Recalling the different interventions I have been able to make in different workshops and therapeutic processes, specifically those that dealt with the establishment of roles, I would like to reflect on the important role that therapeutic listening has, specifically gestalt listening .

Observations and analyses that have given me many conclusions about the role that it maintains in that double direction about the self that every therapist seeks: inwards and outwards.

Learn more: “Gestalt therapy: what it is and what principles it is based on”

Clarifying some concepts

Internal listening

The internal listening , as the capacity to question from self-observation, is nothing more than the virtue of looking inwards, allowing us to become aware of ourselves and attend to those processes that are awakened in established communication.

Although “being available to the other does not mean forgetting about us” (Peñarrubia, 2012), the hard self-criticism, which arises from this “keeping up appearances” in therapy -like the attention to the self in the experiential process-, forgets that the gestaltists do not only attend to what happens to the other, but they must also have present (be aware) of what is happening to them in that very moment (in the here and now).

Inner listening

This inner listening , which at the beginning we thought was a burden for full attention to the patient, gives way to a kinder version, exemplifying the excellence of his method as an accompaniment, without having to interfere with the attention of our interlocutor.

To paraphrase J.B. Enright (1973), we exemplify this new vision and awareness: “To perform a suitable clinical task, mental health professionals need access to the flow of their inner experience. The first and most subtle indication for understanding the distress, the hostility… of the other, is the awareness of some similar or complementary state in oneself”.

External listening

As for the external listening , it is forgotten that more important than listening to what is said, is deciphering how it is said. It is therefore common to observe, how listening to verbal content is important (showing our capacity to listen once more by repeating what we have attended to with the utmost fidelity: words and textual themes transmitted), but even more important is listening to non-verbal content.

In my experience in group dynamics, while we develop our attention and concentration on words and issues, we neglect gestures, tones of voice, and body posture, which more than words provide us with more sincere information than their narration in sentences.

Without a doubt, this shows that a good therapist should not only limit himself to passive listening to what is being explained, but also should pay active attention to the sound of the voice, its tones, the rhythm of the musicality in its words , because in short, verbal communication is nothing more than a lie (Peñarrubia, 2006).

My experience in congruence with the above has allowed me to understand that in addition to listening to the words, we must pay more attention to what the voice tells us, what the movements, posture, facial expression, psychosomatic language tell us; in short, and in the words of Fritz Perls himself (1974): “it is all there, if they allow the content of the phrases to be only a second violin”.

Keys and benefits of therapeutic listening

Therapeutic listening should be treated as an attitude: availability, attention, interest in the other… If we materialize it in two inseparable operational lines (listening to content and perception of form) we will understand the purpose of the training that every good therapist must attend:

  • Listen to the content (what the other says), retain and reproduce it literally; it is a test of attention. Attending to the merely theoretical character of its explanation, we find that, in an almost permanent way, what has been forgotten, changed, corresponds to or points to conflict zones of the therapist, referring us to unfinished matters of our own and which allude to our own internal world. We could conclude that memory is therefore selective and that both the rescued and the discarded allude to the therapist’s neurosis.
  • Listening to the non-verbal requires the therapist to be a good observer , capacity and perception that transcends words. The attention of the how over the what, bets on the non-verbal in case of dissonance.

Communication in Gestalt Therapy

We have spoken of the attitude of gestalt listening, which inevitably leads us to speak also of a certain attitude of communication (communication in Gestalt). It is already common in the workshops, the correction in several colleagues, among whom I am, of forms of expression that distort the rules of communication in Gestalt.

The most common ones are listed below (Peñarrubia, 2006):

  • Speaking in third person and in past/future tense is perhaps the most frequent correction during therapeutic processes. The theoretical basis supporting this correction of the tutor that forces us to “speak in the first person and in the present tense”, states that impersonal language dilutes the responsibility of what is being said. Speaking in the present tense (even if we are talking about the past) facilitates the experience, making the emotional content of the narrated experience accessible and available.
  • Do not take responsibility for the expression , stressing the recommendation to incorporate it as the speech progresses, with the introduction of sentences (that facilitate taking charge of what is being narrated. Examples of these experiences in real sessions are: expressions about “I feel my neck getting tense”, being able to make the patient responsible for this experience in a more committed way from the “I am feeling tense”.
  • Use of the conjunction “but” instead of ” and” and the question “why” instead of “how” . It is common in the clinic to ask questions about the “why” trying to get some rationalization or explanation, and to exercise the return of that relational dynamic. This will never lead us to a global understanding and that if we change to the “how” we will look at what is happening, we will observe the structure of the process and it will provide us with perspective and orientation. Likewise, by using “and” instead of “but” we will avoid the dichotomy of language, integrating instead of dissociating.

Gestalt therapy and the therapeutic relationship

To conclude, and taking up again the origins of Gestalt Therapy, we are indebted (either by position or by opposition) to Freud and his psychoanalysis (Rocamora, 2014) : ” what one relationship harms in its origin or childhood, another can heal it – psychotherapy “, allowing when speaking of therapeutic relationship, to detect certain models of patient-therapist relationship. A relationship which, when speaking of gestalt listening, highlights the peculiarity which, in relation to its fundamental principle of “awareness”, points to an interaction where the therapist (the self) is used as a reference or experience map with his patient (gestalt balance).

So what attitude should we have: “to hear? or to listen?”. If listening is something that is done intentionally and hearing is something independent of the will, in Gestalt Therapy the first priority is. This, in congruence with its objective (centred more on processes than on contents), puts the emphasis on what is happening, on thinking and feeling in the moment , above what could have been or has been. Listening in a global way, as they show us in the workshop (verbal and non-verbal), is therefore the key to the success of a therapeutic process.