Just listen!  I'm stressed!
"Just listen! I'm so stressed!"

"Just listen!…" when I'm trying to talk with you about my headache since my boss has been being so mean to me!

When I hear this conventional wisdom given about what people, and especially women, want when they talk over a problem, I wince.  Yet if a friend or lover can't "listen" in a helpful way in times of distress, the friendship and love can feel false.

Is "Just listen!" what a woman with a problem really wants from her friends or her man?  

What do you want from a friend or relative when you try to tell them about a problem you are having?   What do you want from your therapist? 

You want help of some sort with finding a solution to the troubling situation.  You just don't want someone telling you their solution and, even worse, insisting that you do it their way.

A fun video by Jason Headley, It's Not About the Nail (https://vimeo.com/66753575) illustrates delightfully the problem with the "Just listen!" advice. Please click the link to enjoy this short and vivid illustration of the dilemma.

The advice “Just listen,” probably is meant as an antidote to the male tendency to want to Fix It.  I do agree that when a woman, or anyone for that matter, wants to talk over their problem with you, sticking with silent head nods and non-verbal “Oh..’s” may be preferable to telling them what to do. 

If it’s not the listener’s job to come up with a solution, is thnking of potential solutions ever helpful?  Actually, yes.  It's a question of timing. 

First encourage the person with the problem to come up with soluton ideas  Once someone has exhausted all his or her own  ideas, you might want to suggest some possibilities.  Even then though, keep your suggestions tentative. 

Hypothetical suggestions work well: "I wonder what would happen if you....?" 

Another option is to ask for a green light before moving forward with solution ideas.   “I have some ideas for what you might do.  How do you feel about my running them by you?”

Before generating any solution ideas at all though, there is a critical prior role that a listener can play. Instead of “Just listen.” try "Comment; then ask the next question."

Comment on what you’ve heard. 

A comment on what the distressed person has just told you lets them know that you've heard what they said.  It also conveys what you are doing with the information you have recieved, i.e., if you are agreeing with the data and therefore are on their side or if you are reacting in a stance that's critical and unempathic.

Here's some good sentence starters for commenting on what you’ve heard, sentence starters that clearly signal agreement and/or empathy

“Yes, headaches at work can feel quite incapacitating ….” 

“I agree that a boss who's that intrusive could give anyone a headache…”

“Oh, how frustrating that must have been!” 

"Sounds like a similar kind of situation that often comes up in my office where...."  In this case though, keep the description of your situation short and be sure to return to the problem at hand.  Beware lest you do a narcissistic all-about-me twist in topic, shifting the spotlight and topic of discussion to you and your experience.

After commenting on what you've heard, here comes the really helpful part.  Ask a good next question. 

Ask a good next question.

Good questions generally begin with How or What.  “What did you do next?”  “What do you think may be causing your headaches?”  “What have you tried so far to deal with them?” "How has your doctor responded to them? 

How and what are open-ended question words, as opposed to "Are you...?," "Did you...,"  which invite one-word, yes or no, answers.

Be especially sure to avoid “Didn’t you …” or “Aren’t you..”  The little n't adds a negative cast to the discussion, making you come across as critical. 

Open-ended How and What questions have a positive impact on the person with the problem in multiple ways. 

First, both comments and quesitons show that a listener is tracking with what the speaker has been saying.,  Everyone wants to feel that they are talking with someone who is genuinely listening to them, genuinely interested in their narrative and in being supportive in their time of distress.

Second, how and what questions facilitate forward flow in the thinking of a person with a problem.  They help the person with the problem to discover and explore further aspects of the situation.  More information increases the likelihood that a new idea for solution will spring forth. 

Third, once these questions have led to discovery of further relevant data, they can morph from questions exploring the data in the situation to questions about potential solutions.  “So what are your thoughts about what might help?”

In fact, having a boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse, or for that matter a mom, dad, sibling, good friend, or therapist, is a great blessing in times of difficulty.  When one of these folks in your support system asks good questions, wow.  That’s the best.  Sure beats "Just listen."


Denver clinical psychologist and marriage counselor Susan Heitler, PhD is author of the book, workbook and interactive website called Power Of Two that teach the communication and conflict resolution skills for relationship and marriage success.

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