Good Listening

By Fonya Lord Helm, Ph.D., ABPP

Clouds over Gore RangeWhat did Professor Elyn Saks, a professor of law, psychology, and psychiatry at the University of Southern California Law School, find helpful when she consulted Dr. Anthony Storr?  He was alert and listening intently.

After graduating from Vanderbilt as valedictorian of her class, she traveled to England to study at Oxford. A brilliant and attractive young woman, she had been struggling since high school with occasional hallucinations, bizarre ideas that she knew were nonsensical most of the time, and severe anxiety. Her symptoms got worse at Oxford, and she was treated for schizophrenia. As she was emerging from her second hospitalization and beginning to plan for the future, she consulted a new doctor.   She writes:

“Initially, Dr. Storr and I went through the usual question-and-answer session, but there was something a bit different about the conversation and, indeed, about the doctor himself—he seemed more alert than I was used to, and genuinely interested in hearing everything that was on my mind. I had a palpable sense of actually being heard, but not judged. And so, instead of keeping my darkest thoughts to myself, as I’d done with Dr. Hamilton, I told Dr. Storr everything, and edited nothing in the telling. His eyes didn’t widen in surprise or horror; he didn’t tsk-tsk, he didn’t shake his head in dismay. He simply leaned forward, kept eye contact with me, and listened intently, without flinching, to every word.” (Saks, 2007, p. 86.)

Dr. Storr was fully present, engaged, accepting, and empathic. He was able to make her feel comfortable enough to tell him about her inner life and her situation. Much of this information was communicated either unconsciously or at the outside edge of her conscious awareness.   Eighty to ninety per cent of what we communicate in all relationships takes place this way. Dr. Storr recommended psychoanalysis, and I will say more about Elyn’s analysis later. For now, I wanted to let you know about the quality of Dr. Storr’s listening that set him apart from the other therapists she had consulted.

Dr. Saks’s excellent book The Center Cannot Hold is available on

Dr. Storr also has a number of books available on Amazon, including books on Jung, solitude, Churchill’s black dog and Kafka’s mice, and psychotherapy.