Jobless, Not Joyless

Staying on track when you're unemployed

When Your Spouse Is Out of Work, What's a Good Way to Talk About It?

Maybe talking isn't always the answer. Try listening.

Many years ago while my wife was pregnant with our first child, I took a workshop based on Parent Effectiveness Training by Dr. Thomas Gordon. The book emphasizes active listening, a communication technique, which requires the listener to feed back to the speaker what she/he hears by re-stating or paraphrasing. The feedback also can consist of labeling the emotion that the listener thinks underlies the speaker’s message. Dr. Gordon’s approach to communication has been central to improving my parenting skills as well as my work as a psychologist. Not surprisingly, I have used his methods to help clients improve communication skills with their children, bosses, employees and spouses. Inevitably, the vast majority reports improvement in their ability to communicate and resolve conflicts.

Unemployment impacts significantly on the entire family. Men and women sometimes find themselves unsure of how to respond to their spouse. Should they make suggestions, act as a cheerleader or just stay out of the way? I strongly suggest one strategy: be a good listener. A good listener can be as helpful as a good advisor. Think back, have you ever called a friend to talk about a problem you faced and come to a solution even though your friend said very little? Sometimes just having someone listen to you is the best help you can get.

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When someone is under emotional strain—like a person who is unemployed—what he or she says is often distorted by the strong feelings driving the message. An active listener sometimes restates a speaker’s statement; thereby, giving the other person a chance to hear and reconsider what they are saying. This can enable the speaker to clarify the message and sometimes identify their feelings. Talking through what someone is thinking and feeling can help them stay motivated and on task.

Let’s assume the husband is the unemployed member of the family. For instance he comes into the kitchen and says angrily: “Isn’t dinner ready yet!” You might be tempted to respond angrily yourself, but try restating his message: “You’re really hungry, aren’t you?” Responding by restating helps the speaker hear what they are saying and gives them a chance to restate their message more clearly. He answers: “I worked all day on the computer looking for a job. I really don’t think I got anywhere.” His wife responds by identifying the emotion underlying his second message: “Sounds like searching for a job has you really frustrated and angry.” He realizes he is not really angry that dinner isn’t ready but frustrated at the process of looking for work. Labeling the emotion that underlies a message facilitates the release of emotions. He responds: “I need to take a break. When will dinner be ready?”

The first step for the listener is to maintain good eye contact and focus on the message. It is important to pick a time and place where there are no distractions so that you can stay focused on what your husband is saying. While listening, try to repeat in your own words what your spouse says. Avoid trying to provide solutions or advice. The goal is to convey you are there for him/her. It isn’t necessary to respond verbally to everything they say. Sometimes silence is enough. Use body language like nodding your head to indicate your interest and attention.

In summary, active listening is a great way to help your spouse through the emotional storm of unemployment. Do not jump in with solutions, judge or criticize. Listen intently, sometimes just restating what you heard and, at other times, labeling the emotion underlying his message. The unemployed often withdraw and feel socially isolated. Active listening will communicate your acceptance and your willingness to help.

John L. Manni, Ed.D., is a licensed psychologist practicing in Spring House, Pennsylvania.

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