The Art of Empathic Listening- Bill Miller

Dr. Bill Miller, expert in empathy, listening, and motivational interviewing, hosted a full-day workshop in Oahu this winter.  Six members of the Pacific Quest clinical team were able to attend. His presentation, titled “Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Listening,” focused on the interpersonal skill of accurate empathy, and captivated a sold-out audience at the University of Hawaii-Hilo.  Mental health counselors, substance abuse counselors, nurses, hospice workers, and other island residents all came together for this phenomenal event.   Below are the perspectives of three members of the Pacific Quest clinical team who were in attendance.

Mike McGee, CSAC

As the Adolescent Family Program Manager and Substance Abuse and Addictions Recovery Specialist, and having recently received the internationally recognized credential of Certified Substance Abuse Counselor (CSAC) from the state of Hawaii, I first heard about Dr. Miller’s workshop when I was invited to be part of the board organizing the event.  It was an incredible honor to receive such invitation, and to meet Dr. Miller in person.  I was especially struck by his patience, humbleness, and overwhelming sense of serenity and kindness.  I thought that I understood Motivational Interviewing well before this event, but I really appreciated the primary focus on empathic listening.  It seems well understood that listening is one of the most important components of therapy, yet it is easy to see how we can sometimes get in our client’s way with our agendas and definitions of growth.  I think we can easily focus on the technicalities of a therapeutic approach and miss what actually makes it work- compassion and understanding.

Dr. Elnur Gajiev, Psy.D.
Dr. Miller, a pioneer in his own right, highlighted the work of the late Carl Rogers and spoke to the tremendous therapeutic power of empathic listening and responding in kind. Though Rogers’ work is sometimes thought of as structureless in it’s advocacy of unconditional positive regard, Dr. Miller asserted just the opposite, noting how “Accurate Empathy” is as much a scientific and clinical approach as it is an art, and cited several empirical studies to support this point. He also noted how Empathic Listening is far more than simply a technique to utilize in sessions in order to build rapport or shift towards some predesignated therapeutic aim, but more so a way of being – a practice founded upon the principles of partnership, acceptance, compassion, and evocation – which changes us in seemingly all aspects of our lives as we continue to enact and embody it. To prove this notion, he led us through a number of experiential exercises in which his instructions fine-tuned our use of our empathic faculties (verbal and nonverbal alike) and understandings of one another. There were many moments of laughter, in which we noticed how often we may trip ourselves up through “doing too much” rather than tuning into what is already there; as well as moments of deep understanding and shared insights.

Dr. Miller’s lessons rippled far beyond the domains of Motivational Interviewing to connect to a foundational element within the art and the craft of what we practice on a daily basis. He imparted a greater appreciation for the role of Empathic Listening in our work and in our lives, and we are incredibly grateful for his visit to our wonderful home here in the Pacific Ocean.

Dr. John Souza, Jr., LMFT, DMFT

I first became aware of Dr. Miller when I was approached by one of his close friends and colleagues here on the Big Island of Hawaii, who invited me to form a committee with the goal of offering this workshop. I had no idea who Bill Miller was, nor did I necessarily think that a workshop on listening would be well received; I mean, who doesn’t know how to listen?! After 11-months of committee meetings, reading Dr. Miller’s book (Listening Well), and realizing how much research Dr. Miller had done on the subject of listening and empathy (including his work on Motivational Interviewing) I came to appreciate what this conference was offering: An opportunity to counterbalance the over-emphasis on specific models of clinical practice; to implement our outcomes data that overwhelmingly speaks to the importance of relationships in improving client’s mental health; and to learn that the art of listening well and accurate empathy can be learned if one is willing to first practice the discipline.

As part of the workshop committee, it was difficult to actually participate in the same way as my colleagues. However, seeing so many PQ therapists in the context of a much broader community of local practitioners, I appreciated that what we had done was bridged our PQ world with that of the larger population of providers in Hawai’i. We were all there to learn to improve our relationships. My hope is that this workshop will continue to inspire improved relationships across work environments, professions, and cultures, particularly here on the Big Island.

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