"Just listen when I'm trying to talk with you about my headache from how my boss is so mean to me!"
When I hear the "Just listen!" expression from women about what they want when they seek help about 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 probably don't want them telling you their solution and, even worse, insisting that you do it their way. So what are you looking for when you want to talk a problem over with someone?
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. Do click the link to enjoy this short and vivid illustration of the dilemma.
Just listen, probably is meant to fend off 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 thinking of potential solutions ever helpful? Actually, yes. It's a question of timing and tone.
Timing: If you first have encouraged the person with the problem to come up with solutions, once that person has exhausted all his or her own ideas, suggesting further options then might be helpful.
Another option is to ask for a green light before volunteering solution ideas. “I have some ideas for what you might do. How do you feel about my running them by you?”
Tone: Hypothetical suggestions presented in a mode like, "I wonder what would happen if you....?" are generally received more readily than ideas presented insistently.
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 first. Then ask the next question.
Comment on what you’ve heard.
A comment digesting aloud 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 received.
Here's some good sentence starters for commenting on what you’ve heard, sentence starters that clearly signal agreement and/or empathy:
“Yes, your headaches at work must feel quite incapacitating ….”
“I agree that a boss who's that intrusive could give anyone a headache…”
"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 most 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?”
How and what are open-ended question words, as opposed to "Are you...?," "Did you...," which invite one-word, yes or no, answers. Open-ended questions invite exploration and discovery.
“What have you tried so far to deal with the headaches?” "What has your doctor said about them?"
Be sure to avoid “Didn’t you …” or “Aren’t you..” The little n't, signifying not, adds a negative cast to the discussion, making you come across as critical.
Positive comments and open-ended How and What questions help the person with the problem in multiple ways.
First, comments digesting what you heard show that you are 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 the initial how and what questions have led to discovery of further relevant data, they can shift the focus from exploring the situation to potential solutions. “So what are your thoughts about what you might that could help?”
A friend or loved one, or for that matter a mom, dad, sibling, or therapist, can be great blessing in times of difficulty. When one of these folks in your support system actively thinks aloud about what you are saying and then asks good questions, wow. That’s the best.
Sure beats "Just listen."
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