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  • Reverend James Squire

Singer Johnny Lee and Wayne Gretzky




One of the most useful courses that I took at Berkeley at Yale was Phenomenology, the study of perception. This discipline studies the importance of how we see and why that is important in being a good observer and listener, two skills that have diminished in the wake of our digital age.


We have all seen those artists’ renderings, usually in ink, of a portrait. Some see an old unpleasant woman. Others see a beautiful woman in the portrait. Once we are told what to look for, it is easy to see both. We see our first image observed and hold fast to that answer if asked, “What did you see?” However, once we are told to look for both images, we can name both. It’s a bit like the children’s book, Looking for Waldo. Once Waldo is pointed out, we see him in the midst of a crowd of other images. When we can’t find him regardless of our efforts, a trusted person who has found him will point him out, and we can see for ourselves where he is in the picture. In terms of observation, we have all entered a room and talked with a person, and then can tell very little about what the man or woman was wearing or what was in the room.


We sometimes find the same kind of dilemma of perception in counseling when we are “Lookin’ for Love in All the Wrong Places,” the title of a country music song that was song of the year in 1980 sung by Johnny Lee. When a counselor starts working with someone in need of help, they have to make no assumptions. The therapist may think that he knows what is going on, but all judgement must be held in check. Love is not something that we see necessarily. It is something that is revealed to us. That is why many people reflect that they may be lookin’ in the wrong places. I have had too many people in marriage counseling that chose not to see certain aspects of the other person that they thought that they would just change after they were married. Never going to happen! One of the simple ways of stating when counseling should end is when the person or the couple are functioning in reality, not their version of reality. As the country song states in its lyrics, “Searchin’ their eyes of what I am dreamin’ of,”


Perception counts. Wayne Gretzky’s skill as a Hall of Fame Ice Hockey player is the counter to the title of Johnny Lee’s song. When asked his secret to scoring and assisting the most points scored on the ice rink, he said two things that would make a great therapist (1) “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” (2) “I couldn’t beat people with my strength; I don’t have a hard shot; I am not the quickest skater in the league. My eyes and my mind have to do most of the work. No matter who you are, we are creatures of habit. The better your habits are, the better they will be in pressure situations.” Our skills as a counselor must become a natural part of us to be effective habits. They need to become second nature.


A great therapist has to possess these two attributes that Gretzky mentions. Hubel and Weisel from the University of British Columbia studied Gretzky’s perception on the ice as well as Dr. William Tatton who wrote Of Ice and Men. He has a very fast long loop reflex which brings stimuli to the brain. We know it as peripheral vision. He knows where everyone is on the ice all the time. He never turns his head to make a pass. He doesn’t look at players who will be on the receiving end of the puck that he will shoot to them. He learned all of that as a kid. It became his most important “habit.” It was second nature to him. As it turns out, you can actually teach it as a skill, to take the wider view to enhance peripheral vision. In psychology and counseling, we call that peripheral vision as the gestalt, the whole picture. It is a habit you can develop. When you are helping someone, you need to sharpen your listening skills. Too many are just waiting for the person to finish, so that they can make their point. What would the world be like if we listened better? Again, it is a habit to be developed. We can learn how to get that key skill. I have mentioned that when I was just starting serious work at being a therapist, we had to submit verbatims to supervisors which was every written word of an exchange. Then it was analyzed. You can learn how to do it just as actors can learn a script. You can watch a TV show with dialogue, then turn it off, and see how much you can remember of the exchanges. At first it may be not be much as it was for me, but you will be amazed how quickly you can gain one of the most overlooked skills, listening, in too many people.


When I am with a client, I skate to where the puck is, to use a metaphor. I am focused. Perception is key as it was for Gretzky. In counseling we call that “the Weltanschauung,” the worldview of the person I am attempting to help. It is sometimes called empathy. What is it like to be in the world in which the other person lives.


Don’t be “Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places”…Gretzky, the greatest player in the NHL for goals and assists…it can be taught…habits…focus…empathy…characteristics needed to be a great therapist.


HERE IS THE HEADFAKE. They are the same ingredients of being a great friend when someone needs your help.

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