The Telephonic Therapist

I told her my approach is to listen to the rhythms of speech, the cadences, and to commit these to memory.

By Robert Israel

She called at the appointed time after registered for the counseling fee through the online service. Twenty minutes into the hour-long session, she said she was astonished by my feedback.

"You figured me out," she said. "No one's done that before. I mean, you have me pegged."

"This isn't about pegging you," I said. "I'm supposed to pay attention."

"But you figured me out quickly."

I told her I am not a sideshow clairvoyant but a professional who is paid to be a keen listener who pays attention to what's being said, and, equally as importantly, what's being left out.

There was a time during my training, I told her, when I was assigned to listen to male batterers who were mandated by the court to undergo group therapy. I was prohibited from taking notes, so as not to inhibit or intrude on the men who were sharing their stories.

Afterward, the facilitator asked me what I learned. I carefully recounted insights gleaned by listening to each man carefully. The facilitator praised me for my attentiveness.

"So how did you do it?" she asked me.

I told her my approach is to listen to the rhythms of speech, the cadences, and to commit these to memory.

"It's like listening to a song in your head after you've heard it on the radio," I explained. "You can hum it at first and, if you hear it enough, you can sing along with it."

"Were you doing that with me?" she wanted to know.

"Yes, of course, but I was also making written notes about what you were saying, words you repeated over and over, and I jotted these notes down."

"But that doesn't explain how you figured out I've been self-abusive," she said. "How did you arrive at that?"

"I arrived at it not because of what you said but what you were leaving out," I said. "The tight sound of your voice, for instance, the way you held back on your words, I could hear you pidgeting, too, and something tipped me off."

"What tipped you off?"

"You said it was a 'feeling that you had no one else could ever understand,' is how you put it. You said this feeling had been with you for year and you mentioned being ashamed of it."

"Yes," she said. "I said that."

"And then I surmised you had been punishing yourself somehow. And I also surmised that you were going to make a difference this time while during other times you said you had failed."

"I don't recall that," she said.

"Well, you were starting to listen to yourself while you were talking to me," I said, "And I took it in, I heard what you said, I repeated it back to you, and you heard the melody, like the song I was describing earlier, only it was your melody, it was your song, and you were discovering how to listen to this part of your own speech."

She was quiet for a moment. Our session drew to a close. And then she thanked me, and the line went dead.


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