Recently a woman told me that she avoids her teenage niece who suffers from depression. She avoids her beloved niece because she does not know how to help her.
Many of us want to solve the problems of people we care about who are struggling. If we feel unable to do this, we may be, unfortunately, sending the message that we don’t care. The good news is that more often than not people don’t actually need problems to be solved, instead they need someone simply to listen.
In my work as a psychotherapist, listening is what I do for a living, and so it’s something I think about a lot. If we cannot offer tangible advice, suggestions, or solutions, then are we really doing anything helpful by simply listening?
Carl Rogers (1902-1987) was a psychologist who maintained that in order to understand change when we are suffering, we need an environment that provides us with three factors. We need genuineness (openness and self-disclosure), acceptance (being seen with unconditional positive regard), and empathy (being listened to and understood). In his view, the capacity for insight, and subsequent problem solving, resides primarily in ourselves. We behave as we do because of the way we perceive the situation. “As no one else can know how we perceive, we are the best experts on ourselves,” Rogers wrote.
I practice cognitive behavior therapy, and from the framework of CBT the capacity for problem solving also lies primarily in ourselves. Using CBT, the way to solve a problem is to look for other perspectives. Looking for, and thereby finding a perspective that shows us a way forward is the solution.
In 1957, Carl Rogers coined the term “active listening” and today this is still germane. It means that the central question for a listener is not: “What can I do for this person?” Instead, the better question is: “How does this person see their situation?” Listening in this manner is called “validating”. That is a fancy word for the simple act of acknowledgment.
Some examples may be helpful.
Speaker: “I’m afraid to show my report card to my parents. Out of my seven classes, I’m only passing two of them!”
Listener: “You’re failing the majority of your classes and you sound very worried.”
Speaker: “I just don’t ever understand my boss. One minute he seems to say one thing and the next minute he seems to say the opposite.”
Listener: “You’re confused by the things he says.”
An active listener conveys the message to the speaker that their perspective makes sense. It’s not wrong. A listener like this isn’t disagreeing or agreeing with the speaker, they are simply conveying the message that their perspective is valid and real.
This is when the magic can happen. When the listener leaves the initiative for exploring the problem to the speaker, a very moving outcome often occurs. A shift in perspective arises, and so, new avenues of action are recognized.
The woman who was avoiding her niece said to me, “She seems to see everything so negatively. Every bright spot I point out she doesn’t see!”
“That sounds like it’s exasperating for you,” I responded, validating her perspective. And the reason she was avoiding her niece.
“It is! She is always saying that she doesn’t have any friends. But I know she has lots of friends,” the woman exclaimed.
“Your niece is saying she doesn’t have friends and yet she does,” I said.
“I never thought of that,” the woman considered (you might notice, she is considering something she herself just said). Suddenly her perspective changed. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t have friends too, actually, even though I know I do. I can understand that feeling.” She smiled, with a new willingness to open her mind to the possibilities and value of listening. This caused her to declare a renewed intention to reach out to her niece.
We try to make sense of our world. Sometimes we can and sometimes we can’t. When we can’t, we suffer. Then, when someone listens and tells us that it makes sense why we are suffering, we feel accepted. When feel we are accepted, we feel we are not alone. When we feel we are not alone, we see that there can be other perspectives, and new ways forward.
“You must be the best judge of your own happiness.” Jane Austen
Rogers, Carl. (1980). A Way of Being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Knapp P., Kieling C., Beck A. T. (2015). What do psychotherapists do? A systematic review and meta-regression of surveys. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 84, 377–378.