By David S. Prescott, LICSW
ATSA member Kris Vanhoeck published a fabulous article in the most recent edition of ATSA’s newsletter, The Forum. Titled Slow Listening to Persons Who Committed a Sexual Offence, he explores the importance of what he terms “slow listening.” He states: “While studying about listening and listener skills I came across the concept of ‘slow listening’. Stemming from movements like Slow Food or Slow Living, Slow Listening is about finding new forms of awareness regarding sound consumption.”
The idea of slow listening is not itself new (Vanhoeck points to the work of Carl Rogers). There have been, for example, areas of the 20th century musical world that referenced “deep listening” (see the work of Pauline Oliveros). Vanhoeck, however, places it into an entirely new context:
Making time for careful ‘forensic listening’ is a compassionate act of Unexpected Kindness. Kindness in respect to the person in front of us, not of the behaviour that brought him/her here. I’m here for you - you can choose to talk, you are in charge, you own your story - we have time - I will listen. Kindness is an essential part of Non-Violent Resistance. Nelson Mandela refers to the South-African Ubuntu tradition (Nussbaum, 2003). In essence, Ubuntu is a Nguni word for interconnectedness, for our common humanity, and the responsibility to each other that comes from our connection. In his opening speech on 26 May 2007 to launch The Elders, Nelson Mandela expresses his belief that “whatever techniques they use, in the end it is kindness and generous accommodation that are the catalysts for real change” (The Elders speech). In this way, unexpected kindness can be a powerful tool (Vanhoeck, 2019).
This observation is timely. Just this week, the New York Times published a suite of articles highlighting how “mental health” issues can be about far more than personal pathology. Earlier this month, The Guardian ran an article titled, “I’m a psychologist – and I believe we’ve been told devastating lies about mental health.” Its primary message is that, “Society’s understanding of mental health issues locates the problem inside the person – and ignores the politics of their distress.” The article provides interesting observations, such as:
If a plant were wilting we wouldn’t diagnose it with “wilting-plant-syndrome” – we would change its conditions. Yet when humans are suffering under unlivable conditions, we’re told something is wrong with us, and expected to keep pushing through. To keep working and producing, without acknowledging our hurt.
My quibble with the language above is that while we can always talk about the politics of distress, it can easily distract us from understanding and empathizing with the context in which this distress exists. Whatever the political dimensions, these times (economic uncertainties, climate emergency, war, the pandemic and other infectious illnesses) are stressing just about everyone out. Importantly, this includes our clients. As we go down our list of proximal indicators of impending risk – escalation of negative mood, disappearance of social supports, emotional collapse, etc. – it seems that we really do live in times when even more external factors are influencing risk.
Privately, I have wondered if the media attention to our collective “mental health” in the current times hasn’t come into existence because the problems long faced by marginalized people (those of color and with minimal power and privilege) have now entered the mainstream of society. Whatever the case, we may have an opportunity to better empathize with our clients, especially those in the community. It is certainly true that many are in difficult circumstances secondary to their own actions. On the other hand, it can be easy to overlook the nearly insurmountable challenges they can face.
Whatever the case, Mr. Vanhoeck’s article, along with the recent attention to mental health by the media, remind us that sometimes the best risk management, as well as the best therapy, can be as simple as a relationship marked by long, slow, deep listening and understanding.