Most of my clients have a reasonably-sized social network with whom they interact. Only a small fraction of the people who come to see me are socially isolated; the rest, while inherently unhappy with aspects of their lives, do spend time with friends, family and colleagues. Therefore, they are privy to hearing many of the same problems from those people that I hear in the therapy room: mood, anxiety, relationships, job loss/dissatisfaction, etc. In many ways the life of a shrink mirrors that of any other person in society, at least in terms of content. Thus, I hear a common set of questions from clients who often play the role of pseduo-therapist in their personal lives:
How can you spend all day helping people with their problems?
How do cope hearing nothing but misery on a daily basis?
Where do all of your answers come from?
And, most importantly, “how do you solve everyone’s problems for them?”
The answer to this last query is quite simple: lots of times I don’t. While I try to help the people I see in any way I can, one of the ironic aspects of this job is sometimes what you don’t say is much more therapeutic than what you do. A huge, colossal, almost immeasurable piece of being a therapist is simply being able to listen well.
The title of this piece comes from a very unfunny cliche sometimes used in the Shrink World. When people present us with problems, our natural tendency is often to solve, to correct or at least to mitigate the issue. This isn’t inherently bad and can be considered quite compassionate (although we need to acknowledge that often this approach is simply to alleviate our own discomfort at hearing personal and difficult information). What is problematic, however, is that problem-solving and correction isn’t always what a person immediately needs, whether he/she recognizes it at the time or not. We all have a built-in requirement that we be heard, understood and validated, regardless of the issue at hand. It’s after this need has been fulfilled that other interventions (such as problem-solving) can take place.
When I tell people what I’ve just written to you, they often ask, “that’s all well and good, but how do I be a better listener?” You can read entire books on this subject, but for a simple crash course, consider a few options:
1) Say Nothing: Just because someone has completed a cadence in their verbiage, that doesn’t automatically mean you must respond with something witty, thought-provoking, solution-focused or awe-inspiring. If you can show a concerned facial expression and a head nod, you can easily convey the message “I get it, I hear what you’re saying.” A person may then ask for your thoughts and by all accounts you should feel free to give them, but don’t treat silence as a chasm that needs to be filled. Sometimes letting it exist can be a powerful tool. It can simply let the person know that you’re there with them, ready to hear more.
2) Ask Probing Questions: When someone has stopped speaking, don’t assume you now know everything about his/her personal inner experience, and under no circumstances should you work from the idea you have to guess what’s next. If you’re not sure whether or not the person has shared enough, ask for more. As a graduate student, I was shocked at some of the positive feedback I received from clients just from using phrases such as “That sounds really difficult, tell me more about what that felt like,” or “I think I’m beginning to understand, but could you say more?” If the sincerity is there, the speaker will pick up that you’re with him/her on the issue and will likely continue to explain and explore. This, in turn, helps him to understand himself and the problem a bit more.
3) Use Empathic Reflection: This is another option to show you’ve really taken in what the person has said, even if you aren’t providing a golden nugget of wisdom. People tend to respond quite favorably to the idea that the listener has really absorbed what was stated. “So if you break things off, you’ll be free from all the bullshit he brings to the relationship, but then you’ll be alone, something that feels equally unbearable. Do I have that right, is that what this is about?”
4) Be Honest if you Don’t Know the Solution: People usually respond positively when you are flat-out, crystal clear that you don’t know exactly what to do. I can’t count the number of times someone has presented a conundrum where the best of course of action was, at best, vague and, at worst, seemingly non-existant. This would lead me to say something along the lines of, “I’m not going to lie to you, I honestly don’t know what you should do in this spot. Let’s try a few options on for size, see how they feel for you and take it from there.” While anyone has the right to fire back, “but you should know, you’re the expert and this is what I’m paying you for,” if you’re not a practicing therapist, you need not concern yourself with such matters*.
5) Don’t Assume that Every Problem Even Has a Solution: Not every issue can be solved. For example, the death of a loved one. Recognizing that there is nothing to do can be frustrating and leave you feeling helpless but, ironically, it can also be liberating. There’s nothing to do; you feel the feelings and let them run their course. This means there is often little to be said. Indeed, in the therapy room, when people deal with loss there are certain therapeutic techniques that one employs, but if you’re not a mental health worker, you don’t have to worry about this**. Avoid platitudes like, “oh, don’t cry. You’ll always have wonderful memories.” In fact, if you said that to me you’d be spitting up teeth or holding in your innards after experiencing a bullet to the stomach. Those types of statements are both ignorant and inherently invalidating.
Here’s your homework assignment for the week: the next time a friend, family member, colleague, drinking buddy or anyone else you may care about presents you with a problem, issue or conflict, consider using one (or more) of the options I’ve presented to you. As previously mentioned, these choices are by no means exhaustive and we could dedicate an entire blog to interpersonal communication, but just start with these and see where they take you. Then feel free to share your results with me. If you can solve the person’s problem after trying the above, by all means go for it, but see if you can notice any shift in his/her distress level just from being more immersed in their experience. You may be surprised at how much better connected both you and the speaker are as a result.
* When clients say this to me, I remind them while I have expertise in dealing with other people and psychological problems, I’m not an answer machine. I, too, have problems in life where the solution isn’t immediately in sight. My job, therefore, is to help the client figure things out as opposed to spoon-feeding him an answer I don’t have. In fact, and as cliche as this sounds, when the client himself discovers the appropriate course of action to take, it feels so much better for him.
** There is a chapter in “Crazy” that is dedicated specifically to grief work. One of my test readers described as “psychological torture.”