Talking to listen: its pre-history, invention, and future in the field of psychotherapy

Lois Shawver

in Discursive Perspectives in Therapeutic Practice

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print April 2012 | ISBN: 9780199592753
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754715 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Talking to listen: its pre-history, invention, and future in the field of psychotherapy

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I have provided you with the findings of my research in this chapter, so I trust that I am not alone in trying to make sense of what I have found. Nevertheless, I have a picture that has emerged from my studies that I am eager to provide.

Remember, my organizing question for this chapter was: why have therapists been slow to notice that much of what we do is talking to listen?

The answer seems be that through the centuries therapists have been highly distracted by a parade of cultural beliefs that made the practice of talking to listen seem irrelevant. There was the belief that listening to mental patients was useless because they were not of their ‘right mind’ and that nothing they said could be trusted. Then, it seemed to therapists that mental patients were only able to profit from treatment if they were tricked into doing so, perhaps by convincing them the therapist was speaking for God. Next, the belief was that mental patients could be better treated by new, quick and attractive treatments, so listening to patients was irrelevant. And, finally, the psychoanalysts taught us that the only helpful truth patients had to teach us was something they could not tell us directly, something unconscious.

None of these therapy practices used more than the trivial forms of talking to listen, but each shift of framework resulted in a gradually changing attitude towards patients and their therapy in a way that, over the years, made talking to listen seem increasingly relevant. Today, I suspect that the vast majority of therapists of all sorts would see the relevance of at least some degree of therapists talking to listen in the session.

It seems to me that the two men most responsible for drawing to our attention the usefulness of talking to listen were Carl Rogers and Harry Stack Sullivan. Each of these two men invented a style or method of talking to listen, along with a theory of how therapy could be useful. Their theories of what therapy needed to do to be useful were similar, but their methods of tiotoling were distinctive.

Over the next few decades, new ways of talking to listen began popping up like pop corn. The popular question in the 1970s for therapists to ask was, ‘What are you feeling?’(McAuliffe and Ericksen 2002, p. 41) and before many years cognitive therapists were asking: ‘What's going through your mind?’(Kuehlwein 2000).

More recently we have the Milan Therapy's practice of circular questioning, de Shazer's ‘Miracle Question’, Michael White's instructions as to how we could look for ‘unique outcomes’, and the Lacanian method of the analyst speaking as the voice of the Unconscious. You also have my ‘stupid tiotol’ and no doubt the tiotols of many other therapists who have invented tiotols behind therapy's closed doors.

There is even research on talking to listen questions (cf. Adams 1997; McGee 2005) although do remember that all forms of talking to listen are not questions.

And the future of the practice of tiotoling? I think its future rests with the future of psychotherapy in general, and the future of psychotherapy is currently being written. To see the changes that are happening, glance all the way back to Rogers and notice one of the most pronounced movements in therapy practice over the last 50 years.

In the 1950s, when Rogers wrote, he and every other theorist that I am aware of defined their contributions as part of a school of thought. Rogers wrote, (under the heading ‘The Presentation of a “School of Thought”’): It is clearly the purpose of these pages to present only one point of view, and to leave to others the development of other orientations (Rogers 1951, p. 9).

But today, authors who present their ideas as part of a school of therapy are out of touch with dramatic changes that have been happening in our field. Surveys for the last 30 years or so show that therapists are increasingly breaking away from the practice of following the guidelines of specific schools. Instead, more and more, therapists identify themselves as eclectic or integrationist (Garfield and Kurtz 1977; Norcross and Prochaska 2002), and, in addition, when therapists choose a personal therapist for themselves, they prefer a therapist who is not committed to a particular school (Norcross et al. 2009).

Talking to listen has a place in this new eclecticism if we can learn to mix models and, perhaps, add a little salsa of our own. It is not that we must choose which form of talking to listen to practice, but that we need to pick and choose, and also blend and weave, the different models of tiotol more spontaneously. Anything else will tend to sound inauthentic. In fact, I believe it was this kind of parroting that so appalled Carl Rogers and caused him to draw attention away from the way he spoke and call attention to the emotion he was trying to express.

To ensure this relatively new practice of talking to listen a place in the future, however, we need to adapt it to the other trends happening which make therapy more of a creative art, more like the art of a primary physician, say, than that of a diagnostician following a manual, at least to the extent that a primary physician adapts a personal style to work best with the specific patient in the office and the situation that is happening.

I hope we therapists continue to tiotol. I believe it was a fortunate invention, and I extend this new term talking to listen so we can better collaborate in improving and extending our understanding and the general practice of talking to listen.

Chapter.  11714 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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