We both agreed that our communications aren't working out, and she is receptive to some feedback. So I'm teaching her some of the "active listening" techniques I learned in psychotherapy school. I thought I'd pass them along to y'all, because good listening is easy to do and is truly helpful in one's relationships.
When someone is speaking to you about something that stirs their emotions, these techniques are helpful.
1) Resist the urge to give advice, especially if you weren't invited to do so. Giving advice sends the message
"I know you, and your life, better than you do".
It's condescending. Even good advice is disempowering.
If you are invited to give advice, it's probably because the person you're speaking with is having trouble making a choice. Whichever side you pick, the other person will most likely begin to argue for the other option, externalizing the arguments they've been having with themselves inside their head. This will probably just leave you both frustrated.
2) Ask open-ended questions. Examples:
- What would be the worst-case scenario?
- Ideally, how would you like to see this turn out?
- What do you think she'd say if she knew how you really felt?
Basically, any question that leads other other person to consider an angle that they hadn't considered before is useful. Usually when someone has a problem that's bugging them, they get caught in a repeating thought-cycle, which is frustrating and non-productive.
If you try to change their mind directly, they'll resist you, because most people don't want to admit that their viewpoint is incomplete or flawed. You can't directly break the cycle, but you can introduce a train of thought that leads the other person out of their rut. See if you can persuade them to look deeper, or think of something they haven't thought of before, just by asking questions. It's sneaky, and it works.
3) Paraphrase what the person has just told you, and repeat it back to them, also recognizing whatever emotional content they've expressed. Then validate the emotion.
"So, you've been studying really hard for exams for three weeks, you're burned out, and completely freaking about your test tomorrow. That's rough. I remember feeling like that when I was in school."
"I understand that the doctor has kept you waiting for two hours, you're in pain, and you feel that the staff has been ignoring you. I'm so sorry. You must be beyond frustrated. I would feel the same way if I were in your shoes."
It doesn't matter if you think you would be more patient or more calm or whatever. Identify with the emotion as much as you genuinely can, and let the person know you respect their feelings.
You might think it sounds really fake and scripted, but as you get more practice with it you'll begin to incorporate the techniques naturally. Generally the person you're speaking with will be receptive to the content of what you're saying, even if it comes off as slightly awkward.
4) Avoid any use of or implication of the word "should". For example:
- You should calm down/just relax/chill out!
- You shouldn't feel like that!
- You should just [insert advice].
Bottom line: shoulds, musts, oughts, and have to's are bad.
And that's it. Four easy tips to smooth, productive communications. Listen, give feedback on the content, validate the emotion, and don't give advice. You all graduate with gold stars from this short course on active listening. Now go forth and listen!