Consenting adults

By listening, you can return consent to a relationship.  Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

We often think we are allowing those around us their freedom. Often, maybe, we are not.

I remember being at a therapeutic group where the leader went round in a circle asking for contributions. The idea of the group was, well, therapeutic. The point of the proceedings was that everyone got to say what they wanted to, to express themselves.

Except that this isn’t what happened. Everyone got about one minute of talking time. Then the leader took over. With great confidence, in each case, they contextualised everything that the person had said within a more general context of current, politically correct psychology.

I was left with a feeling that I had just witnessed an example of what not to do in a therapy session. Don’t talk over the client. Don’t grab the client’s experience and contextualise it into your world, as though their world has no right to exist.


I catch myself doing this all the time, even though I would like to think that I don’t.

All the time, I find myself listening to others, and then jumping into my own mind with my own opinions, thoughts, questions, issues, comments, contextualisations. What started out as their offering of a piece of themselves, becomes me effectively consuming them for my own benefit. I really have to watch myself, try to guard against what seems like an inherent tendency in human behaviour.

Observing conversations, we can notice that, ever so frequently, they are made up of two people competing to assert their world view upon the situation.


In my battles with this tendency, I have developed a few techniques which seem to help a bit.

One is to extend the period of time in which I am truly listening.  Often, at the beginning of what someone says, we are listening quite intently, gathering information from how they are speaking, from their tone, from their manner, from their early words.  It is how our minds get into the general context of a communication; we use a lot of intuition, and a lot of open-mindedness at this point.

I try to extend the period of time in which this is happening.  I have a few reminders I give myself.  For a start, I often choose a listening posture, very similar to my meditation posture. Because I am already habituated to sitting like that, listening, for hours, in meditation, it is easier to take that attitude with other people if I use the same posture.  Secondly, I try to listen with my body as well as my mind.  This sounds quite wishy-washy, but we do it all the time when we hug someone, or when we quickly assess what mood they’re in.  Our natures are built to assess other people’s mind states, and so we can often detect someone’s general state, alongside their words, if we are open and receptive enough.

These are only two techniques, but there are lots more.  For instance, they include sometimes sitting on my hands (which stops me pontificating with gestures), asking questions (which stops me opining), remaining silent (which leaves more space for the speaker), using receptive facial cues (which stops me using judgemental body cues), and so on.


Why am I thinking about consent?  Because I am thinking about all the people who are looking for someone to listen to them, but receive advice, judgement, refusal, argument, pejorative phrasing, selfish replies, controlling behaviour.

It’s very subtle.  During mental illness, individuals are extremely sensitive to all of the above, partly because they have suffered so much of it in the past.  It is very easy for a counselling client to be discouraged from sharing.


Why do we talk over others?

Many reasons, but one perhaps stands out for me, right now.  It is the fear that we might actually hear something quite deep and challenging from the other person’s mouth.  It might be that we are afraid that their words will:

  • take us to difficult emotional territory
  • challenge our long-held beliefs
  • require us to extend our empathy outside our traditional comfort zone
  • require us to open up something in ourselves that would need effort and vulnerability to open
A NOTE ABOUT SELF-CAREOf course, anyone listening to others, even for a job, needs to make sure that they are not pushed beyond their ability to cope.  Self-care is a given for any caring activity, and sometimes that involves closing doors as well as opening them.

But there are ways and ways.  I have seen some counsellors simply avoid subjects for fear of approaching them.  I have seen other counsellors share, more openly, with clients that a personal sensitivity means that they are hesitant to go to a particular place.  Context is everything, but in general, perhaps counsellors and listeners could be a little more self-aware, and share that self-awareness with clients, instead of manipulating them with avoidance or unexplained ‘rules’.

Self-care can be done fairly openly sometimes, and it reminds clients that we are all on the same planet, with no one lording it over anyone else.


Just for today, maybe double your listening time and halve your speaking time.  Probably, those around you have heard all your opinions before.  Probably your opinions are just made up because of the situations that you have encountered.

Just for today, maybe, enrich your own mind with the experiences, words, opinions, loves and likes of others.  Watch the immense variety of human perspective and experience that is possible.  You are not condoning any of it – that’s not your business – but you are allowing it a consensual relationship with you.   You are allowing other people to affect you, and speak to you, uninterrupted and uninhibited.



Humans have a tendency not to listen unprejudicially, but to contextualise others into their own private world.

Conversations become competitions between world views.

Listening more intently, and for longer, returns consent to relationships.

We are afraid of doing it, because we might not like what we hear – it might take us to a new or difficult place.

Especially in caring professions, let others speak uninterrupted and uninhibited.  They may need the space to do so.  Not doing so may be imposing your control at the expense of their consent.