Sunday, November 01, 2009

Caroline Brazier - Listening to the Other: A Practical Approach to Listening Skills

[Full disclosure: I received a free PDF review copy of this book, courtesy of the author and publisher.]

I first encountered Caroline Brazier through Buddhism on the Couch: From Analysis to Awakening Using Buddhist Psychology, a fairly technical book on the intersection of Buddhism (specifically the Amida Pureland tradition) and psychoanalysis. To be honest, it was a useful book in the same way that Mark Epstein is useful - but I am not a fan of psychoanalysis.

Readers of this new book will have no idea what school of Buddhism she is from, nor which model of psychology she might follow.

Lately, Brazier has been publishing at an astounding rate. In addition to Other-Centred Therapy and Guilt: An Exploration, she has published Listening to the Other: A Practical Approach to Listening Skills (all of which list 2009 as the year of publication). As a student in a masters program for counseling psychology, I was very interesting in this later book - what therapist doesn't want to be a better listener?

But this is not a book simply for therapists. Anyone who is in a profession where listening skills are important (including clergy, therapists, medical staff, social workers, and even - in my case - personal trainers) will benefit from the skills she is teaching. And for those who need activities as well as didactic learning, she offers and, in fact, encourages readers to do the exercises she offers - and better yet if you do them with someone else or with a group (she offers directions for both approaches).

Each chapter represents a course of study - and there are twelve chapters, each containing various exercises and activities, most of which are timed. Each course builds upon the last, so doing them in order is important. For example, the first chapters are about how we might approach the topic, while later chapters are much more specific to certain situations. Her style is direct and non-technical, making the book accessible to anyone who might benefit from her perspective on how to improve listening skills.

Sarah Luczaj offered this concise explanation of what makes Brazier's approach new (as suggested in the original title), this from her own excellent review of the book (why reinvent the wheel?):

The particular slant Brazier brings to the work, presumably the ‘new approach’ proclaimed in the title — apart from the seamless, natural inclusion of meditation, without explanation or explicit connection to the ‘mindfulness’ practices currently so widespread in therapy, or any suggestion that these are techniques which should be taught to ’service users’ — is a consistent focus on the Other.

One might say that any approach to listening or counselling is necessarily based on the other. For the listener, yes, it should be. But Brazier, without bringing out any blazing theoretical guns, calmly reminds us that in fact counselling often goes beyond offering a non-judgemental space in which the client can listen to and experience themselves, to actively encourage a kind of self-preoccupation which can actually make one more isolated and miserable.

That said, here is a break down of what you might expect from this book, a chapter by chapter listing:

1) Wanting to listen
2) Contexts and conditions
3) Beginnings
4) Story and sequence
5) A world of objects
6) We are not alone
7) Relationships and connections
8) Relating to others
9) Not judging
10) Working with grief and loss
11) Compulsion and addiction
12) Good faith

As you might guess from these chapter titles, Barzier is offering us guidance through serious terrain. Some of these are tougher than others, and as people who are in listening professions, we will encounter most of these at one point or another.

As a Buddhist myself, and someone who is interested in the intersubjective space created in therapeutic alliances, I found her focus on the" other" to be very helpful and important. Early in chapter two, she mentions two important qualities for creating a listening space, "We need to offer a structure; We need to create a space" (p. 42). The idea of creating space is really important to my own conception of listening, and while reading this book I had opportunities to practice this skill as I did practice therapy sessions with a classmate.

For a therapist, the structure is already established - I am the therapist, and the other person is the client. The challenge, then, is creating the space for listening to occur. Part of what she is asking us to do in creating space is to put aside our own concerns and preoccupations to make room for the other, in this case, the client. When we can approach the client with that sense of curiosity and clarity, there is space for that person to show up and be present, to share and feel safe and that s/he will be heard.

An important element of all this, as well, is that we can also encourage those to whom we listen to use objects - the other: including people, places, possessions, and other significant parts our lives (p. 96) - as a means to telling stories and talking more deeply about their lives. This is an excellent way to avoid the "navel gazing" that so many people feel makes therapy an ego-building exercise (a form of self-preoccupation).

I could go on and on about this book, but hopefully I have created in you some interest. Not everyone will find this book and its emphasis on active learning to their liking, but any one who is open to learning what Brazier has to offer will become a better listener.

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