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Hearing is More than Words

Cinema is an immersive experience. The vividness and clarity of the images on the big screen overwhelm our other senses, which means we sometimes overlook the importance of the sound scape. Last week saw a film that privileges unspoken sound over words nominated for five academy awards and the BAFTA Award for Best Sound, acknowledging the importance of what we hear as well as what we see in a movie and all the behind the scenes work of sound designers, editors, engineers and mixers. Though therapeutic work is often referred to as “talk therapy” many sounds are present in a therapy session that are not words but are an integral part of the process.

More than Words

In any conversation, and particularly those with couples and families, sounds are so much more than the words we hear. People laugh and cry, snort with derision, sigh, mutter under their breath and exchange comments that only the person next to them can hear. While we are focused on the ‘official’ conversation, the one we are supposed to hear, it is easy to miss these communications which may tell us a richer story. These exchanges may also be more reflective of each person’s view, particularly those who are reluctant to speak directly and may answer our questions with ‘I don’t know’.

How are These Sounds Useful?

Being alert to these sounds provides the practitioner with a richer source of information than words provide. They reveal patterns of coalition and alliance, fractures and disagreements that may be hidden in the more polite exchanges. They can also act as punctuations which provide the opportunity to explore a different direction. We may do this directly by noticing an utterance and enquiring further about its meaning or more indirectly. The latter is more helpful when these sounds were not intended to be heard by family members or the practitioner. In this case it is wise to notice and then factor this into the hunch that is being explored. For example, you may hear an adolescent mutter ‘Yeah, right’ as parents describe their relationship as close and harmonious. Rather than address this in the moment it can become a cue to further explore the couple relationship with the possibility that it is not as peaceful as presented.

Making use of Sounds

A practitioner can feel very ‘stuck’ when even the best questions appear to reveal little of value, especially of an affective kind. At these times acknowledging other auditory information can be helpful. Noticing a person crying and asking what it is that has most upset them can yield valuable information, while other family members can also be asked what they believe has most distressed them. The same approach can be taken with any sound; a sigh, a laugh, a comment under the breath provided it is done respectfully and with awareness of the family context.

In Conclusion

Like a film track that builds suspense, amplifies tranquility, or makes us jump in fright, sounds enrich our understanding. Sometimes it is the juxtaposition of what we see as opposed to what we hear that reveals a truth.  Sometimes we ‘know’ that the story that is presented to us doesn’t make sense and it is the other sounds that warn us to look for a different picture.

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