I was reading a book called “Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening: A Guide to Enrich Your Relationships and Kindle Your Spiritual Life” (by Kay Lindahl of the Listening Center) this morning, and I was thinking how odd it is that so many music therapy training programs seem (in my mind anyway) to spend way more time helping students learn to lead the group by coming up with effective activities to change behavior and meet goals than they spend in helping students learn how to listen.
This seems sort of ironic, given that we’re music therapists. Ideally, much of our work consists of listening and responding and then making music in some way. Listening (if I may state the obvious), is probably the most crucial aspect of the work of being a music therapist.
In retrospect, it occurs to me that my teacher did actually try to teach me to listen, but I was too young and self-absorbed (in the sense of worrying about what I didn't know) to be able to- er- listen to him at the time. Sigh.
One of the (many) things that, I think, creates a lot of anxiety for the music therapy practicum students who come to the developmental center where I work is wondering how on earth to go about listening to people who don't use speech to communicate. It's certainly a legitimate concern, and it doesn't have easy answers.
It's a complicated enough subject that Herb Lovett (one of my heroes) wrote an entire book about it. He's not the only one who has addressed this issue, of course, but his was one of the first books I read which advocated paying attention and listening to people who don't have access to the usual means of communicating.
I think a lot about how to listen to my clients. Well, I should amend that to say I think a lot about how to hear my clients. After a lot of years of practice (No. Really. A lot of years!) I would say I've gotten better at listening (and also better at noticing when I'm not listening and think I have been). It's still awfully hard to know for sure whether I've heard my clients properly.
Most of the people I work with let me know I'm on the right track by changing something they're doing. For example, I may be working with someone who is throwing or pushing instruments around the room. What I often do in response (as long as instruments and people aren't getting hurt) is to hypothesize out loud as to what's going on (as in, why the need to use this particular way of communicating and why now?).
What I'm doing is trying to find a way to verbally (and/or musically) state what my client may be trying to "say" to me with his action. "Are you telling me you're not interesting in music therapy today? Perhaps you are frustrated about something. (Some people don't respond as well to questions, so I try to re-phrase it as a statement instead.) Maybe something or someone has frightened you."
All the while I pay attention to my client's responses. Meanwhile, I monitor my own reactions and thoughts (simultaneously). I try to be aware of how I'm reacting to my client's action(s): with anger? With anxiety? With sadness? Frustration? Humor? Uncertainty? My reactions give me information about the interaction so that I can do the work of helping my client "talk" to me.
In my work, the relationship is the focus, so whenever something is going on in the session, I relate it back to what is happening between my client and myself. As such, it makes sense to notice how I'm feeling in relation to what my client is doing, because, more than likely, s/he is trying to help me hear him/her in some way (granted, it's not always in the most helpful way, but I believe the intent is there).
So, back to how do I know when I'm getting it right: well, I don't always know. In fact, I will never (and have never) 100% Known. This is what makes this work so difficult (as I've said before). The not knowing for sure. Ever.
But when someone suddenly stops throwing things around when I ask if he's trying to tell me he's scared (and I never said "stop throwing things around" to him), I can at least start thinking about what might be making him scared and have a place from which to start hearing him.
And, at the very least, I know he knows I've been listening to him.