I have been discussing effective communication recently. I started with a post on the value of offering words of wisdom, and then a post on the value of silence and effective listening skills. In today’s article, I will conclude this series by discussing active listening and offering advice. Let me begin with an example.Imagine it is a hot day. You hear a knock on the door. You open the door to find a friend perspiring heavily, asking for a glass of cold water. If you are not paying attention to his request or his present state and instead try to force him to eat the beautiful and nutritious meal you have been making in the last couple of hours, you are not being helpful. And if you do pay attention to your friend’s request and still think this person should have your healthy and delicious meal, then you are making the situation about you.
You may have worked very hard on making the meal, which tastes great and contains many wonderful nutrients; it is a fantastic meal by any standard. So it is very unfortunate that your friend has no interest in the meal. Nor is he thinking about your need to feel appreciated; and you might really need to feel valued and appreciated. These are valid points.
However, they do not satisfy a person’s thirst.
The person at the door needs cold water. Even if you do not have cold water available, giving him a glass of plain ol’ water from the tap may be of more benefit than the meal. Good listening is as unexciting as giving someone a little water. And as life-giving.
Active listening and giving advice
The reason I used the elaborate example above is to illustrate how the “best” advice (i.e. the meal) may not be helpful in some situations. In those situations, whether you are offering an hour-long lecture containing all your knowledge regarding the situation or speaking only a few words of wisdom like “laughter is the best medicine” or “time heals all wounds,” you are not be saying anything the person finds particularly helpful.
But why are we so often driven to give advice instead of just listening?
Some people feel passive, stuck, or powerless when listening to someone sharing painful feelings or discussing a difficult situation. They want to jump in with a solution.
However, listening does not have to be passive.
Remember, you can still say things without offering advice. Like what?
One, feel free to validate. Validating is not the same as agreeing. You validate the person’s feelings and perceptions. For example, you might say, “Oh, that must have felt terrible to hear her say such things to you.”
Two, ask relevant questions. Asking questions shows your conversing partner that you have been following the conversation and are interested to learn more. However, do not interrogate. Also, make sure you are not asking basic questions simply because you have not been paying attention.
Sometimes only providing validation and asking clarifying questions is enough because they help the speaker to come up with a solution to their problems (or at least understand their difficulty better).
So make sure you have practiced effective listening skills, asked questions, and offered validation before you decide to give advice.
When you feel you must offer advice, begin with providing limited advice. Stick to the facts of the situation. Use logic. Suggest available resources (e.g., government resources, authoritative websites, books, experts). Be careful about sharing personal opinions. If an aspect of the person’s problem has triggered you badly, tell the speaker that the issue (e.g., child abuse) is upsetting you and you might not be the best person to offer advice in this regard at present.
Concluding thoughts on being there for another
- Be curious (intellectually): Listen. Also pay attention to the person’s body language. Do not make assumptions.
- Ask questions: Limit “why” questions because sometimes they sound accusatory. Ask for clarifications but do not interrogate. Make sure you ask questions in a neutral and sympathetic tone.
- Relate (emotionally): While remaining curious intellectually, relate to the speaker emotionally.
- Hold it: Do not ignore your own emotions and thoughts during the conversation; doing so would be self-invalidating. Instead, simply hold them for later reflection.
- Validate: An individual who tells you about a difficulty might not want advice but to feel validated, heard, and understood. Validate the person’s perception of the event.
- Give advice: Sometimes people like to vent, or to say things out loud to make sense of their own problems; so offer advice only if the person is asking for advice. When giving advice, use logic. Point out helpful resources (articles, books, programs in the community).
- Do not force yourself to listen. If you are busy, let the person know and offer a later time to meet with them and hear them out. If the issue is too upsetting to you, also make it known.