The psychoanalyst’s first task is to listen and to listen carefully. Although this has been emphasized by many authors, there are surprisingly few good listeners in the psychotherapeutic world. Why is that? …When someone tells us a story, we think of similar stories (or more extreme stories) we ourselves could tell in turn. We start thinking about things that have happened to us that allow us to “relate to” the other person’s experience, to “know” what it must have been like, or at least to imagine how we ourselves would have felt had we been in the other person’s shoes.
In other words, our usual way of listening is centered to a great degree on ourselves — our own similar life experiences, our own similar feelings, our own perspectives. When we can locate experiences, feelings, and perspectives of our own that resemble the other person’s, we believe that we “relate to” that person. We say things like “I know what you mean,” Yeah,” “I hear you,” “I feel for you,” or “I feel your pain” (perhaps less often “I feel your joy”). As such moments, we feel sympathy, empathy, or pity for this other who seems like us; “That must have been painful (or wonderful) for you,” we say, imagining the pain (or joy) we ourselves would have experienced in such a situation.
When we are unable to locate experiences, feelings, or perspectives that resemble the other person’s, we have the sense that we do not understand that person — indeed, we may find the person strange, if not obtuse or irrational. When someone does not operate in the same way that we do or does not react to situations as we do, we are often baffled, incredulous, or even dumbfounded. We are inclined, in the latter situation, to try to correct the other’s perspectives, to persuade him to see things the way we see them and to feel what we ourselves would feel were we in such a predicament. In more extreme cases, we simply become judgmental. How could anyone, we ask ourselves, believe such a thing or act or feel that way?
Most simply stated, our usual way of listening overlooks or rejects the otherness of the other. We rarely listen to what makes a story as told by another person unique, specific to that person alone; we quickly assimilate it to other stories that we have heard others tell about themselves, or that we could tell about ourselves, overlooking the differences between the story being told and the ones with which we are already familiar. We rush to gloss over the differences and make the stories similar if not identical. In our haste to identify with the other, to have something in common with him, we forcibly equate stories that are often incommensurate, reducing what we are hearing to what we already know. What we find most difficult to hear is what is utterly new and different: thoughts, experiences, and emotions that are quite foreign to our own and even to any we have thus far learned about.
It is often believed that we human beings share many of the same feelings and reactions to the world, which is what allows us to more or less understand each other and constitutes the foundation of our shared humanity… I would propose that the more closely we consider any two people’s thoughts and feelings in a particular situation, the more we are forced to realize that there are greater differences than similarities between them — we are far more different than we tend to think!…
In effect, we can understand precious little of someone’s experience by relating it or assimilating it to our own experience. We may be inclined to think that we can overcome this problem by acquiring much more extensive experience of life… We ourselves may fall into the trap of thinking that we simply need to broaden our horizons, travel far and wide, and learn about other peoples, languages, religions, classes, and cultures in order to better understand a wider variety of analysands. However, if acquiring a fuller knowledge of the world is in fact helpful, it is probably not so much because we have come to understand “how the other half lives” or how other people truly operate, but because we have stopped comparing everyone with ourselves to the same degree…
If our attempts to “understand” ineluctably lead us to reduce what another person is saying to what we think we already know (indeed, that could serve as a pretty fair definition of understanding in general), one of the first steps we must take is to stop trying to understand so quickly.
– Bruce Fink, Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique: A Lacanian Approach for Practitioners (2007), pages 1-4