Listening to learn

The ancient art of not making thing worse

Unhelpful listening

When someone we are close to starts talking about an issue they are dealing with, we often listen to fix. We hear their first couple of statements and then start jumping in with advice. This is rarely helpful, if ever. Why do we do that and what should we do differently.

The other person’s state

When someone starts talking about an issue they are talking because they are uneasy. Unease makes it difficult to think clearly, so their thoughts and speech about the issue is likely to be somewhat muddled. If their thoughts were clear, then they probably wouldn’t be talking about the issue.

Our state

When are emotionally close to someone then we tend to get uneasy if they are struggling. So when the other person starts talking about how they are struggling we get uneasy. Unease is aversive and so we have an urge to fix the problem. We fool ourselves by thinking we are trying to help, but what we are actually doing is trying to reduce our own unease. That is why our suggestions are rarely received well. They are designed to make us feel better, not deal with the issue effectively.

Listen to learn

What is helpful is listening with the intention of learning about the other person’s experience, their thoughts and emotions, what they have tried and the results, and what responses they may be considering. Unless they are actively contemplating a destructive action, it is safe to simply listen.

When we connect in this way the other person’s unease decreases. As their unease decreases their brain works better and they think more clearly. This helps them come up with effective solutions to the problem, and if they ask for advice then they are more likely to accept it.

Listening to learn is hard because we have to tolerate our own unease without trying to reduce it by attempting to give advice. We can use the reset breath repeatedly to help us. Whenever we start to give unsolicited advice we can simply do a long exhale and pause. We then ask for more information or more ideas from the other person.

I like to call this kind of listening “the ancient art of not making things worse.”