By Nancy Larson
(LifeWire) — Rob Siegal made a mistake shortly after he married his wife Jen in 2002. Experts say you can be a supportive listener without giving your spouse solutions to their problems.
Experts say you can be a supportive listener without giving your spouse solutions to their problems.
When she started complaining about her boss, the 37-year-old suggested that she look for another job. It was a sensible reaction that he thought she would appreciate.
But Jen Siegal wasn’t looking for solutions, she says. She just wanted a sympathetic ear.
“It was really frustrating,” says the 26-year-old mother of one.
Rob Siegal, of Wheat Ridge, Colorado, continued to offer his two cents’ worth when Jen complained — and it got to a point where she considered not confiding in her husband altogether.
“I would shut down and say, ‘I don’t want to talk about this anymore,’ ” says Siegal, who wasn’t sure what she was looking for at the time.
Learning when to offer advice — and when you should just shut up and listen — can be a challenge. Sometimes people just want to share what’s on their minds, and piping up with a solution can seem insensitive, or even intrusive.
“When we love someone and they’re not doing well or they’re complaining or they’re hurt, we want to make it all better,” says Israel Helfand, a Cabot, Vermont, marriage and family therapist.
But helping can come in the form of listening to a problem. “Sometimes people just want to be heard without any commentary or suggestions at all,” says Helfand’s wife Cathie, who’s also a therapist.
The ‘evil cycle’
That was something Ellen Moore discovered the hard way. The 37-year-old adolescent therapist just couldn’t resist telling her husband Mike Moore, also 37, what she thought he should do anytime he complained about something.
“I think I’m really good at my job. But when it came to Mike, it’s like the physician can’t heal himself,” says Ellen Moore, of East Haven, Vermont.
Around 1996, when Mike Moore was working in a factory, he confided in Ellen Moore about a hostile coworker. Ellen Moore insisted that Mike tell his boss. When he didn’t, she actually phoned Mike’s boss herself — and he temporarily shut down the business to address the issue, Ellen Moore says. Mike Moore was not happy.
“She did not trust my judgment,” says Mike, Moore now a stay-at-home dad to their three children, ages 8, 7 and 10 months.
For the next six years, the couple’s problems escalated into what Ellen Moore refers to as “the evil cycle,” where Mike Moore would complain about something, and she would offer advice that usually fell on deaf ears.
“He would shut down and that would make me more mad — and then he would shut down more,” she says.
“I didn’t want to hear advice at that point,” Mike Moore adds.
Frustrated that Mike wouldn’t talk to her, Ellen Moore pushed back with a threat she did not really intend to carry out: “The only way to get him to pay attention was to say I wanted a divorce.”
Ellen and Mike Moore were in couples counseling for two years. Though Mike Moore had tried to tell his wife he needed her to hold back on the advice, she was only able to take in the message when it came from a third party. Now, their 20-year-old relationship has never been better.
“He’s come to value my opinion more,” Ellen Moore says.
Opinions are the last thing Susan Derr of Dallas wants as she struggles through a custody dispute with her ex-boyfriend over their 5-year-old son. Derr, a 35-year-old stock market broker relations specialist, often turns to her friend Cristian Hinojosa to get some relief from the constant worry, anger and frustration.
“If he just listens, it helps me get it out of my brain,” Susan Derr says.
Most of the time, Hinojosa, a 30-year-old firefighter and paramedic, holds back his advice. But recently, he let it all out. “I said, ‘Stop being so reactive and start controlling yourself,’ ” he recalls. “She just lost it.”
“You’re not hearing me. Stop telling me what to do,” Derr said before hanging up the phone. “I ended up getting frustrated because he just wouldn’t listen.”
Two hours later, Hinojosa called and apologized. Since then, he keeps the advice to himself, even if he’s not actually tuned in to what she’s saying.
“Sometimes I’ll pull the phone away from my ear and just let her vent,” he says.
When two people are having trouble communicating, it is not only the advice giver who needs to develop new listening skills. Lisa Thomas, a couples counselor and sex therapist in Greenwood Village, Colorado, says the person who wants to complain needs to ask for what they want.
“You can say: ‘I really need to chat about what’s bothering me. Is it OK if I just vent and you listen?’ ” Thomas says. “Or: ‘I really need some help solving a problem, and I’m looking for your advice.’ ”
That’s precisely what Jen Siegal realized she needed to do. When she wanted Rob’s advice, Jen Siegal told her husband, she would ask for it.
Rob Siegal said his wife’s comment was like a light bulb switching on in his head.
“I realized it wasn’t about fixing the problem, it was about letting her say what she had to say, to get everything off her chest,” he says.
Can you hear me now?
Experts say it’s important to understand the concept of metacommunication — something Helfand refers to as “talking about talking.” Thomas agrees, and offers these tips to demonstrate to your partner that you are being a supportive, active listener:
- Maintain good eye contact
- Paraphrase the message. Tell the speaker, “What I hear you saying is … “
- Put a feeling to it. Say, “That sounds like this is really difficult for you” or, “You sound really excited about this.”
- Let your partner ramble on in order to come to their own conclusions, Thomas suggests. “Most people know the answers to their own problems,” she says.
LifeWire provides original and syndicated content to Web publishers. Nancy Larson is a St. Louis-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in About.com, The Weather Channel, Health magazine and The Advocate.
CNN, Tue April 14, 2009
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