Don't Fix It -- Just Listen!
It takes more than two ears to really listen when a friend or relative comes to you with a problem. Follow these three steps and watch the speaker transform from panicked to peaceful.
Let Them Talk
There is an art to being able to let someone talk just long enough to get to the heart of the problem without allowing them to ramble. The speaker will often start out with the details of the presenting circumstance. He'll tell you what happened. He may then move into some assumptions or guesses about the motives and actions of those involved. If you're lucky, he will talk about the feelings he experienced and is still experiencing that are causing the pain. Your biggest job is to move him from his assumptions to his feelings and, ultimately, his options.
The trick to finding the right length of time is to listen for repetition. Once the speaker has repeated himself once or twice, it's time to summarize and move forward. Generally, five to 15 minutes is a good amount of time for disclosure.
Let's say your co-worker comes into your office and asks if you have a minute. The first, most important thing you can do to convey care and concern is to stop, make eye contact and say something like, "Sure. Sit down." Then move everything else from your line of sight, and focus. If you hesitate, continue working, or don't make eye contact, you may have lost the opportunity for intimate disclosure. If he thinks you are too busy, not interested or upset at the interruption, you may only get the paper-skin off the onion.
Resist the urge to chit-chat. Get to the point. Say, "What's up?" or "Tell me what's going on." Then let them talk. Don't interrupt.
Don't give advice. The only thing you can say during this time are encouraging words, such as, "I see," "Uh-huh," and "OK." Advice-giving can be subtle, with lead-ins such as:
- "You should just tell her to ..."
- "Why don't you...."
- "Have you tried..."
- "Don't let him get away with that!"
Don't be afraid of silence. If he stops talking for a few seconds, resist the urge to jump in. See what else comes out. Continue making eye contact. Sometimes just being heard and seen can be enough.
Get To The Point
Once you've listened to her story and she has either stopped talking or has begun to repeat herself, it's time to summarize. Find a way to insert your thought without cutting her off. You could say something like:
- "Can I tell you what I'm hearing?"
- "It sounds to me like you feel..."
- "I've been listening and what it sounds like you're saying is..."
- "I've heard you use the word, "afraid," three times. What are you mostly afraid of?"
- "I think I've heard enough examples. How is this affecting you?"
Your goal is to get her to talk about herself and her part in the problem instead of focusing on something she can't change, namely the circumstances, another person or both. When she can see that she shares in the problem, she has options. Most problems are caused by at least two people or things -- the perpetrator and the victim. A victim always looks for a rescuer. If you give advice or allow her to blame-shift, she gets to stay the victim and has no personal responsibility. Once she stops seeing herself as the victim, she can find her own power and you will have done your job as an Ace Listener.
It's Not About The Nail
Offer Real Hope
Most people don't like to be told what to do. We want to be the masters of our own destinies. Helping people see their options enables them to feel in control and control feels safe.
Once you've listened and summarized the problem, gently help your friend look at the options. Ask,
- "What are your options?"
- "What have you done in the past with a circumstance like this? Did it work?"
- "What are some really crazy things you could do right now?"
- "Let's look at some extremes: At one extreme, you could... and at the other extreme you could... What would the middle look like?"
- "What do you think the next right thing for you to do now is?"
- "If the tables were turned, and I was the one with this problem, what would you suggest I do?"
The most important aspect of this step is to let your friend come up with her own answers. She needs to find what is right for her. Even if she says, "I don't have any options!" resist the urge to give them to her. Tell her to think about it for a few days and see what she comes up with. Remind her that she is smart and that you believe in her.