Lisa Mitchell

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

Lisa Mitchell | 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.

One response to “Visual Listening: Can you hear your client’s art?”

  1. Tracey Hagyard says:

    Yes please.

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