Lisa Mitchell

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Visual Listening: Can you hear your client’s art?

Jun 7, 2017 | 1 comment

Do you know how to listen to your client’s art?

Active and reflective listening are crucial elements to every effective therapeutic conversation.  When we bring art into the therapy session, we must add visual listening to the list of important components that support the therapeutic relationship and encourage our client’s self discovery.

I remember learning active and reflective listening in my pre-counseling class.  It was a bit painstaking and I felt a bit robotic.  We were instructed to pair up and role play.  It went something like this:

Therapist: “What would you like to talk about?”

Client: “I could talk about how awkward I feel in this role play.”

Therapist: “So, what I hear you saying is, you’d like to talk about how awkward you feel in this role play?”

Client: “Yes that’s what I said.”

Therapist: “Can you tell me more?”

Client: “That’s the problem, I feel awkward because I really don’t know what to say.”

Therapist: “So you feel awkward and don’t know what to say.  That must be difficult.”

Client: “Yes, it is.”

Therapist: “Can you tell me more?”

Client: “Not really, I’m not sure what else to say.”


It was slow and methodical–and yes a bit robotic.  But we learned building blocks of an empathic conversation that are now second nature.  And, since we were able to practice so early on in our education, we got good enough to add in more–be a bit improvisational and reflective of our personal styles.


As an art therapist, I also learned visual listening as a crucial element to every effective therapeutic conversation.  Basically, when I think of visual listening I imagine that the client’s art is an additional being, worthy of being heard.  I also listen very closely to my clients’ visual descriptions of their art and work to reflect these ideas in my therapeutic dialogue.


Sometimes when I train therapists to begin to use basic art invitations in their work with clients, this visual listening feels as robotic and basic as active and reflective listening did in pre-counseling class.  It takes practice to achieve a rhythm that sounds natural and feels authentic.


It can go something like this:

Therapist: “How was that for you to paint?”

Client: “It felt really free, I love the cool colors I used.”

Therapist: “So those cool blues and greens are colors you love and when you were using them if felt really free?”

Client: “Yes, like water flowing.” (Moves hands in wave motion.)

Therapist: (Moving hands to mirror wave motion) “I can see that flowing, free feeling. Can you tell me more?  How is it to see that water flowing in your painting?”

Client: “I love it.  I don’t feel that enough.  It takes me to the beach and the vast ocean.” (Closes eyes for a second in a relaxed repose.)

Therapist: “Your painting really embodies something you love and crave.  I can see how relaxed it is for you.”


Here are a few small hints to work with when practicing visual listening:

  1. Reflect/mirror physical movements that your clients makes when talking about the art.
  2. When reflecting for your client, use the identical words that your client used when referring/describing the art. Don’t translate or interpret.
  3. Don’t ask a new question without reflecting your clients answer to the prior question.
  4. Stick with the art, keep bringing the conversation back to the art, don’t abandon the art–its a worthy being in the room with you.
  5. Try to really experience your client’s art–not the story, not your interpretation–from your client’s point to view.
  6. Look at your dialogue as your art–you are co-creating a beautiful moment with your client.
  7. Relax–creative questions come from your curious, relaxed mind.


A good rhythm structure to think about:

  1. Question from therapist
  2. Answer from client
  3. Reflection, validation, empathic comment from therapist
  4. Question from therapist
  5. Repeat


Once you practice visual listening, it becomes a beautiful, collaborative piece of therapeutic work.  It’s worth it–for both you and your client.

If you’d like to learn more about bringing art into your work, I have two great options for you!  Artfix teaches you to partner with your creativity and see therapy as your art form.  CreateFest gives you 12 wonderful creative activities to try and bring into session.   Both are online courses that you can begin at any time and finish at your own pace.

how not to get beat up by your inner critic

Sep 17, 2013 | 7 comments

fridge art

I just wanted to make something beautiful. 

Now that my article is in print, the hardest part is dealing with my inner critic.

The article is not beautiful or stunning or moving.  It doesn’t touch me in a meaningful way.  It doesn’t evoke imagery. It doesn’t have a nice cadence or pace.  It’s not even inspirational. 

“That’s what happens when you let yourself be put in a box.  You should have seen it coming and you could have been more prepared,” my inner critic sings songs in her ugliest voice. 

 Pow! Slap! Tsssk! 

So, what’s an artist/writer/therapist/trainer to do?

I thought I’d share because I truly value when others talk about their struggles with creating. Read More… »

the art of drawing someone in

Aug 16, 2013 | 4 comments

Full Engagement

Fianna is two.  She knows the art of drawing someone in.  I announce, “I’m going downstairs to make the bed.”  Her teeny hand slides into mine, her huge blues lock onto my face and she insists, “Me help.”  I feel the sweet tug of engagement as she and I begin our simple mission.


In another memory, Jasper Rose, my eccentric art history professor at UC Santa Cruz approaches my introverted bubble.  I was 19 and I had retreated from the party to the fireplace in order to watch the others celebrate the psychology chair’s new appointment.   He flashed a haughty smile, raised his drink and said, “Ms. Mitchell, I’ve come to draw you out!”  I was melted by the warm thread of connection, and we embarked on a lovely conversation about creativity.


The moment of engagement, when we go from disconnected to connected, is precious.

It’s both a drawing in and a drawing out.

And, it all adds up to one delicious experience of Flow. 

When we understand when and how it happens, we can appreciate it, participate in it more fully, and teach it to others.


how to be creative: give up the pursuit of certainty

May 23, 2013 | 6 comments











This weekend…….

Return to a place in time

Before certainty became a goal.

Find those moments of delight

When your wide eyes brightened at New-ness

And your fast smile greeted the Unknown.


Look back to when wonder

And surprise

And not knowing was

Affirmation of life.


When the littlest things—

Your doggy’s tail,

Your prism’s sun rainbows,

Your lullaby’s lilt…

They drew you in.


Each time their arrival

As wonderful as the last.


Throw away the rules that keep you safely bound,

Throw your paint, your words, yourself—

Abandon your rutted trail,

And set out to uncover a hidden path.


Wake up!

Snap out of it!

This is serious!


Find that place in time

And welcome Not Knowing as your new goal.

Ask yourself,

If Not Knowing is my new best friend;

If Uncertainty is a sign that I am up to something good;

If Creativity is the very thing that affirms my humanity;

Why, for heaven’s sake do I still pursue certainty?

Why have I let Knowing be such a bully?


Let Certainty go.

Embrace Not Knowing.

Affirm your creative life.

getting off the hamster wheel and into your creative groove.

May 16, 2013 | 2 comments


My great aunt, Barbara Morgan, was a well respected American photographer.  The summer I turned 16, after a family dinner, I heard her tell the story of how she collaborated with the great modern dancer, Martha Graham. I’d like to offer you her story, because if you have a tough week (like this one has been for me) it might help.

Her story is inspiring and it always reminds me of that momentous summer when I learned that creativity requires space, showing up, and a whole lot of letting go.  Read More… »

what difference does creativity make in therapy, anyway?

May 9, 2013 | 13 comments

When the day arrived when I was going to have an actual conversation with Rich Simon, editor of the esteemed Psychotherapy Networker about his invitation to write for his publication I was equipped.  I had a cool list of activities therapists can do to become more creative.  I had a full blown categorization system for therapists to identify their biggest stuck place in their creative process.  I had a philosophical treatise on why therapy is an art not a craft.  I was armed and ready.  My passion was juiced and I was finally going to talk with the man himself who could single handedly propel my career.

I said part of my spiel.

He asked, “Who cares?”

(Granted I was prepared for this one too, because my dear mentor, Lynn Grodzki, had told me that this was going to be his question.) Read More… »

OpenheARTed Art for Teens

May 3, 2013 | 1 comment


In my office, I see the symptoms of a teen epidemic.  With my pre-teen clients, I see only glimpses of the developing problem.  But with the teens, I am witness to the fallout of a tragic event.  Every teen who comes through my door has a closed off way of being, they’ve abandoned the art of opening their heart to others.  It is tragic and painful.  When a teen shuts off openheartedness as a way of being, I see they are no longer candid and frank, kind and warm, sincere and generous.  They stop disclosing intentions and thoughts clearly.  They suffer and so do their friends and family. 


Openheartedness can fall victim to the unnecessary cruelty that happens between 6th and 7th grade girls.  It can be obliterated by abuse of any kind.  It gets restricted in the face of judgment and criticism, unrealistic expectations, and even teasing about appearance, weight, grades, talents, interests, mistakes.  Openheartedness is fragile. Read More… »

artists value mistakes…why you should too

Apr 25, 2013 | 2 comments

Afraid of making mistakes?

Frozen because you might mess things up?

You might want to look at mistakes the way an artist does……

The inconsistencies, the defects, the variations…..that’s what we pay for when we buy a handcrafted item.  When we find that “one of a kind” piece of clothing or salad bowl, we treasure it because its “mistakes” remind us of the fact that it has been imbued with soul by the artist’s hands.

We value hand painted yarn, hand knit scarves, hand rolled cigars, hand carved serving spoons, hand embroidered accent pillows, handmade soap……all things made or embellished by hand.  We don’t place extra value on these items simply because they were made with someone’s human hand (though that is part of it).  We value the evidence—the inconsistencies and variations that no factory machine is capable of leaving.  This is evidence that with the prized defects, your item is unique. Read More… »

the art of incubating, the defeat of procrastination

Apr 11, 2013 | 3 comments

On Monday, I found an abandoned goose egg.  None of the squawking sentinels at the pond beat their wings aggressively when I reached down to rescue the egg from its poor excuse of a nest on in the sand.  That’s how I know it was abandoned.   It’s big and beautiful.  For the rest of my walk, I began to hatch plans to borrow a friend’s dremel tool and use the egg to make these really cool oval frames I’d seen at a recent craft fair.  My daughter and husband had different plans for the egg.  Into their makeshift incubator the egg went.


On Tuesday, I found another abandoned goose egg.  Once again, no dog sized bird came a-claimin’.  This time it was at the water’s edge–too cold for any sweet pre-baby to be happy.  But, into the “incubator” it went.


Monday’s egg represents incubation.  Tuesday’s egg represents procrastination.  Same object, same symbol, probably same goose mama—yet I have a totally different relationship with each. Read More… »

transition: what art teaches us about change

Apr 4, 2013 | 4 comments

From inside the dark closet, knees to chest, head in hands, she would recreate the memories that marked a time before all the tragedy forced change.  She would visit her old dreams; the ones that seemed practical and realizable; the ones that she had lived for and strove for.  She would wish with all her might, to go back so she could just pick up where she left off.  Raise the baby, nurture connection with her soul mate, thrive in her promising new career…..she’d been set.  And then, the tragic accident stopped her and her dreams.  She’d drag herself to my office, her grief unbearable, shoulders curved inward in attempt to bear the burden.


We called those closet times “stuck in the neutral zone”; where she was caught between the old and the new.  Working in the “neutral zone” became an essential part of her healing.  And, as Sandy was one of my first long term clients, her brave work taught me the nature of change. Read More… »

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