When I began my training as a psychologist my supervisor suggested that all sports psychs should attend a counselling course. It was enlightening. On our MSc we had been taught a couple of interventions but on this course we were taught not to intervene, not to interfere, to let things be and to give space. Kathryn Mannix’s book, Listen, teaches us the reasons why, and the skills to do this. I would suggest it should be mandatory reading for anyone working in psychology.

Starting by offering vulnerability of her own failings in delivering tender conversations you immediately identify where you own have failed too. What is lovely is that we are not being lectured at, she realises how hard it can be, but instead invited to learn how to be better.

Section 1 helps us move away from that need to ‘fix’ and towards that move to ‘listen.’ It is a powerful reminder of the value of humanistic approaches in psychology. As Kathryn says: The task is not to solve, it is simply to listen.”

Within section one there is a specific chapter I would recommend for every trainee: Listening to understand. There is a wonderful recollection of her own from a medical setting where she says: “I knew everything about this patient: her height, pulse and shoe size. It turns out I knew what was the matter with my patient, but not what mattered to her.”

Another section reminds us on the importance of not judging within the therapeutic relationship: “The only judgement that is helpful as a listener is to judge ourselves privileged to be given this confidence, and to be aware that we should do our best to be worthy of it.”

There is also a great section on how to finish tender conversations – this is essential as a psychologist but really hard to do when you start out.

I am passionate about the power of storytelling and in Listen Kathryn uses short stories and vignettes to bring her points to life and show the humanity in her approach. Kathryn even highlights this with a simple quote: It’s stories, not rules, that change people.” The stories entwined make it so easy to read.

Kathryn’s writing is so beautiful almost every paragraph contains a sentence or a potential quote you want to print out and stick on your wall.

The book concludes with a really helpful style guide to have to some of those tender conversations discussing the skill and intention you might be looking for, things to consider and the useful phrases to use.  An example is when you feel you should have that conversation:

  • Invite, don’t insist (skill)
  • The other person has control (intention)
  • Reduce any power imbalance (consideration)
  • What do I need to know or Please may we talk about (useful phrases)

Ten key takeaways

Some key points I took from the book that I am going to try to use more in my practice:

  1. Helping people feel more invited into a conversation rather than feeling it is a must. This should help them feel we are on equal terms. “The person with a dilemma or concern is an expert in how they are feeling and what they are going through: we must recognise that expertise.”
  2. Not focusing on finding the facts, but instead finding out what matters.
  3. Asking clients to summarise their thoughts, so they feel they own the conversation.
  4. Remembering that in offering solutions you might also be shutting down the telling of the issue – and that is disempowering.
  5. Tread softly to reduce the threat of another’s distress – our goal is to create a safe place for them to suffer.
  6. Focus on being curious and supportive. When we stick with asking questions we don’t accidently slip into advice giving. We should acknowledge difficulties and allow emotions – expression should not be stifled.
  7. Sometimes things cannot be made better – only carried. We shouldn’t always try to change someone’s experience but simply seek to accompany it.
  8. Being a good listener requires empathy; to be aware of someone’s distress, be able to see their perspective and control the impulse to comfort or console too prematurely. Even better is compassion where we support someone by being alongside them.
  9. Silence can be very powerful – it allows the conversation to include the difficulties without washing over them. Silence, Mannix reminds us, “is where the work takes place.”
  10. Avoid: Interrupting, telling my own story, offering advice, over-identifying, minimising distress, trying to fix things, making assumptions.

And finally…

One specific quote stuck with me – and is my major takeaway I want to remember from this book: “The task of a companion in distress is not to make it better but to make it less lonely to bear.”

Listen by Kathryn Mannix can be bought from Bookshop.org.