Touch, You & Your Family

What type of listener are you?

Senior couple chatting, sitting on sofa at home. Living lifestyle of Asian family.
The irate husband looked in disbelief at his wife and said with a hint of frustration: “We had to come for counselling to say this?” He was responding to what he just heard from his wife, wondering why she could not have told it to him earlier in private. After all, their relationship was in reasonable health at that time and they regarded each other as their best friend.

His bewilderment is echoed by a few couples I have seen, and has left me musing over why this is so.

With this couple, the wife replied that she had only just realised what she had been grappling with. As she was able to talk freely and without fear in a controlled setting, the issues that were bothering her began to reveal themselves.

Being in the role of a Marital and Family Counsellor, I get a lot of opportunities to listen – an activity that might appear passive, but is actually a demanding role that requires concentration, restraint, and at strategic points, a piercing question or two.

Often I get an up-close-and-personal vantage point to some of the most intimate disagreements my clients would raise. One involved a couple arguing over the state of their sexual intimacy. The husband complained about how his wife was unresponsive and that she would lie there passively and would even look away, making herself as distant as possible from him. The truth of the matter was that she was unhappy with him over a number of issues and was thus ‘seldom in the mood’. However, to fulfil her wifely duties, she submitted herself to meeting his sexual needs. It is in times like these that I feel awkward. I sometimes question why I am party to such personal conversations. It is almost like being in their very bedroom. I also wonder how to respond to all that is being said.

I must add that in the lead up to this very personal conversation, each partner had said individually that this was an area they were unhappy with but did not know how to raise the issue. Thus I functioned as a facilitator of this very needful discourse. All I needed to do was to gently open the door and allow the estranged couple room to speak.

At other times, I felt like I had a ringside seat to a boxing match. The things uttered came fast and furious. Both parties would trade accusations and blame the same way that boxers would trade blows. Tempers often came to a boiling point. Like a referee, I had to ensure that the fight was fair and the rules observed. Yes, there are rules even for fights at home. Unlike a referee, if you keep your wits about you, you may even see points of agreement and find a way to end the fight amicably.

In most situations, if one listened carefully, one would find more points of agreement than disagreement. When the discord was not about fundamentals and common points were highlighted, the couple may begin to see a way forward.

Finally, there have been situations when my clients turn to me in exasperation and despair and say, “Is this the best you can offer?”

It is then that my self-esteem drops to the floor with a clang! For those of us who try to be Helpers, our existence is validated when we are able to help. Just like a doctor who loses a patient despite their best efforts, the feeling is never good.

In such instances, I try to remind myself that we cannot offer a solution nor salvage every situation. I try to console myself that even in the midst of such hopelessness, being able to have a supportive listener somehow lets the client know that he or she is not alone. This type of listening is akin to being by the side of a friend who has suffered the loss of a loved one. Words would fail, yet our presence and solemn silence speak volumes. We are there to witness the pain and loss. We are there so that the grieving find strength and reasons to go on.

None of these ways of listening are the sole domain of the Professional Helper. Each one of us is capable to offer this listening ear. In fact, when family and close friends listen, they offer something more. This is the genuine acceptance, compassion and support of a loved one that is priceless.


Benny Bong
has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award in 2011 and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.


Picture by szefei/