The Importance of Being Heard
The need to be heard is one of the most basic, yet potent needs we have as social beings. Conversation is how we let others know how we feel, what we need, what we mean and is a fundamental tool for us to make connection so that we feel we belong amongst those closest to us. When we have been listened to, and truly heard, we feel validated. Validation means that we matter among our people, (family, friends, work colleagues). Having our views recognised tells us that our feelings, actions, intentions and thoughts are meaningful. Being heard means that what we say is not only acknowledged, but is seen as worthwhile to others in a deep and profound way. So much so that we feel understood on the deepest level, and that we have the respect of those around us. This suggests that we are then truly accepted by most others without judgement.
Feeling accepted by others around us means that we have their esteem, we feel significant to them, we hold value in the groups of family, friends and colleagues that we choose to surround ourselves with. Therefore, the ability to fit in without compromising our own beliefs or having to conform to others to be accepted, or losing ourselves, is very important. Having our true selves accepted for who we really are is vital for our healthy emotional and psychological stability.
Feeling Genuinely Heard and Understood is Truly Transformative
For clients who have come from a background of feeling unheard, unseen and invalidated in life to now feeling the direct effects of the exact opposite, feeling heard, seen for who they really are, now feeling important, and that they matter to the therapist, the feeling for them is a truly transformative one. This may be the first time in a long time that the client has felt a healthy connection to another in such a genuine way. Too often, clients are given messages from society, friends and family that they must conform to fit in. They may feel judged, criticised, belittled, and generally resistant to maintaining connections with people or forming new ones for fear of the same treatment. Therefore, the role of the therapist is to gauge where things have gone awry within clients’ relationships, how they have become out of kilter and exploring what kind of relationships the client actually wants, supporting clients to build and maintain these healthy new connections.
It is amazing what close attention to the client, coming from a truly genuine place from the therapist, and providing a safe place to focus on clients’ issues, can achieve. Therapy with a suitable therapist holds the capacity to form deep and profound change for clients who are genuinely ready to explore themselves, their place in life and where they want to go in life now. Clients learn to understand that all difficulties can be managed with the right support. The first and main aim of therapy lies in allowing clients the opportunity to understand themselves. As therapists we have a golden opportunity to do this this through listening genuinely and non-judgementally to clients. We get to offer people a corrective emotional experience in terms of being listened to and truly heard. For some people, this may be the first time someone has sat with them and presented them with a chance to be, heard. Being heard for them is directly connected to their self-esteem, self-worth, self-image and is therefore connected to the very core of who they are, with strong implications for self-identity and helping them to form and develop a healthy sense of themselves. So, we see that listening is such a simple thing, but is a powerful and insightful tool for the therapist.
How Do You Help Someone to Feel Heard?
There are 7 basic ways to allowing others to feel seen, heard and understood:
Be Fully Present
Being fully present for the client does not mean having a list of questions to ask all the time, or that we always need to have a comment to make or something to say. Being present for the client often means allowing clients the space to be able to speak when they need to speak. It means fully hearing them, without interruption, until their story is told. In doing so, we are beginning to develop a strong and trusting therapeutic presence within the room. The next step is to help the client make meaning from their experiences. We do this by sitting with them steadfastly, especially through their most upsetting moments. This allows clients to see for themselves that genuine support from another is a real thing, and that they are more than worthy of it.
This is a vital tool for the therapist. Therapists can show the client that they have been actively listening to what has been said when they name emotions that may have been felt for the client during a particular event. In doing this, the therapist shows the client that not only has she been listening, but she has picked up the general feeling that has been stuck there for the client. Often when emotions, thoughts or feelings have been spoken about and therefore acknowledged and accepted, they dissipate, leaving the client feeling lighter and with a better understanding of what had happened for them in the first place.
This is another important tool for therapists. When utilising this method of listening, the therapist has a perfect opportunity to help the client understand what it is that is happening for them within their past and present experiences. Once the therapist has heard what the client has said, she can then offer the same story back to the client but using different words, and as such is explaining or reflecting back to the client, the same event, but in a new light. Hearing their own story back to them often has the almost magical result of letting the client look in the mirror at themselves as their own event unfolds, therefore providing a fresh look at, and new understanding of their thoughts and emotions during important life events. The client can also see the proof that the therapist has indeed been listening.
Holding space or being emotionally and mentally available for the person in front of us means supporting someone in the moment as they feel their emotions and process their thoughts in our presence. It means providing them with a safe and non-judgemental space in which they can be vulnerable in peace, without distress or further worry. Being truly empathetic to the persons’ situation while they tell us about their problems and sitting with them through their anger or hurt is essential. In doing this, we help clients find their voices, and to realise that their wants and needs matter as much as anyone else.
Holding space for someone else’s emotional pain creates a unique holding environment within the room for clients processing overwhelming emotions such as grief, suicidal ideation, anxiety, or a myriad of different unresolved traumas that otherwise may never get the time of day outside of the therapeutic space.
Unconditional Positive Regard
Unconditional positive regard is not about agreeing with everything the client has done, says, thinks or feels. It’s about respecting the clients’ decisions in life and accepting the client as they are in front of us, knowing that they are doing the best they can in this present moment in time. This means accepting the client exactly as they present to us right now. For example, someone presenting with addiction may already feel bad or feel judgement from society in general.
A therapist practicing genuine unconditional positive regard will work with clients through helping them understand what emotional turmoil led them to addiction in the first place and may begin addressing these issues as a means to treating addiction without judgement. In this way, clients are not fearful about telling the truth, or of being seen as they truly are. This means that clients can be accepted by the therapist exactly as they are, issues and all, which facilitates self-acceptance for clients.
Validating Clients Feelings
Through genuine acceptance of the client and their unique situations, we show clients that they are good enough to receive help as they are, and that we care enough about the client to offer our support. This strengthens the therapeutic bond, allowing genuine connection to be felt by the client. It shows the client that they have value and are important to us. This type of emotional validation is different to the usual rejection or judgement felt by clients every day. An emotionally validated client feels seen, heard and accepted and knows that their feelings and thoughts are not wrong or in any way inappropriate. Therefore, this emotional validation allows clients to value themselves, shaping a healthy sense of self, maybe for the first time, free of shame or blame and they are now able to speak with confidence.
Listen But Don’t Fix
Trying to solve the clients’ problems, or being solely solution focused, in my humble opinion, only serves to take away the client’s own ability to solve problems by themselves. Listening without advising means helping clients to weigh up options or examine the pros and cons of making certain choices, but ultimately allows them to make their own decisions. Their own autonomy is after all, what we want our clients to be able to use once they have left therapy. A firm belief in the client’s own sense of agency is vital here. They managed before they came to us and we want them to manage even better without us, having learned from us, how to process their emotions, thoughts, and behaviours by themselves, now making good choices. Reflecting back to the client is one of the best tools there is in this case.
So, we see and understand a little more now about how being heard, seen, and valued by others has a profound and positive affect on us. The same is true of having the genuine support and understanding of the right therapist that appreciates who clients really are and what they need to achieve their goals in life. Sometimes, we just need a good listening ear, an honest wish to change our situations, and the right support to transform our lives.
This article was written by Michelle Fowler, a qualified and pre-accredited psychotherapist at The DMC Clinic. If you have experienced or are experiencing any of the issues mentioned in this article, please contact the DMC Clinic to make an appointment with a counsellor.
De Lisle, A. (2016). Being heard and understood in counselling. https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/memberarticles/being-heard-and-understood-in-counselling
Nafousi, R. (2022) How to make people feel seen and heard. https://poosh.com/how-to-make-people-feel-seen-and-heard/
Patterson, B. (2017). The sacred experience of listening and being heard. http://bethspatterson.com/sacred-space-listening-heard/
Salters-Pedneault, K. (2022). What is emotional validation? https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-emotional-validation-425336