What Kind of Listening Actually Helps?

The following is a paper Brant Burleson wrote that I translated from academic language into conversational English. Burleson's paper is titled, Some Distinguishing Features of More and Less Effective Messages Intended to Provide Emotional Support. Burleson is a researcher at Purdue University, studying communication and emotion, and he has discovered some very powerful facts about listening.

Burleson is perfectly capable of writing conversational English, but hasn't written his work for the layman yet. He's a researcher, and he writes for academic journals and textbooks and his language is technical, but his work is very useful, so I thought I'd make it available for us regular folks.

Burleson's research is for anyone listening to anyone, but to help shorten this piece and make it easier to read, I wrote it specifically as advice to a man about listening to his wife.

I recommend you bookmark this article or print it and save it for when you need it. Next time someone you know is troubled, you can pull it out and read it, and you'll read it with a strong desire to understand. That's a good way to learn. Okay, here it is:

What Really Helps

When your mate is having troubles and talks to you about it, some of what you do will be helpful, and some won't. Research shows clearly that many of our attempts to help someone we love fail — even when we sincerely wish to help. We often don't know how to help effectively, so it often goes badly. Helping someone is sometimes tricky and complicated, and so many things can go wrong, often we don't want to even try.

Very few of us have any formal training in listening. Very few of us have seen a competent helper in action, and we feel inept, uneducated, incompetent. Brant Burleson of Purdue University has looked at this subject thoroughly, reading the studies of others and conducting his own experiments. After a complete review of the research on the subject, Burleson can say with a fair degree of certainty that most people will find the following helpful:
  1. Your intention to help. Tell your mate you want to help. Make it clear you have a strong desire to help her. Just knowing someone wants to help makes a difference. When people are experiencing negative emotions, they aren't as good at reading your intentions as they usually are. So make it very clear you want to help, and spread that message throughout your conversation, emphasizing your sincere desire to help.
  2. Acceptance and positive regard. A desire to help someone can be interpreted as meaning, "You aren't smart enough or skilled enough to deal with it yourself." In other words, your expression of your desire to help can have the effect of making your mate feel invalidated. So this second point needs to be emphasized also — yes, make it very clear you want to help, but also make it clear you are a helper and she is the main actor in this situation. She is in control. She is the one who makes the decisions about her own life. She is the boss. This problem is hers and you are only an assistant. Convey your respect clearly and strongly. And acknowledge her strengths. With your words and tone and body language, make sure she knows you accept her, like her, feel affection for her, respect her, and recognize her competence. This is positive regard.
  3. Situation interest. Indicate clearly you care about her situation. Express concern and interest in the circumstances bothering her. This allows her to open up without feeling she is taking your time when you don't want to listen. It makes her feel welcome to talk freely about the situation, which she will find helpful because it allows her to think about it; to examine the facts and her feelings about it. When she gets an opportunity to think things through without interruption, it will lower her feelings of distress and increase her ability to resolve the problem successfully. Remember, everything written on this page is based on solid research.
  4. Empathy and understanding. Anything you express that says, "I understand what your circumstances are and I understand why you feel the way you do," will be taken well. Sincerity is important. Express your sincere appreciation for her feelings and circumstances. In other words, really try to put yourself in her situation and imagine what it would be like for you to experience those circumstances — through her eyes, not yours. And make sure you communicate your understanding carefully. Don't say things like, "I completely understand what you're feeling." Sincerity means honesty, and your expressions of understanding need to be honest. You don't know for sure you completely understand exactly what she is going through. You can't really say (and it doesn't help) that you have felt exactly what she is feeling.
  5. Make yourself available. In whatever way you can, make sure she knows you are available to her, you will listen, you are not going anywhere, and even if she's upset, you will not abandon her. Encourage her to talk, and limit your own talking to whatever will encourage her to talk more about the problem and her feelings about it.
  6. Ally. Make sure your mate knows that no matter what, you are on her side. You are in full alliance with her.
These six things (above) are appreciated by almost everyone, and will very likely help your mate handle her emotions better and deal with her circumstances better.

Another category of actions you can take that will very often help is to tell her you recognize the legitimacy of her reactions to the situation. We can break this category into five separate kinds of legitimacy:
  1. Make sure she knows you think her feelings and actions are reasonable and perfectly understandable. Express your genuine feelings that her response is legitimate.
  2. Let her know you think her feelings are normal and fit the situation.
  3. Let her know you appreciate how difficult her situation is.
  4. Let her know you sincerely believe she is not at fault (in areas where she is blaming herself unjustly).
  5. Make sure she knows it's okay with you she's expressing her upset. In other words, do not ever give her the impression she shouldn't be crying or appearing upset. Let her know expressing her distressed feelings is understandable and you fully allow it.
What will make this sincere is putting yourself in her shoes. Imagine what it must be like for her. Imagine what it would be like for you if you were in her shoes. This is the key to empathy. And that means completely in her shoes. With her perspective on things. With her values. With her past experiences. Imagine what you would feel like if this event happened to you but you were experiencing it from her point of view, not yours.

Another category of helpful communication is encouraging your mate to go into more detail about the circumstances and her feelings. There are six ways to do that:
  1. Say things that let her know you are interested in hearing her story.
  2. Say things that let her know you want to hear about her feelings and reactions to the situation.
  3. Ask open-ended questions about her feelings and reactions.
  4. Tell her what you guess she must be feeling, but tell her you're guessing and ask her about it.
  5. When she describes her feelings, tell her what you heard. "So that made you angry, huh?"
  6. Make sure you acknowledge her statements and say things (and use your body language) to encourage her to elaborate.
Most people will find it helpful if you encourage them to talk about their feelings, but one study indicated some people prefer you let them decide whether they want to talk about it or not. It is fairly safe to ask open-ended questions about the circumstances, and of course, encourage her to tell her story. But make sure this doesn't come across as an interrogation.

Giving Advice

Sometimes you might have something to say that will help your mate actually solve the problem she's distressed about. And sometimes giving information or advice is greatly appreciated, but sometimes it isn't.

Information and advice is risky for two reasons: First, she'll only think it's helpful if the information is relevant and she considers the source of the information to be an expert on the problem. If she feels the advice might truly be effective and if it's something she could really do (and not some "ideal" action she could not conceivably do), there is a chance she'll find it helpful.

Second, even if you meet those requirements, your advice can still backfire if it carries the implied message, "You are inept." Don't make her feel wrong and don't be domineering. If you come across too controlling, she will feel you are taking away her autonomy. Both of these are considered by most people to be distinctly unhelpful, even making things worse.

Here are a few more things that sometimes help and sometimes don't help:
  1. Reassurance: Saying, "Everything will work out."
  2. Statements you have no way of knowing: "The worst is over." "Things are getting better."
  3. Trying to make your mate see things more positively: "Well, look on the bright side…"
  4. Trying to distract her from thinking about it.
Because these are sometimes helpful and sometimes not helpful, it is probably best to avoid them altogether. You have plenty of definitely helpful things you can do.

What Doesn't Help

Now we get to things fairly certain to be unhelpful. When you violate one of the three rules below, you have a good chance of making your mate feel worse than she already feels:
  1. Don't say (verbally or nonverbally) her feelings or the way she's expressing her feelings are wrong.
  2. Don't indicate she should stop doing what she's doing (pacing back and forth, wringing her hands, etc.).
  3. Never try to stop her expression of emotion. Don't tell her to calm down, for example.
Let's go into more detail about exactly what Burleson found to be counterproductive. Violate any of the rules below and it will probably make things worse when your mate is talking to you about a problem. Follow the rules below and you'll be a better, more helpful listener:
  1. Don't tell her she's overreacting or blowing things out of proportion. Don't minimize what she's feeling.
  2. If she's upset about a problem with a person, don't insult or put that person down.
  3. Don't tell her she has no right to be upset about what happened because it's her fault it happened.
  4. Don't imply that the reason she's in this mess is that she's incompetent.
  5. Don't indicate that expressing her negative feelings makes her problem worse. This is a form of rejecting her feelings and doesn't help.
  6. Don't make her think her emotions are uncalled for because her problem is so small. Don't say her upset is unnecessary because the problem is so easy to solve. This is another form of rejecting her feelings and saying her feelings are not legitimate.
  7. Never tell her how she should think or feel about her situation.
  8. Don't tell her to forget about her problem.
  9. Never tell her to ignore her feelings.
  10. Don't tell her to think about happier things.
  11. Don't spend very much time (if any) on your feelings about the situation, or about something similar that happened to you.
  12. Beware of being too involved to the point of intrusiveness. Don't be overly doting or overly concerned. It is possible to take your care and concern too far, and when you do, it ceases to be helpful and can even be harmful when it crosses the line into trying to control or persuade her to do what you think is best, or making her feel like a "poor little thing" which is a way of implying she's incapable dealing with it.
In other words, completely avoid criticism of any kind about anyone or anything when someone is troubled. It isn't helpful.

Why Does This Help?

Burleson thinks one of the main reasons good listening helps a person feel less upset is it gives your mate a chance to think about her situation differently. There are basically two ways to help someone with a problem: Actually help her solve the problem, or help her interpret her problem differently (so the problem, even though it hasn't changed, becomes less upsetting because of the new interpretation).

By following the 12 rules outlined above, your mate is able to talk openly about the problem and her feelings about it, making it easier for her to think about it (because you aren't interrupting, you're making her feel okay about talking about it, you're not trying to control her expression, etc.).

Because you're listening, as she struggles to tell you about her situation and her feelings about it, she understands the situation better. She's able to start making sense of it.

As she thinks about it without any persuasive efforts on your part, she can begin to change her mind about some of the conclusions she originally jumped to. She begins to change how she interprets her situation. When she changes her interpretation, her feelings will change.

As she calms down, her thoughts become even more rational and practical, and her understanding of her problem improves even more, and her understanding evolves toward something more constructive than her first take on it.

The kind of conversation that really helps has three main characteristics:
  1. Safe environment. You make a safe place to talk. You let her know you accept and have affection for her, and that you care about her, and that your intentions are good. You encourage her expressions of her feelings and then encourage her to go into detail about them, never invalidating any of her feelings, always helping her know it is safe for her to speak honestly. And you keep the environment conducive to communication by minimizing interruptions and distractions.
  2. Encourage feelings. You encourage her to talk about her emotions. You keep an ear out for any expressions of emotions she has about the problem, and then follow up on every one of them, helping those feelings come out in the open and inviting her to express the emotions in detail — not for any therapeutic-venting purposes (which research has shown to be ineffective), but to help her learn what her real feelings are about the situation. You ask questions about the problem and her feelings and the way she is interpreting the situation, and you assure her it is okay to talk about her feelings.
  3. Get the whole story. You encourage her to talk at length. Most conversations are two-way, with each person taking a turn, more or less equally. But you can help a person more by helping her get a longer turn, asking good questions, and then more questions about the answers she gave you. You let her know you want to hear the full story — you don't want her to make a long story short. You encourage her to go on. You don't interrupt. You don't let the conversation get sidetracked by you talking too much. You avoid giving advice. You avoid evaluating the situation or interpreting it for her, because that stops her from talking. You try to extend the narration, not cut it off.
Sometimes you can help your mate deal with the problem itself, but that best comes after she has had time to fully express it and after she asks you for advice. Then you can help through brainstorming or discussing possible solutions to the problem and alternatives and the consequences, actually taking some actions that help, etc. Any information and opinions you have about the problem should always be given in a way that never makes her feel wrong or "not enough." Never communicate advice in a way that comes across as commanding, domineering, or holier-than-thou.

You truly want to help your mate, and if you do the things that work and avoid the things that don't, you will help her. Your mate will become less upset and she will be able to figure out good solutions to her problems. You may not get any glory because she probably won't even notice how skillfully you've helped her, but you will know in your heart you've done some good, and that is reward enough.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal GrowthSlotralogyAntivirus For Your Mindand co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English)Follow his podcasts, The Adam Bomb and Talk to Klassy. You can email him here.

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