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The Case for Better Listening: Perhaps the Best “Fix” We Have

As unfortunate as it is, everyone will face emotionally challenging times over the course of their lives. Inevitably, we all have to say goodbye to everything we hold dear. For most of us, this will occur in a series of scattered events as we march towards our own final breath. When significant loss occurs (and not just with the death of a loved one, though that is certainly part of it), we are invited into difficult emotional territory. At this threshold, we have two choices: 1) to work towards surrendering to these difficult emotions, perhaps blindly hoping to uncover some unknown purpose or personal growth which can only be gleaned from such a significant challenge, or 2) we can dig in our heels and run the other way—doing everything in our power NOT to feel these painful emotions—employing every known form of distraction we can come up with along the way.

As I see it, the second pathway, while useful in providing a temporary and sometimes necessary respite from the arduous task of facing one’s emotional pain, is, in the long-run, not ultimately a viable strategy. Just as using a credit card may be a good option if you need a major repair done to your house or car when you don’t immediately have the funds, so too there may be times following a significant loss when you simply cannot be with that pain fully or for long periods of time. Work, driving your vehicle, engaging in many of life’s demands, or just being with the sheer intensity of the feelings associated with a significant loss may require us to delay payment on our psychological distress. However, as with financial debt, I find that it is not a good idea to let our psychological debts linger unpaid too long. Sooner or later, the bill comes due, and if you’re not working towards finding a way to pay the debt, you are likely to find yourself with a larger balance down the road. Psychologically speaking, our emotional debts may also accrue interest over time and often show up as symptoms of depression, anxiety, fatigue, addiction, and a host of other somatic symptoms, to name a few. Unfortunately, despite resolution attempts related to everything from psychotropic medications to affirmations and habitual positive-psychology, unlike financial debt, there does not appear to be any legitimate bankruptcy option for emotional debts. These debts will only be cleared through raw feeling.

In a previous post, What Children Can Teach…, I referenced some of the current statistics regarding our rather poor and declining mental-health climate, including the alarming statistic that suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in America. In these challenging times, many people (from the mental-health clinician, to the concerned friend or family member) are actively doing what they believe is right to help shift this trend in some beneficial way. Afterall, at the core of human nature, there is a desire to help, if not everyone, certainly those whom we are closest to, and as such, how we can best achieve that common goal is the purpose of this writing. While the options are vast, I’d like to focus on one particular skill which can universally help others we care about when they are going through a difficult time: better listening!

Yes, listening rises to the top as being perhaps the single most important technique employed by the therapeutic practitioner. Whenever I have a client who improves in therapy, and I ask what has helped them the most, I often get responses such as: “You listened to me; I felt like you understood what I was saying and going through.” In fact, very recently, I was completing an evaluation for someone and they informed me that they had seen approximately 8 to 12 counselors over the course of their life. When I asked if they found any benefit from those experiences and if so, what was most helpful, they said, “Yes, I guess just having someone listen.” And while there are certainly cases (such as with working with severe trauma), where high quality listening alone may not be sufficient in helping someone resolve their symptoms, in every case, I find good listening ability to be 100% necessary as a foundation for treatment. I also believe that if everyone (counselor or not) worked to improve their capacity to be a good listener, especially with those who are going through a difficult time, we would see substantial improvements in general well-being and mental-health.

On the surface, this may sound overly simplistic, but the type of listening I’m referring to is a little deeper and asks a bit more of us than many people are currently comfortable with. I am referring to a kind of listening that has as its primary goal, understanding (versus trying to fix or solve problems). What’s most challenging is that in order to achieve the kind of understanding I am speaking of, it is simply not sufficient to only listen to the content of one’s story; instead, we must be able to listen to the heart of the person telling it. That requires us being able to identify those feeling states within ourselves. There is a profound vulnerability and intimacy required to achieve this, and as such, many people remain too afraid to enter those waters. Connection, being seen, and feeling valued are the products of being well listened to and understood. This healing potential transcends most other therapeutic interventions. For those who can provide such an empathic way of being with someone who is struggling, the rewards can be profound for all parties involved.

In order to achieve the type of therapeutic understanding and connection I’m referring to, we need to be able to offer two things: 1) an open heart (we have to genuinely care about the other person and what they are going through, and we have to maintain access to our own challenging emotional states), and 2) good listening skills. The second is generally easy to understand and learn; the first, not so much. One must be able to accurately hear and sense the feelings of another without losing their sense of self in the process. This is very difficult if we have significant unidentified or unhealed psychological wounds ourselves. In this piece, I will focus primarily on the technique side. If, after a little practice with the technique you find you are having difficulty understanding the other person, are having the desire to change the subject, or are jumping to advice-giving, then it is likely that the emotional territory is presently too intense for you and possibly evidence there are unidentified or unprocessed personal wounds sabotaging your efforts. In these cases, personal therapy may be needed before the skill becomes easier to employ with others.

Good listening should be an active process versus a passive one, which is why this type of skill is referred to as “active listening” in the clinical world. Being active means to let the person know what we are hearing and sensing from them periodically as we listen to them verbally and non-verbally (yes, people communicate even more without the use of words). Of course, good eye-contact and body language are necessary prerequisites, but beyond that, being a good listener requires that we always maintain the core objective of understanding what the other is experiencing. Once we believe we have successfully captured the message, it’s time to share what we are hearing, by paraphrasing the message back to them. Alternatively, we want to avoid problem-solving and advice-giving, as the likelihood of actually helping will be severely compromised with these approaches. From my observations and experiences, we now live in a time where this tendency is almost automatic, so if you catch yourself doing it, simply stop and get back to seeking understanding.

More specifically, active listening is a two-step process. First, you “reflect” back, the explicit and/or or implicit message you hear or sense the person is trying to tell you. Next, you may ask a question affirming whether you are correct in your understanding, and/or you can ask them their thoughts about plans, next steps, etc. Again, we are trying to avoid giving advice, even if you really believe that your advice is the miracle cure that’s needed. The unfortunate reality is most of the time—not always, but most of the time—people are going to do what they are going to do anyhow (Just examine your track record: of all the advice you’ve ever given, how often do people actually employ it?).

However, I have found that people often come up with better options for themselves after they’ve had some space to problem solve or explore their own ideas aloud with someone. And of course, there are a myriad of problems that have no immediate, actionable solution; for example, if someone is having difficulty because a parent recently died or they lost a spouse, there is little chance, if any, that this person’s emotional challenges could ever be solved with advice. Solutions in situations like this are found in the grieving process—a process that can be supported through good listening and a warm, empathic presence, NOT advice or suggestions!

Now, let’s look at an example of an active listening response we might use when a friend is unhappy with their career and thinking of making a change. In a situation such as this, we might reflect the following after they’ve told us about their challenges: “It sounds like you are really torn right now. Part of you wants to quit your job and follow your passion, but you’re concerned about losing everything you’ve sacrificed so much for if it doesn’t work out.” This is part 1: the reflection, which has a hint of a clarifying question. Then, part 2 may be the explicit question: “If you had to make the decision right now, what do you think you might choose?” Responses like these demonstrate we are paying attention, and that we are trying to understand the person’s world more than being concerned about telling them what they should do. It’s unfortunate, but most times when we find ourselves stuck in life, there may not be a win-win option or a risk-free change. We may feel great pain by forgoing one thing we want in order to pursue something else we may want or need more. In instances such as these, there may be no way of avoiding difficulty and we may be more helpful offering compassionate support as others search to find their own solutions.

Here’s another example of something we might say if we are listening to someone who recently lost a loved one: “I’m sensing that you are SO heart-broken right now that it feels like this pain could never end. I would be happy to sit here with you and listen while you process a little more of that right now if you would like.” Again, in an example like this, the most we could possibly do to “fix” the problem is to listen and allow emotions and expressions to come to the surface. The body has innate, built-in healing mechanisms, and we would be wise to support those mechanisms in doing their job versus working very hard to shut them down or escape them. Tears, shaking, sweats, and nausea-induced vomiting can be among our healing companions, and we can be a wonderful help to others by being there if and when these reactions naturally occur.

All of us innately know how to grieve and we instinctually move towards it if we are properly supported and given space. If you can be a good listener and present for someone in times like these, you will indeed be very helpful to that individual and their process of recovery. However, saying things like, “It’s going to get better,” or “Just look at all the things you still have to be grateful for,” will leave them feeling even more isolated and alone than they already do. Comments like these, even if well-intended, often leave people feeling worse, and I often hear comments from clients such as, “I wish so-and-so would just get off my back and stop telling me what to do; it’s not helpful!” We may not realize it, but when we say things like, “Things will get better,” we are often saying to them, “I’m uncomfortable with where you are now, and I can’t be with you in this space.” When we say things like, “Look at all you still have to grateful for,” we come across as saying, “You shouldn’t be feeling this way,” which will likely further isolate that individual (I also spoke of these tendencies in my most recent post: I Want You to Be Happy…).  

Basically, I encourage everyone to be very careful with this pervasive tendency to make everything “positive.” A more genuine and authentic “positive” emotional state will occur down the road as a result of going through the difficult experience and the subsequent grieving process when applicable. Many people seem to have a fear that encouraging others to move towards their darker emotions will leave them stuck in that terrible place; however, that does not appear to be the case for the majority of people who have the courage to see their pain through. Unfortunately, the opposing option of immediately jumping to the fictitious land of perpetual positivity shuttled by the gratitude-at-all-costs attitude is more often what truly keeps people stuck in their pain, further promoting the manifestation of the physical and psychological symptoms described above.

As a final tip, which might be overlooked in the examples I gave above, when reflecting back to those we are listening to, I recommend avoiding absolute language, such as: “I know what you are going through,” which often feels offensive and shuts down conversation. Instead, I recommend using language that is a little less authoritative and leaves room for disagreement (where we also have room to get it wrong). Using reflections that begin with, “I’m wondering,” “I’m sensing,” “I’m imagining,” or “I’m guessing” before we describe the feeling is often much more kind and easier to hear. Saying something like, “I’m guessing you are feeling devastated right now,” versus “I know you are feeling devastated right now,” just lands better. Further, with the first response, if we miss the target, the person will often correct us, adding something like, “No, actually it’s more fear that I’m feeling than anything right now” and the dialog will continue, but once we start saying we know another’s experience, the conversation is likely coming to a close, leaving the person feeling more isolated and alone.

Carl Rogers, one of the most influential psychologists in American history, stated in his last book, A Way of Being, the following reference to the power of listening and the healing potential:

“I have noticed that the more deeply I hear the meanings of this person, the more there is that happens. Almost always, when a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, ‘Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it’s like to be me.’ In such moments I have had the fantasy of a prisoner in a dungeon, tapping out day after day a Morse code message, ‘Does anyone hear me? Is anybody there?’ And finally one day he hears some faint tappings which spell out ‘Yes.’ By that one simple response he is released from his loneliness; he has become a human being again. There are many, many people living in private dungeons today, people who give no evidence of it whatsoever on the outside, where you have to listen very sharply to hear the faint messages from the dungeon.”[1]

With this in mind, the next time someone close to you is going through a difficult time, be sure to listen with the intent of deeper understanding, and you will likely be more helpful than you could have been otherwise.

References:

[1] Rogers, Carl R. A Way of Being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

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