If It’s Broke, Don’t Fix It

 

Why listening instead of fixing is the new skill you need to know

This is an opinion piece, not based on independent research. My knowledge of this topic comes from my three years of work for a mental health care provider, where I became a staff trainer for Motivational Interviewing, which this post is based on. I encourage you to click the link above and explore independently to have a fuller understanding of the topic.
There is a common conversation, it goes something like this:
Person A “Man I can’t believe it, I am so upset. No matter what I do I can’t lose weight!”
Person B “Oh, you have to try this diet, it is great, it will solve your problems.”
Or maybe something like this:
Person A “I am having such a hard time, I am so stressed out and my grades are dropping, I don’t know what to do.”
Person B “What you need is to meditate, that will help with your stress, and we can find you a tutor to get your grades back up.”
Or perhaps:
Person A “I know he loves me but I can’t deal with how he treats me.”
Person B“Yeah, you should break up with him!”
These are all essentially the same conversation. One person starts talking and shares a problem, and the other person immediately offers a solution. But, Person A did not ask for a solution. Usually in this situation the person who is sharing a problem, just wants to talk about the problem. Sometimes that person wants to listen to him- or herself talk about the problem and think out loud. Rarely does that person want a solution.
‘But,’ you say, ‘isn’t that why he or she is talking about the problem, in order to get a solution?’
No. It feels good simply to talk about your problems, and have them acknowledged. And in fact, by offering a solution the listener is dismissing the problem – exactly the opposite of what the speaker is looking for. Often the speaker already knows the solution to the problem, but does not feel capable of going through with it. Let’s take the example of a man who is in a relationship he thinks is not good for him. If every time he talks to his friends about this they tell him to end the relationship, he will soon stop talking to his friends about his relationship problems. On the other hand, if they are supportive every time, that will make him feel comfortable talking more about it – and in fact will make him feel more capable of doing whatever he needs to to improve his situation.
One of the difficulties with this is that we generally want to help people solve their problems, so we automatically offer solutions. Because of that, we need to find something else to see instead. So, how can we listen without offering a solution? And what about when someone really does need a solution?
First, I will focus on the listening. A simple way to show someone that we are listening is to repeat back to them what we heard. No the same words, but the general idea. At first you can simply say back, or ‘reflect’ the same thing, the same idea you just heard. For example:
Person A“Man I can’t believe it, I am so upset. No matter what I do I can’t lose weight!”
Person B“You are having trouble losing weight – nothing you are doing is working.”
Once you are comfortable with this, you can go a little deeper – instead of reflecting what someone says to you, you can reflect back what they are really expressing to you:
Person A  “I am having such a hard time, I am so stressed out and my grades are dropping, I don’t know what to do.”
Person B“You are feeling overwhelmed by everything you have going on right now.”
This goes a bit deeper, and takes some practice, and is powerful once you get the hang of it. Often all people are looking for in talking about difficulties is to be acknowledged, which this does. An important part of this concept is that you are not adding to what they are saying – you are showing that you heard what was said. So what if the person you are talking to does want advice? How do you know if it is a good time to give it? You ask permission. It looks like this:
Person A “I am having such a hard time, I am so stressed out and my grades are dropping, I don’t know what to do.”
Person B “It sounds like you have a lot going on right now. If you like, I have a couple suggestions that might help.”
Once you have asked permission to give advice, you don’t go right along and say your piece – you wait for the person you are talking to to give you permission.
The idea of using this kind of active listening is to provide a place for the speaker to be heard, without having to worry about being told what to do. While this alone is powerful and valuable, there is another effect that can be helpful. Sometimes during this process, the speaker, hearing his or her words and ideas being reflected back, will more clearly understand what she or he is saying. Often when people are in difficult situations they have trouble taking in advice from others. In those cases, noticing what they themselves are saying can be the most powerful way for these people to see what will be best for them.

How have you experienced being heard, or not being heard? What are other active listening techniques that I have missed?

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