John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

The Art of Listening

Therapy is not easy to describe. There are many methods and techniques, and even these will vary to a degree depending on the personality of any given therapist. But in therapy, here are some things I routinely do with almost all clients/patients:

  • I listen. I use my head (knowledge), heart (compassion), and experience (wisdom).

  • I ask questions. Clarifying questions. Questions designed to make you think, go deep into the core of who you are and who you’d like to be.

  • I teach. The human psyche is delightfully complex. It’s a rich stew of defenses, feelings, motivations, beliefs, conflicts, anxieties, avoidances, values, temperament. The more you know about your own psychology, the better you become at adapting to the world. I strive to help you understand yourself more deeply. At the same time, we live in a social world, so I also strive to help you understand the key people in your life.

  • I provide support. We all need somebody to encourage us, believe in us, root for us. Never underestimate the power of having somebody in your camp. After all, human beings are hard-wired for social connection. We need the support of others to help us become our best.

  • I give feedback. I make observations, summaries, interpretations, and suggestions. Sometimes I try to get you to focus on what is (acceptance), other times I ask you to consider what could be (possibilities). Or maybe I’ll help you “connect the dots” of your life, pull things together in a new way. And unlike common advice, which tends to be universal and good for all of us, when I make a direct suggestion it’s usually quite specific to you and your circumstances.


Admittedly, I’ve had a blog lapse. (It’s been a busy year.)

But this one is for current, past, and future clients: I will be out of the office for the last week of November. I will not be taking phone calls or responding to e-mails.

Radio silence, in other words.

We are traveling.

Joining Forces

This is what therapy is really about.

It’s about joining forces with a professional as you work to address your most pressing concerns.

Sometimes when people first walk into a therapist’s office they fear they’ll be judged or scrutinized. Maybe they feel embarrassed or ashamed because they have a problem, and maybe that problem is difficult to talk about. But what therapists know is that everybody has problems or issues sooner or later, and that none of us is perfect.

Therapy is about working together. Therapy is about forming an alliance. Therapy is about establishing goals and working towards them with support, encouragement, and insight.

Why is a therapist valuable to you? Yes, we are trained in human behavior, and yes we have experience in helping others. But we may also have a measure of objectivity about you that you may not have. When you are trying to get unstuck or see your way through a difficult time or alter a pattern of behavior, this can make a big difference.

How Therapy Works

In an age of text messaging, social networks, e-mail, and cell phones, the idea of meeting face-to-face with an actual person sounds almost quaint. And yet that's precisely what therapy is all about. It's about taking an hour every week or so to engage in honest communication about those aspects of your life that are most vital to your well-being.

The aim of therapy is to help you work your way through distress. Of course, distress can take many forms. Maybe you’re struggling with a set of symptoms, like those associated with anxiety or depression, or maybe you're trying to get a handle on a problematic relationship. Or maybe life has sent you a curve ball –– a divorce, a job loss, or an illness –– and your head is spinning.

If human beings functioned strictly according to logic, we’d seldom run at cross purposes with ourselves. But human beings are emotional beings. We feel pain, compassion, joy, anger, sadness, fear, shame, and guilt –- and these feelings are rarely more powerfully felt than when they occur in the context of relationships with people.

Therapy helps you deepen your understanding of yourself. As we begin to examine the particular nature of your distress, we’ll discover emotional and behavioral patterns. The core of these patterns may involve contradictory feelings, hidden motivations, or maladaptive beliefs that bias your perception of the world. When you are distressed, it’s easy to get stuck. Therapy is a process that helps you identify the internal barriers that are keeping your stuck so you can move past them.

We want to get you moving again, moving in the direction you really want your life to go.

Therapy isn’t about doing things to people; it’s about doing things with them. When you invite a therapist to help you, you’re inviting him or her to join forces with you. It’s you and me against your problem, pain, symptom, concern, pattern, or barrier.

In therapy, you talk, I listen. Mostly. Sometimes, especially when I become more confident in my understanding of your unique psychology, we’ll reverse roles and I’ll do a fair share of the talking. I will provide input. Because I am not you, I may have a measure of objectivity about you that you might not have. Also, I know a few things about how the human psyche works.

What do you talk about? Usually in the first session people have plenty to say because they’re explaining the problem. But sometimes in the second session they’re not sure where to go from there. Don’t worry. I’ve done this before; I can help you with that. But think of it this way: therapy is about having an extended conversation about the most vital aspects of your life. You may be surprised by how much we have to talk about. Problems are often quite complex. It may takes us some time to understand what’s really going on with you.

If you’re struck, we’ll try to get to the bottom of why. If you’re in emotional pain, I’ll listen with my heart, not just my head.

Ideally we meet weekly. We need to establish a routine, a rhythm of working. You don’t have to take the same time slot every week, but it often helps if you can. This creates consistency and expectation.

Sometimes people will come to sessions hoping that their mere attendance alone will be enough to create change or transformation. By simply showing up, they hope that something will rub off and they’ve get better. But therapy doesn’t work that way. Therapy requires your active participation. I can’t emphasize that enough. Therapy may require you to discuss painful memories or emotions. It may require you to try experiments with new patterns, or takes small risks. It may require you to speak the unspeakable or put difficult experiences into words. It may require several rounds of trial-and-error. If you’re going to try therapy, you must be prepared to exert effort.

We start with where you are at. Yes, we identify the basic direction you want to go (values, purpose), which will naturally lead us to think about certain destinations that you have not yet reached (goals), but we start with where you are at. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth about who you really are. We all struggle; we all have flaws, pain, loss, and history. Because I am a human being, I am just as likely to struggle in life as you are. This is why I have compassion for you. I know emotional pain myself; how could I not? So don’t be afraid to show me where you’re really at. In my practice, I have encountered just about every form of human suffering you can imagine. When it comes to human problems, there is little you can say that will surprise me. I will not judge you because of the way function (or fail to).

Change is possible. I know it is; I see it every day. And yet change, or personal transformation, is rarely linear and rarely fast. In fact, often the early phases of change are barely noticeable. But that does not mean they’re not occurring. Sometimes one key difference becomes a small snowball rolling down a hill. It gets bigger and bigger as it grows. If you’re going to try therapy, give it some time. Making a course correction in your life is more akin to turning a big ship than to turning a boat. In other words, it takes a while.

Therapy isn’t designed to make people into perfect persons; there are no such things. Nor is it designed to cure life; there will always be factors outside of your control, difficult situations and people, stress and struggle. What therapy is designed to do help people create lives worth living. I want people to feel fully alive, fully engaged, excited, moved, effective, and productive. By working through internal barriers, we increase the chances of that happening for you.

A Life Worth Living

Sometimes people avoid seeking psychological services because they are too embarrassed or ashamed to talk about their pain or problems. “He’ll think my life is such a mess,” someone might think to themselves. Or, “She’ll wonder why I waited so long to contact a therapist.” These thoughts and fears become barriers to seeking help.

But here’s what I really think. Most are people are doing the best they can. None of us –- and I mean none us –- is exempt from pain, suffering, and loss, and that includes psychologists. There are no perfect human beings, which means that we all have flaws, we all make mistakes, and we can all get caught in unproductive patterns.

As a therapist, I offer compassion, not judgement. I offer to join forces with you, not tell you what to do. My job is to help you help yourself get past those barriers that are keeping you from creating a life worth living.