Learning to listen to your loved ones is the single most important gift you could ever give them. I’m a qualified therapist offering counselling in Exeter and I’d like to share some oberservations that could transform your relationships and the wellbeing of those closest to you.
Every day, as a qualified counsellor, I see the power the simple act of listening to someone can have. When we’re in a bad place just being able to share our thoughts and feelings with another person can help us feel like we belong. It can give us the strength and resilience to work through our difficulties and find otherwise elusive solutions to our problems.
As a counsellor this is part of what I offer to my clients. However, what they often want, more than anything, is for their nearest and dearest to listen, understand and accept them. Unfortunately, for many of my clients, this doesn’t seem to be how their families work.
To illustrate this I would like to share with you some examples of the type of responses my clients get when they try to share their feelings and problems with family and friends:
1. The Brick Wall
Tuts. Shakes head. Turns up the volume on the TV.
2. The ‘get over it’
‘Well you just need to man / lady up! You’re not a kid anymore. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get on with it! Bloody snowflake!’
3. The Diagnosis
‘I’ve been doing some research and you’re obviously autistic / narcisistic / insane (delete as appropriate.) I’ll send you some leaflets and the phone number of a good psychiatrist. Come back once they’ve fixed you.’
4. ‘Other people have it worse…’
‘You do know there are people literally starving to death in the world don’t you? You don’t really have much to complain about do you?’
5. The ‘How do you think I feel?’
‘Well it’s alright for some. I’d love to have the time to sit around moping what with having to hold down two jobs whilst looking after the kids. I’m just about at the end of my tether. Did I even tell you about the fridge exploding…’
6. The rationalisation
‘Look, there’s no point in feeling [insert troublesome emotion here]. It’s not going to help is it? If you just listen to my wise and sage words I’ll politely explain to you why your feelings don’t make sense. Nothing irrational will survive the disinfectant of my impeccable logic and you will inevitably feel better afterwards. Job done.’
7. The ‘plan of action’
‘Ah OK. Well it seems to me that what you need is a plan. You’ll feel better if you have some goals to work towards. Let me help you. I’ll make a spreadsheet while you start drawing a mind map…’
Do you recognise ever being on the receiving end of one of these responses when you’ve tried to share something with a loved one. How did it make you feel at the time? Did it help you feel better or to work through whatever issues you were dealing with at the time?
I would just like to reflect a little more on some of the responses above. I think it’s fairly easy to understand why being on the end of responses 1 – 5 would be hurtful. They contain no attempt whatsoever to see things from the loved one’s point of view and are all completely dismissive. The last two however, The rationalisation and the ‘plan of action’ responses are less obviously unkind. In both cases they are probably coming from someone who is genuinely doing their best to help and are probably the most common unhelpful responses that I see.
Lets take the rationalisation response. This is one I know that I have certainly been guilty of in the past. Even as a counsellor I have to guard against falling into it sometimes. I’m not saying that rational argument and reason doesn’t have a place but it does have its limitations. The trouble is that feelings and emotions don’t respond to logic and reason. At least not in the short term. If you’ve ever struggled with difficult feelings like depression or emotion you probably already know that it doesn’t ‘make sense’ to feel the way you do. You’ll also know that knowing this doesn’t make the slightest difference to the feeling itself.
It’s harder to explain why the final response, the ‘plan of action,’ is potentially unhelpful but I will try. I recall, a few years ago having lunch with some work colleagues. One of them was sharing concerns about their adult son who was out of work and seemed depressed and de-motivated. One by one everyone around the table, between mouthfuls of sandwich and soup, offered practical suggestions as to what he should do to find a job or snap himself out of it. Eventually my friend asked me what I thought. ‘Have you thought about asking him what he needs?’ I said. Everyone looked blank for a few seconds before going back to generating helpful advice.
Now, I know that everyone around that table meant well. That they were coming from a warm-hearted place and wanted to help. I’m even sure that many of their suggestions were actually good advice but this story illustrates how easy it is fall into the trap of thinking we know what is best for other people. There is a world of difference between offering someone practical advice to solve a problem if they’ve asked for it and imposing your solutions on them. If the way out of their problem were that simple they would probably have thought of it for themselves. Often, when we start throwing around advice it is at the expense of actually listening. It tends to make us feel better rather than the person with the problem.
Few of us would sit by and watch our nearest and dearest suffer for want of a basic resource like food and water. And yet, in my experience, people are being deprived of that other most fundamental of human needs – being heard and understood. Yet how many of us ever really take the time to listen to the people closest to us. It doesn’t even cost anything, other than a few minutes of our time. You don’t need any special training to do it. You don’t have to have any answers. You don’t even have to necessarily understand whatever it is they might be telling you. All you need to do is listen.
This is a big subject and I intend to write more about how to listen in future posts.