In order to understand others, says Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh, “we have to feel their feelings, suffer their sufferings, and enjoy their joy.” The quote by this brilliant and yet so-humble monk, brings me to reflect on what it means to truly “understand” and “hear” in counseling. It also invites me to pause and consider how important it is for us to take care of ourselves—professionally and personally, as in the airlines’ advice, “to put our own oxygen mask on before we help vulnerable ones around us.” The real work has to be done with us first, then, and only then, are we prepared to walk the walk with others.
It is our responsibility to be emotionally available to our clients, because the openness of our emotions will create a ripple effect in the therapeutic relationship. The key here is authenticity. If we are authentic, we can feel the feelings of our clients, we can vibrate with sympathetic resonance when their stories enter our ears, and vice-versa, they will vibrate with sympathetic resonance with our emotions, and will move towards articulation of their own emotional composition, entering mutuality. Of course, this does not mean we burden our clients with our emotional upheavals. It means we get into the marrow of their feelings and show them how their stories impact us, and how we are moved by them. Being an authentic, sympathetic listener offers a mirror that reflects healthy relational images so clients can start seeing themselves as co-creators of the counseling encounter.
Relational therapy invites us to ponder the importance of connection and seeing the other. Understanding begins with knowledge of the person or the thing that we want to understand. It is strongly linked to our ability to relate from an egalitarian stand, albeit with our professional expertise, not one of power over but of co-creation.
“Hearing” someone means that we are able to put ourselves “in the skin” of the other. Forget about “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes”—let’s walk the mile in that person’s skin to fully feel his or her experience. To put it in relational language, understanding is not positioning ourselves as omnipotent beings who act on clients’ circumstances, but again, as co-creators of conditions that empower and reinforce the self-hood of the other involved in the counseling relationship. In order to achieve this level of relationship with our clients, we need to cultivate our own self-care, recognize our strengths, fears and discomforts, and engage through our own vulnerabilities as human beings.
Marianela Medrano-Marra is a Dominican writer and counselor living and practicing in Naugatuck, CT. She writes poetry, essays and creative non-fiction. Her publications include essays and four books of poetry.