to see how psychotherapy heals.

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