Background story

In my role as trainer I have a rule of always demonstrating some aspect in an improvised role play in front of the whole class. Usually after the students have had a go in smaller groups, so that I can concentrate on a specific aspect they find tricky. I ask a student to improvise, throw me some curved balls if the situation arises and try to really live in the role they are playing. Sometimes students aren’t role playing – they bring in something which is a real and current issue for them. I have the knack to generally pick up on this straight away.

One afternoon after a full day of training I had one of these demonstrations, in which I soon picked up the issue my student was dealing with. After a few minutes, probably not more than five, the tears started rolling over her face. She felt so relieved, as for the first time she felt that someone had heard her, had understood what she was going through and didn’t judge her. Where therapists in her past hadn’t been able to give her that feeling in many sessions, I managed in a few minutes.

Notwithstanding the compliment, it did push me into thinking. What is it that I do in such a situation, which clearly other people seem not to be doing? What makes that when I observe students in a role play that I see things they do not? What makes that my clients feel heard? I certainly am not clairvoyant or omniscient, so there must be some trainable skills … The only satisfactory answer I could come up with, is that I am constantly observing and picking up on the emotions my conversational partners are experiencing. I am not so much interested in what they tell me about their emotions, I am picking up what they are feeling right now.

And that answer has lead me to finding ways to develop teachable skills, so that my students can implement them. Dubbed as observational listening, the result thus far is this book.