After 40 years of clinical work, I seem to be pretty good at picking up nuances in the things clients say to therapists on the DVDs I watch with supervisees. Sure, this has much to do with practice. When I first learned the advantage of summarizing a client’s story or a therapy incident in a one-line synopsis, massaged to emphasize the connection to the therapy’s focus, I realized that I needed practice. So after every TV episode, commercial, or movie I watched, after every news story, novel, or chapter I read, after every story told to me by a friend or family member, I stated my synopsis out loud (silent rehearsal produces retrospective revision–cheating). After thousands of muddled attempts, I got to the point where I could confidently summarize what I had heard or read or seen. After thousands of further attempts, I got to the where I could spin the synopsis to make a point. So no doubt practice helps. I even found that the commitment to synopsizing forced me to pay closer attention.
But none of those TV commercials, news stories, or friends’ work updates were about me. I had developed with patients the technical skill of reflective listening but not the clinical skill of “getting” it. It turns out that I already had skills for nuanced listening with my life partner. My wife pointed out to me yesterday that when we talk to each other, we immediately sense any breach in the communicative field; we understand what the other person is up to in telling a story (usually collaborative generativity around work and ideas, private jokes, problem-solving, narcissistic soothing, or entertainment). We can tell when the other person is promoting a different version of themselves, and whether this performance is defensive or experimenting with a new way of being. We can tease each other about our foibles partly because there’s an envelope of affection that the content comes in, but also because we can count on the other person to detect that the teasing is affectionate. We both have extremely sensitive antennae for picking up cues that a story contains a hidden complaint, and we are both quick to wonder if we have done something wrong to occasion it.