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The Gift of Not Knowing: Keeping an Open Mind, Deep Listening, and Not Having an Agenda

How often do we adjust our attention so that we can listen deeply to our clients, rather than focusing on getting our agenda across? How often do we resist the urge to close ourselves off to new information or ideas that would disrupt our preconceived notions? And how often do we challenge our conditioning to avoid dismissing someone’s story or experience because it doesn’t quite fit into our view of the world? 

It’s no secret that, as clinicians, we work hard to stay connected to our reactions and countertransference material as we sit with clients. In fact, many of us experiment with ways that can help us go deeply, and compassionately, into some of our most vulnerable places. Vulnerabilities may show up most often when we find ourselves hanging out in vague, unconscious realms that take time to organize before we come to understand what is needed to sit in compassionate connection with ourselves and our clients. 

Awareness of unconscious intimations in these vague spaces are powerful because they can lead to a recognition of choices that help our clients move away from conditioning and toward authentic expression. Perhaps even more significant, though, is that these intimations offer an opportunity for clients to feel felt and be known in ways they may have never experienced. There is a sense that sitting with the unknown helps clients be known and accompanied in the spaces where words don’t exist and, sometimes, where it may have been too painful to feel their own existence without support. 

In this article, I want to talk about the power of not knowing, and how keeping an open mind, deep listening, and letting go of our agendas can help us create a more conscious relationship to our reactions and countertransference material, open to the relationship between the unconscious and conscious, and inspire more meaningful contact with our clients. Although it may seem ironic that “letting go of needing to know and/or do” is our beacon in the realm of guidance, it truly does allow for our deepest wisdom to unfold because, rather than being busy forming our opinions, convictions, and agendas, we are more present to the moment. 

Keeping an Open Mind Models A Nonjudgmental Approach to Life

To be clear, my intention is not to say that we shouldn’t form opinions or hypotheses, yet it is important to hold them lightly. We might say that we “hold both” the diagnosis and prognosis as a possibility, while simultaneously letting go of attachment to any of it. Holding our impressions lightly is especially important when we are new clinicians. We don’t yet have the clinical experience to fall back on as a resource and may be tempted to reach for a simple, understandable diagnosis and other solutions that will quickly alleviate someone’s suffering or our own discomfort. This can be tempting for seasoned therapists as well because many people enter therapy with the expectation that their present time suffering will disappear quickly. 

When we keep an open mind, it shows our clients that we are nonjudgmental and willing to see the world from many perspectives, including theirs. This can be incredibly refreshing for clients who often feel judged or misunderstood by others. It  sends the message that we are not there to judge them or give unnecessary advice, but that we are holding a space in which they can explore who they are, what feels important to them, and what choices are available.

To say it another way, keeping an open mind makes available to the client’s unconscious that there can be a third, fourth, or fifth perspective different from the ones we, as two people, have in the room. This opens the door to multiple perspectives and goes beyond right and wrong, positive or negative, offering clients a genuine sense of choice and, hopefully, a feeling of empowerment to move toward something unfamiliar or unimagined.

Deep Listening Helps Us Hear the Client’s Experience Fully

When we listen deeply, we are not just waiting for our turn to talk or listening with only our ears. We are actively listening with all of our senses, taking in what the client is saying and feeling, and experiencing how it impacts our own body, mind, and spirit. This type of listening allows us to get a sense of the client’s experience and material on a deeper level because we are truly present, interested, and unencumbered.

Part of the reason we want to engage in listening deeply is that we are also listening and feeling into what the client is not saying. In fact, we can use their omissions to determine whether to direct questions toward something unspoken or at the edge of the unconscious or to wait until it feels as though their psyche is ready for this new “something” to be known consciously. We want to be skillful with timing in this regard. Asking very particular questions that would encourage a client to share parts of their experience that were not included in what they shared initially, and were not yet ready for uncovering, could prematurely trigger defenses. We might, instead, take small, mindful steps, and listen for permission from the client’s unconscious before asking them to uncover vulnerable material to themselves. A client’s permission might be reflected in forms that are less direct, like dream material, somatic sensations, images, memories, and/or feeling flashbacks, which can arise within ourselves as well.

someone pouring tea

Story: A Cup Of Tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” [1]

Not Having an Agenda Helps Us Keep a Beginner’s Mind and Remain Curious

In Buddhism, there is a teaching called “beginner’s mind,” which tells us about the importance of seeing every experience with fresh eyes, as if we have never before experienced the person, place, or the moment. It calls us to drop our agenda, attachment to outcome, and/or deciding that we know what will happen before we actually experience it. Beginner’s mind allows us to approach each moment with curiosity. We are often told that curiosity killed the cat, but I would argue that cats have nine lives for a reason. There is always another opportunity to go beyond conditioning, especially the conditioning of needing something to be a certain way and fixating on it until we have the perfect moment to pounce!

When we go beyond conditioning and patiently work through our habit of needing our clients to see things our way, we honor their innate wisdom and allow our own to arise in the moment. This calls for a sense of humility and acknowledgement, that even if we have degrees in psychology and have practiced for a number of years, it is important to acknowledge to ourselves that we can never know what the capital “T” truth is for our clients. There is such a beautiful opportunity to trust the process and the greater spirit that swings open the doors of wisdom when two or more are gathered, which would be missed if we were unable to let go of our convictions and agendas.

I am always amazed – every single time – that when I am able to become aware of and drop my agendas, and have shifted my desire for a client to be a certain way or make decisions I want them to make, some unexpected path arises. It becomes clear that when we open our minds to all possibilities, we are energetically making available to the client the possibility of thinking, feeling, and acting from an authentic, unconditioned place.

When we are willing not to know, to be curious, and listen deeply, we sit with more openness and flexibility, and this inner vastness becomes available to our clients as a landscape to hold the complexities of life with more spaciousness. This is the power of the therapeutic relationship and the profound opportunity it can be for all of us to go beyond conditioning and be present to the wisdom that is unfolding in the moment.


[1] Zen Story: A Cup Of Tea is an ancient story sourced from The Daily Zen website.


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