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Listen, Don't Solve

By Linda Sapadin, Ph.D

She knew that his desire was to be helpful. Yet, speaking to him didn't feel helpful. Actually, she was relieved when he finally stopped sermonizing. She could then exhale. He prided himself on being a problem solver. He could figure out what was wrong and rectify the difficulty. Yet, he often felt helpless with the person he wanted to help the most.

She felt that he didn't get it. She wanted to divulge her feelings; he wanted to resolve the issue. She needed to tell the story; he needed to patch up the problem. She wanted him just to be there; he wanted to make her feel better.

He felt that she didn't get it. He wanted to help; she wanted to push him away. He needed to feel useful; she needed to figure it out by herself. He wanted to take away her pain; she wanted to keep talking about it.

This couple wants to dance together, yet the dance is over as soon as the music begins. What's a couple to do when they both sway to different music?

In these kinds of situations, it's most important to be aware of the beat of the music. If her music is excitable and his music is analytical, trouble abounds. She will rarely be receptive to his input (even if he's on target) if she's enmeshed in emotions. She will turn a cold shoulder to his solutions if he presents them when she's not ready to hear them. So what can he do to feel powerful and effective?

Listen, not offer advice.
Empathize, not solve.
Ask questions, not give answers.
But these things are tough to do if he's uncomfortable not actively 'doing' something. He wants to expunge her stress, bring a smile to her face. She'd like that too, but she's not ready for it yet. He'd like her to calm down now. She'd like that too but she's not ready for it yet.

To make himself feel comfortable, he offers solutions; she rejects them. He feels ineffectual; she feels isolated. Why can't she appreciate his input? She might, but not until her flood of emotions has subsided. Advice may be welcome but not when the timing is off. So what's a guy to do? Here are a few tips:

  1. Let her finish speaking before you speak. If you're busy thinking about what to say next, it will impede your active listening.
  2. Listen for the important points. Pay special attention to what's being said with intense emotion.
  3. Nod your head to indicate that you're listening. Don't be afraid to show your feelings with facial expressions. We listen with our faces as well as our ears.
  4. Ask questions. If you're not sure you understand a point, just ask. Don't assume you know it all because you catch the drift of some of it.
  5. Avoid being patronizing with your tone of voice, your questions or your suggestions.
  6. Find out if she's ready for your input by asking her questions such as, "How can I be helpful?", "What would you like from me?", "I've got some feedback for you, want to hear it?"
Follow these tips and pretty soon you'll both be dancing to the same music. What a lovely place that is to be!
Copyright © 2009: Linda Sapadin, Ph.D
Linda Sapadin is a psychologist and personal coach in private practice who specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior. For more information about her work, contact her by email or visit her website at PsychWisdom.

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