COR Course Review: Eight Gates to Listening: Exploring A Psychotherapist’s Attention, Instructor Jeffrey J. Eaton, MA, FIPA

In this seminar, Jeff Eaton explored a variety of listening tasks within the psychotherapy process. He built on the work of Melanie Klein, Donald Meltzer and Wilfred Bion, among others, to develop different listening perspectives, which he calls “gates”, to help the clinician explore the patient’s “picture of the world,” and how this internal world picture affects the way a person experiences and navigates their emotional life and external reality. The goal of Eaton’s listening model is to help clinicians organize, focus, and make use of their attention as part of the listening process.

In the first few sessions, Eaton laid out what he feels needs to be attended to by the therapist in the psychotherapeutic encounter, what he calls “an improbable conversation.” This is the process of gathering the data of a session and getting to know the individual. He offers thoughts on “the fate of pain” and the emotional suffering of the person as key to understanding their experience and to help them make meaning of their experience by connecting with their own internal world and opening a space that can foster the possibility of emotional growth and development. He suggests the therapist listen at the level of the interpersonal, intra-psychic, and within in the transference to create the conditions for a “container-contained” experience to develop. It is within this experience of container-contained that an individual can move from emotional distress to emotional comfort as they no longer feel alone with their suffering.

As the seminar progressed, the sessions moved to exploring the shifting states of mind patients present with and detailed important factors to listen for and observe that may help the clinician determine a patient’s “country of the mind,” or in Kleinian terms, what position (i.e. Paranoid-Schizoid, Depressive, etc.) the patient is speaking from. Eaton discussed specific ways to listen as the patient expresses themselves through words, tone, rhythm etc., that point to the country of the mind the patient is experiencing in the session. This way of listening can help the clinician think about how, and at what level, they want to make an intervention. He also addressed countertransference issues that these different countries of the mind can bring forth for the therapist. He does this, in part, by “listening to himself listen to the patient” and paying attention to what emotions this stirs up within him.

A seminar that I found particularly complex, important, and clinically thought-provoking was Eaton’s discussion of the patient’s “floor of emotional experience.” This level of the psyche is pre-object relating and develops at, or even before, birth. Eaton articulates the many different domains (e.g. biological, cultural, interpersonal) that go into establishing the stability of the child’s internal world at this level, and what may occur when there are impingements or deprivations on psychic development. Psychic disruption at the level of the patient’s floor of emotional experience is similar to what Bion writes about as a patient’s “background of catastrophe,” Balint’s “basic fault,” or Winnicott’s “primitive agony.” It is this foundational floor that establishes what occurs later with preobject relating and beyond.

Throughout the seminar, Eaton brought in clinical examples drawn from his work with seriously disturbed children and adults which help to illustrate the application of his ideas to the therapeutic encounter and bring theory to life. The format of the seminar gave ample time for questions after sections of each lecture for participants to get clarification which allowed the content of the presentation to be digested in manageable increments.

“Eight Gates to Listening” is a clinically relevant and practically useful seminar for clinicians interested in deepening their capacity to listen for the complicated and nuanced factors occurring in the therapy process. Eaton’s rich synthesis of complex ideas drawn from Object Relations theory, combined with years of work with psychotic children and adults, yields a model of listening that helps to cultivate one’s ability to pay attention to the emotional pain and suffering of another. This seminar is useful for therapists with different levels of experience, but especially for early career psychotherapists and psychoanalysts.

Carol H. Hekman, Ph.D., FABP, Faculty and Training and Supervising Analyst, New Center for Psychoanalysis, Los Angeles. Private practice, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, Pasadena, California.
Categories: Articles, Responses, and ReviewsPublished On: June 14th, 2021Tags: