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Bad Listening Skills: Unwanted "Empathy"

Having big ears and good intentions just may not be enough

 Hank Davis
Having big ears and good intentions may not be enough
Source: Image: Hank Davis

A client recently reported her frustration with how her husband “listened” to her when she needed to complain. The word “listened” is in quotation marks because as far as she was concerned he wasn’t listening at all. The poor guy – let’s call him Paul – appeared stunned. He thought he was giving it his best.

It’s worth talking about their conflict because so many of us do exactly what Paul did and, just like Paul, we assume we’re doing a fine job. Our partners may never tell us about it but, like Joan (also an assumed name), they’re seething inside. Worse yet, they’re building up a resentment that says “Why bother? This jerk doesn’t listen. He doesn’t care about me. He only cares about himself.”

As therapists who work together with couples [see Footnote No. 1], we didn’t believe for a moment that Paul was an unfixable narcissist. What if Paul were really trying to engage with Joan, yet cluelessly falling back on a widely used practice that feels normal to him, but at the same time feels like abandonment to Joan. That dilemma would require some intervention.

At the very least we can explain what’s happening to Paul. If he truly wants to be a good listener, it’s fair to expect him to say some version of, “I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t realize I was handling it in a way that hurt you. I can see that I wasn’t helping. Give me a chance to change that behavior because I really do want to be a good listener.”

OK, I understand that this sounds like a delirious fantasy to most women, but in this case, maybe minus some of the flowery language, it’s a realistic expectation. Let’s look at exactly what went wrong between Joan and Paul. Here’s a version of the original exchange:

Joan: Oh, I have a terrible headache. I feel awful. I can hardly get out of bed.

Paul: I know exactly how you feel! I had a horrible headache, myself, a few days ago. I could barely see straight. Even aspirin didn’t help.

Joan’s complaint (I’m sure many of you can see this coming) is that Paul has immediately taken the focus off of her and put it on himself. “I wanted your compassion,” she says, “and instead you’ve turned this into your own complaint session! How do *I* get some attention around here?”

From Paul’s point of view, he was merely trying to show empathy. The best way to do that – and he could have learned this almost anywhere in our culture – is to say “Been there, done that. I, too, have had a headache. I really understand what you’re going through. I know from firsthand experience just how horrible your pain is.”

What Paul said feels like validation to him, perhaps even bonding. It’s the old “Misery loves company” thing. He will swear up and down that he was *not* trying to upstage Joan. He was *not* trying to say “my pain is worse than your pain.” Paul’s defense may be true but, as therapists, we know that what matters most in this situation (remember, this episode began life as Joan’s frustration) is how she perceived his words. It’s certainly possible that Joan has life experience that predisposes her to hear Paul’s words in a particular way. That can be addressed at an individual session at a different time. But in this moment, Joan’s frustration has to be validated.

So what are Paul’s options? Ideally, he can apologize and adapt. But he can also dig in his heels and say, “I’m not going to change. If it was good enough for dear old dad (and mom), it’s good enough for me (and you).” Not surprisingly, it rarely is. “My way or the highway” is usually not the fast lane to a warm, satisfying relationship.

If Paul is as good as his word and really wants to offer a sympathetic, compassionate ear to Joan, his best move is to forget about the kind of “empathy” that requires him to tell his own story. Perhaps he can learn to come forward with the listening skills and validation that Joan truly desires. In this case, Paul needs to keep the spotlight firmly on Joan and show her (in words that don’t include “me”) that her situation sounds just awful and he’s so sorry to hear about it. Never mind that he, too, has had a headache or a back ache or a cold. There’s time for that later. Right now, the spotlight is shining brightly on Joan’s aching head and only a fool (perhaps a narcissistic fool) would try to deflect that spotlight. If Paul can stay conscious of that, avoiding the habitual patterns that have felt natural to him for most of his adult life, then he will have taken a giant leap forward. He will have shown Joan that his motives (“upstaging” and all that) were not in question. What Paul needed, more than anything, was some help in learning to give Joan what she needed.

There are many other well-intentioned ways to be a bad listener. They show up in all kinds of relationships, from intimate to casual. Next time around we’ll look at how to be a poor, insensitive listener in times of grief. You’re probably already wincing at some of your own memories of those situations. Good. Hold those thoughts till next time.

Footnote 1: My co-therapist in this case, as in all of our couples counseling, was Yana Hoffman. These clients do not exist in real life. They are fictional composites created for teaching purposes.

Afterthought: Despite this example, I am not suggesting that men are, by their nature, bad listeners and women are invariably the "victims" of bad listening skills. I’ve seen the problem occur in both directions.

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