Posted: May 20, 2020 in: Empathy, Pain-2-Power, Personal Empowerment

Developing a Third Ear

The “third ear” is something counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists spend their careers refining, but others can benefit from developing, as well.  It’s the concept, first introduced by the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik, that human beings can train themselves to listen not just to words that are being spoken by others, but to the deeper meaning behind what is being said—or not said.

The underlying theory is that people often convey important messages about what they are thinking and feeling “between the lines” and that by being both a participant and an observer of conversations, you can “hear” those messages.

This is sometimes referred to as “listening to yourself while listening.”

An example might help.  Years ago, I worked with a woman who was struggling with low mood and relationships filled with conflict.  She spent almost all of our first session describing the complex relationship she had with her mother, a woman who had always made it plain that she was ambivalent about having had a family, rather than devoting more of her time to her career.  And I noticed that I had an uneasy feeling that her initial description of her relationship with her mother might expand to fill that hour and the next one, too—not because the time was absolutely needed, but because other subjects were being avoided.  I “listened” to that sense of unease and then thought about what seemed to be missing from the hour.  At a natural break in the conversation, I said, “I notice that you haven’t mentioned your father at all.  Not once.  Can you tell me about him?”

That question proved to be critical, because the woman’s relationship with her father was profoundly chaotic—so chaotic, in fact, that my client had been attempting to avoid talking about it, entirely.

If you can develop your own third ear, you will not only have a profound tool to connect with others more deeply and meaningfully, you will be training yourself to listen to your inner voice—your instincts and intuition.

Here are some questions to ask yourself while listening to others, in order to exercise your developing “third ear”:

  • I know what we are talking about right now, but is there anything we are avoiding talking about?
  • Why do I feel bored (or anxious or angry or a little bit lost) listening to this individual?  Is he trying to make me cut this meeting short by tiring me out?  Am I resonating with his anxiety?  Do I have the sense he withholding the truth from me—or himself?
  • If I do feel confused, what is it that doesn’t “add up” about this discussion?
  • I’ve asked the same question a few times and can’t seem to get a clear answer.  What might this woman’s motivation be for being evasive?

Depending on what your intuition and instincts tell you about the underlying dynamics potentially at work in the background of a discussion, you can issue invitations to help the person open up more.  You can also ask direct, but empathetic questions open doors to get to know the other person far more.

Here are some examples:

I know you were running late, so we only had half our time to meet.  And maybe it was just the train schedule, but I felt myself sort of wondering if there was any topic you were avoiding bringing up—by cutting our time short.  I want you to know you’re free to schedule, again, if something more is on your mind.

I felt myself wanting to give you a pep talk while you were going over the goals of the project.  Are they worrying you?  Do you have what you need to meet them?

You’ve been so quick to tell me that you have everything covered for your appointment with the doctor.  If there were one thing I could have helped with, that surprised you out of the blue, what would it be?

Developing this sort of “third ear” is a natural outgrowth of the Pain-2-Power process because P-2-P is all about not dodging and weaving around the complex pages or chapters of one’s own life story.  And that journey to the center of oneSELF increases one’s skill and hunger to not remain on the surface of any story.



Dr. Keith Ablow


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