Radical Listening: A Key to Therapeutic Success By Andrew Dib, MA on 1/4/23 - 11:07 AM

The space between musical notes is called an interval, I just learned. French composer Claude Debussy described music as “the space between the notes.” Without the space between, it would just be a cacophony of noise. The space allows for the notes to resonate and reverberate and mature into their fullness of expression. It gives room for relativity and reflection and response. This analogy could be applied to many things in life to improve their experience and outcome: dialogue, relationships, life, and psychotherapy.

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Being untrained in the art and technicalities of music, I listen to and appreciate music more intuitively. I hear the Gestalt of the composition or song rather than attempting to discern the nuance of their parts. Knowing this about music, and then extending it analogously to other areas of life, clarifies and shines a light on the “space between” in some illuminating ways.

Competing for Space in Relationships

Sometimes in relationship conflict, when two people are vying for space to be heard, there are times when there is little space for absorption, reflection, and appreciation of the other. Defensiveness and/or attack predominate. Or sometimes one person needs space and the other does not provide it, pursuing relentlessly, forcing the other into either complete retreat and shutdown, or drawing them reluctantly into defensive engagement. It is a simultaneous and continual banging of pots and pans and blasting of horns with no space in between.

In this particularly heated kind of context, creating “space between” facilitates relative quiet and calm. It allows for reflection time. It provides the opportunity to digest the other’s words, and for words of retort to be more considered and chosen. It gives feelings time to catch up. It allows each to be heard and seen. For the uninitiated or unaccustomed, to break through requires the practice of self-reflection and awareness raising. It also requires getting in touch with one’s bodily sensations to change the state of one’s nervous system. The space between — the intervals — needs to be conscientiously placed in between the notes, just as in the writing of a piece of music, like the unfolding of an experimental jazz set.

Sexual Abuse and the Need to be Heard

I was inspired to think about the space between in a relatively new job I am working in. It is in a community legal clinic providing counselling support to adult survivors of sexual abuse. For many of these clients, it is the first time they have spoken about their childhood abuse, particularly in any detail. They trust us, the intake team, counsellors and lawyers, especially considering most of our work is done on the telephone. In most cases, clients and staff never even meet face to face.

Being in this new role and working within a new modality for me (telephone-based counselling), I have been in observer mode, taking in the similarities and differences to my previous counselling roles and clientele. I noticed a tendency in some clients to talk ceaselessly and seemingly uninterruptedly for the full hour, quite easily and without allowing anything much in return from me. I can sometimes barely get a word in edgeways. How dare they! Are they not aware of the wisdom and insight they are missing out on? Did they not come here for my well-honed techniques of reflection and Socratic enquiry? My gifts are going to waste! I am not here to just listen! Besides, I have got a wealth of experiential Gestalt learnings to practice (I am currently a student of this art).

After composing myself, I realized that this was exactly what they needed right now. I had to adjust. They needed to be heard. Needed to be seen. To be believed. Some clients did not have any meaningful contact, let alone any contact at all, with another person in the space between our phone calls. Many have very deeply entrenched fears around trust and relational intimacy. It was their time. I had to adjust. I needed to be the one to provide the space between.

I am there to just listen. And this is a powerful ally for many for where they are right now. I continually receive feedback from clients about how grateful they are and how important it is for them just to be listened to. To be acknowledged. To be given space, just for them. It is sometimes difficult to accept and implement. Nevertheless, my greatest wisdom is to just be minimal. Not always, of course, but to know when and how.

The Power of Space in Group Therapy

I recently participated in an experiential group facilitation workshop. It was taught by an extensively experienced Gestalt and Psychodrama practitioner. It was a profound learning opportunity for me, the standout technique which I observed being “space”. I was like Ludwig van Beethoven, I imagine, witnessing…hmmm, I don’t know…help me out here Google…Herbert von Karajan conducting Bizet’s Carmen? Sure, why not? The space the facilitator provided to the group, to those doing a piece of work, was enlightening to observe. The empty space they allowed for the subject and other participants to sit with their feelings, their uncertainty, the potential void, without jumping in to fill the space or to offer insight or comfort, seemed so natural. But it was not natural. Well, not for me. They seemed to know exactly when to allow another group member to break the silence and when to pause them, when to slow things down. It impacted me deeply. It inspired me to be a better space maker in my work. For, while in this group, I was imagining what I might have said during moments of others work, how I would have broken the silences possibly out of anxiety or impatience or those egotistical impulses that often lurk just beneath the surface. I was moved by the experience, emotionally and practically, for a few reasons. It led group participants into new ways of experiencing ourselves, giving more room for us to feel into the phenomenological moment, and because it once again revealed to me a learning edge of mine, shining a light on another way of being with clients. With people. And with myself.


The space between is a fertile ground. I have noticed that when I do not allow for space in between life activities, my world becomes a cacophony of noise. It is less beautiful. And there is less space to understand myself, my feelings, my impulses, or for insights to emerge. I miss out on flowing with the natural rhythm of life, the hidden laws of being perhaps. Part of my development is to extend this ‘space between’ to more areas of my life — counselling to be specific. To increasingly get myself out of the way, and to tune in better to the needs of the moment, to the needs of my client.   

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections