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 findings 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 friend 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 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 Slotralogy and co-author with Klassy Evans of What Difference Does It Make?: How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.