The Most Effective Psychotherapists Are Those Who Really Listen

By Stephanie Kirby|Updated August 2, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Dawn Brown, LPC

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Going to see a therapist for a mental or emotional health issue can be intimidating. Accepting that you need help can already be a challenge but spilling your guts to a therapist who doesn’t really listen only makes things worse. The most effective psychotherapists are the ones who actively engage patients and pay close attention to the details.

What Is a Psychotherapist?

A psychotherapist is a mental health professional who uses a variety of therapeutic approaches to help people define issues and cope with symptoms. They often prefer talk therapy as a means to uncover underlying mental illnesses and emotional or behavioral disorders. 

Psychotherapists can provide a range of services depending on their license. For example, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and counselors are all considered to be psychotherapists. However, they can’t all do the same things. Social workers, psychologists, and counselors usually can’t prescribe medication. But most psychiatrists can.

Pharmaceuticals aren’t always a part of a patient’s psychotherapeutic plan, though. Many times, a customized, holistic approach is necessary to foster the most growth. So, psychotherapies work best when they’re tailored to the patient based on a comprehensive analysis of their personal and family histories.

How Does Psychotherapy Work?

Psychotherapy is supposed to be a collaborative treatment for mental illness. But it focuses primarily on the relationship between an individual and the therapist. Thus, therapies are generally rooted on open conversations, streams of consciousness, and neutral exchanges.

Psychotherapies aren’t a cure-all for mental illness, but they can produce significant positive change. Psychotherapists use evidence-based methodologies to help people develop healthier coping skills, learn more meaningful social cues, and even mend broken bonds.

Therapists also use a wide variety of tailored approaches to pinpoint the origins of trauma. Those approaches often fall into one of five broad categories, according to the American Psychological Association:  

  • Psychoanalysis/Psychodynamic Therapy
  • Behavioral Therapy
  • Cognitive Therapy
  • Humanistic Therapy
  • Integrative Therapy

Psychoanalysis aims to uncover the hidden meanings behind destructive impulses, emotions, and thought patterns. Meanwhile, behavioral therapy is often used to help patients understand how their life experiences form their personalities. Tactics such as classical conditioning and desensitizing are frequently preferred for maximum efficacy.

Behavior therapy is commonly combined with cognitive therapy to create cognitive-behavior therapy, or CBT. CBT focuses on both the thoughts and habits which compel unhealthy choices. The theory is that by changing the way a person thinks, you thereby change the way they behave. And there is now much evidence to support this.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) calls cognitive-behavior therapy the gold standard of modern psychotherapy. Meanwhile, humanistic and integrative (or holistic) approaches are both still valid. Humanistic psychotherapy involves determining a person’s maximum capacity for change. And holistic therapies are defined as a blend of different approaches according to a person’s needs. So, in essence, all psychotherapies are holistic, especially if a therapist actively listens.

What Does It Mean to Actively Listen?

Active listening means paying close attention. It is a skill that most licensed psychotherapists have mastered. This method of interacting with others is based on verbal and nonverbal communication. The technique is so effective, in fact, that it’s often used to settle disputes, resolve emotional conflicts, and reveal hidden knowledge about many complex topics.

There are at least four different ways to tell if someone is actively listening to what you say. Simply being able to repeat words or phrases isn’t always enough. So, whether that person is a loved one or a paid mental health professional, you can still use this list to uncover the truth:

  1. Accurate Paraphrasing - The other person should be able to summarize what you just said.
  2. Displaying Concern - They aught to be interested in the details if they’re actively engaged.
  3. Non-Verbal Reassurance - They’ll often nod, make eye contact, or lead forward while you talk.
  4. Verbal Reassurance - They might say encouraging words like “I understand” and “thank you.”

Becoming an active listener takes practice. It requires patience, compassion, and open mindedness as well. So, try not to rely solely on friends and family who have challenges too. Instead, speak to a licensed psychotherapist who really listens as you describe things in your own words.   

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5 Reasons Why Attentive Therapists Are Essential

Attentive psychotherapists will most likely offer feedback, ask for clarification, and approach the conversation in a neutral manner. For many people, those three elements are crucial to coping, growth, and healing. But here are five more reasons why active listening is so essential to effective communication in psychotherapy:

#1. Sessions Become Tailored to Your Unique Perspective

Therapists who actively engage their patients usually enjoy a much deeper understanding of the root issue(s). Through this enhanced understanding, better therapeutic methodologies can be discovered and implemented. Then, each session can be customized to the patient for maximum efficacy and compassion.  

#2. Unseen Issues Can Become Easier to Identify

Some people may have unrealized mental health conditions which affect them in mysterious ways. Moreover, those conditions can overlap to create behavior patterns and emotions that are challenging to diagnose. But therapeutic active listen can help reveal hidden issues and determine the best treatments.

#3. You Can Skip the Guilt Trips and Lectures

Psychotherapists aren’t in the business of lecturing you about your choices, even if those choices lead to negative consequences. Instead, their attention to detail can help you make healthier decisions for yourself and weigh the options before deciding. There’s no side dish of guilt or shame, and you just talk if that makes you feel better.

#4. It’s Easier to Find Solutions That Actually Work

The most advantageous treatment becomes clearer as therapy sessions continue. Plus, psychotherapeutic approaches can be adjusted or combined with other therapies to create the most momentum. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to mental illness, and active listening may help to prove that.

#5. Everything You Share Is Confidential

Therapists know that it’s easier to open up when you’re sure the conversation is private. Unlike talking to friends and family, psychotherapists keep conversations confidential. That means patients can be honest about their thoughts and emotions without fear of judgment or contempt.

Active listening is sometimes called the art of compassionate communication. It’s a key component to practicing empathy for others while building confidence for yourself. Thus, experiencing the comfort of an actively engaged therapist can make a significant impact on a person’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

How to Find a Psychotherapist Who Really Listens

All psychotherapists are trained to listen to a patient speak, but not all therapists are active listeners. Finding a counselor you can trust and feel comfortable with may be challenging. So, start with BetterHelp to get connected to a mental health expert who understands the importance of compassionate communication.

BetterHelp review #232357

Date of review: October 3, 2021

Review written by BetterHelp user R.Y. after working with Kandice Cowherd for 2 months on issues concerning depression, stress, anxiety, relationship issues, intimacy-related issues, eating disorders, self-esteem, anger management, career difficulties, coping with life changes, and ADHD

“Kandice wonderfully balances making me feel heard and listened to while also providing new ideas and resources to work on improving or helping the wide variety of struggles I come to the session with. Just a couple months in, and I am feeling so good with all the progress I've made. I have full confidence that Kandice would support me and help me with anything I came to the session with. Kandice always responds quickly, check ins with me throughout the week, and overall has made this experience much easier.”

BetterHelp Review For Kandice Cowherd, LCSW

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