Editorial: The Art of Listening

Author: Dr Janet E. Penny

Publish date: August 1, 2022
Reading Time: 5 minutes


The month of July, in which I am writing this editorial, is, for me, a kind of liminal space in which one academic year is coming to an end while the focus begins to shift towards preparing for the next in the autumn. Practicalities inevitably shape this complex, dual season of ending and beginning, but, in quieter moments, reflections on what the passing year has meant for me come to mind. I am always surprised by how teaching similar content from year to year can be experienced so differently by each cohort as they engage with the learning. The teaching experience is profoundly intersubjective; something is uniquely co-created between the students and me as we both navigate the course material, academically and personally. And that enriches my own development as a tutor and academic.

An intersubjective view within psychotherapy (e.g. Burski & Haglund, 2020) challenges the modernist conception of the therapist as an objective observer in which unconscious material is uncovered as if on ‘an archaeological dig’ (Wachtel, 2014: 344). In this modernist view, the retrieved treasure is relatively unaffected by the context of the archaeologist and their methods of discovery. In contrast, an intersubjective perspective sees the therapy process and relationship as ‘mutual, reciprocal and collaborative’ (ibid:344); the relationship is co-created, with each person viewed as ‘influencing and influence-able’ (Orbach, 2014: 13). It is dynamic, and challenging, and requires openness from each person to reflect on what they are bringing to the relational field.

It also involves therapeutic listening that is prepared to roll up its sleeves, get stuck in and help. It coheres somewhat with Ursula Le Guinn’s comment in her essay ‘Telling is Listening’, that ‘Listening is not a reaction. It is a connection. Listening to a conversation or a story, we don’t so much as respond as join in – become part of the action’. (2004: 196). Of course, that joining in within a therapy context is nuanced, therapeutic and restrained, but the point remains that even by simply listening, we are shaping and being shaped by the dialogue. There is no place of objectivity or neutrality; we are always joining in the story and becoming ‘part of the action’. We cannot help but be changed by (and change) the stories we hear, whatever the relational context.

In this issue of the journal, it seems to me that the articles touch on these issues of co-created relationships and what it means to listen in diverse ways. Hayley Barnett’s research using interpretative phenomenological analysis (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009) helpfully explores Christian counsellors’ experiences of hearing from God in the clinical context. It acknowledges how spirituality can contribute to the co-creation of the therapeutic relationship. Barnett also highlights how participants’ relationship with God impacts their ways of being with the client, raising numerous interesting relational and ethical questions. In the church context, David Wise’s reflections on embodiment and worship from a spiritual formation perspective trace the transition towards having a congregation comprising of people from more than 40 different nationalities. His thoughtful piece touches on a number of profound issues, not least what it means to be human, but illustrates how being open to listen to the different language of dance has transformative potential.

Heather Churchill’s article on the development of the BA Counselling course at Waverley Abbey College and the Waverley integrative framework (WIF; Hughes, 2002; Ashley, 2013) outlines several different conversations that are co-created, in particular, her own engagement with the WIF and her argument for a dialogical approach to the integration of psychotherapy/counselling and faith/spirituality. Historically, the relationship between psychotherapy and faith/religion has not been warm (Bienenfeld & Yager, 2007), but there has been something of shift in the last few decades as the two disciplines have continued to dialogue and reflect on approaches to the integration of the two fields (Nielson and Dowd, 2006). Churchill’s doctoral research, described in her article, has whole-heartedly listened to the integrative conversation, and joined the action, outlining the creation of the BA in Counselling and further developments in the Waverley integrative framework.

Andy Hardy’s article also joins the conversation about the WIF with his interesting invitation for a dialogue between the framework and ‘ordinary theology’ (Astley, 2002: 56). This theological approach privileges the lived theology of everyday believers (ibid). He argues for the WIF to be theologically enhanced, potentially making it more applicable in a wider range of spiritual contexts beyond counselling. It will be interesting to see how these conversations continue to develop.

Finally, Phil Shepherd’s beautifully written introduction to mindfulness for therapists calls attention to the ways in which mindfulness can engender presence and deep listening. It includes an insightful reminder that being present, and listening are to be embodied – lived – rather than merely talked about. It has echoes of Aveline’s oft-quoted point that, ‘What therapists can bear to hear in themselves, they can hear in their patients’ (1990: 333). Listening is foundational to serving others and changes not only those we help but, indeed, ourselves.


Ashley, O. (2013) A Theological and Practical Evaluation of CWR’s Waverley Christian Counselling Model. (Kindle edition). Farnham: CWR.

Astley, J. (2002) Ordinary Theology: Looking, Listening and Learning in Theology. Farnham: Ashgate.

Aveline, M. (1990) ‘The training and supervision of individual therapists’. In: W. Dryden (ed.), Individual Therapy: A Handbook. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Bienenfeld, D. & Yager, J. (2007) Issues of spirituality and religion in psychotherapy supervision. Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences. 44 (3), 178-186.

Burski, & Haglund (2020) Making Sense Together. (2nd ed.) London: Rowman and Littlefield.

Hughes, S. (2002) Christ Empowered Living. (Originally published 2001 by Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, UK edition published 2002), Farnham: CWR.

Le Guinn, U. (2004) ‘Telling is Listening’. In: U. Le Guinn, The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader and the Imagination. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Nielson, S. L. & Dowd, E. T. (2006) Religion for psychotherapists: The psychologies in religion versus the psychology of religion. In E. T. Dowd & S. L. Nielson (Eds.), The Psychologies in Religion. pp. 1-18, New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Orbach, S. (2014) ‘Democratizing psychoanalysis’. In: D. Loewenthal, A. Samuels, (eds), Relational Psychotherapy, Psychoanalysis and Counselling. London: Routledge.

Smith, J.A., Flowers, P. & Larkin, M. (2009) Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Wachtel, P. (2014) ‘An integrative relational point of view’. Psychotherapy. 51(3), pp. 342-349.

Copyright 2022 Dr Janet E. Penny

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