Listening effectively is hard. Especially when the other person has strong negative emotions. We usually and intuitively do the wrong things.
Let me give you a quick test.
Which of the following is a better response?
Speaker: I’m so depressed about being passed over for a promotion at work. I’m worried that I’m going to be fired, or just that I’ll never get another promotion.
- Cheer up, it’s not that bad. You still have a job and I’m sure eventually you’ll get promoted.
- Wow, that sounds really upsetting. It makes sense that you’re feeling down. Being passed over is a huge disappointment. And it also sounds like you’re worried about the future and your job. Tell me more.
Which do you think is a better response? If you picked a) then you are in good company. Most people think that that’s a better response. It’s a response that attempts to change the person’s emotion to a positive one. What’s wrong with this?
What’s wrong with it is that it is based on what I call the switch-on-the-forehead model of human emotion. In this model, we imagine that there’s a switch panel on our forehead that controls all of our negative emotions. If you feel depressed, just reach up and flip the depressed switch to the off position. If you feel anxious, do the same with the anxiety switch. I’ve written quite a bit about depression and anxiety in previous posts, and this model of negative emotion doesn’t really work.
Unfortunately, human beings don’t actually have an emotional switch panel. In reality, we are really bad at changing our feelings quickly. When someone we are talking to implies we should be able to switch off our negative emotion we end up feeling the original painful negative emotion as well as an additional layer of shame that we can’t control.
We say things like “I feel so weak that I can’t overcome my depression.” “I’m such a loser to get so anxious about a job interview.” “I should not get so angry.” Notice that all of these statements are trying to negate a strong emotion and shame comes with failing to do so.
It gets worse. There’s actually quite a bit of research on thought suppression and what this research has found is what I call the pink elephant effect. The more you try not to think or feel something the stronger those thoughts and feelings become. Try not to think of a pink elephant and if you try hard enough that will be all you can think about. This is also true of anxiety, anger, sadness, and virtually all negative emotions. Thus when we try to “cheer up” someone who is upset, it usually backfires.
Why do people use invalidating listening responses instead of listening effectively? It’s not out of malevolence. We all want to help. But these attempts to “cheer up” people are usually doomed to failure. People typically push back against the “cheer up” message. If you tell a depressed person to look at the positives in their life, they will push back and tell you about all the negatives, or they will negate the positives. Tell an anxious person that their fears are overblown and they will tell you why their fears are realistic. As they push back, they feel more depressed and more anxious.
What Not to Do When Listening to Emotions
What are the most common “try not to think of the pink elephant” invalidating listening responses? Why are they unhelpful?
1. Simple negation statements: “Don’t feel sad, don’t feel anxious, don’t feel angry.” These are statements that simply instruct the person to stop feeling the negative emotion. Another version of a negation statement is “cheer up”, “don’t worry”, or “chill out.” Or perhaps the worst of all, “Get over it!”
These are unhelpful because we don’t have that switch panel on her forehead that allows us to simply turn off negative emotions. In fact, because throughout human history negative emotions had more survival value than positive emotions, the brain overweighs negative emotions. On the ancient savanna, fear of being eaten by a lion when you hear rustling in the brush is a survival mechanism. Dismissing this fear could lead to disaster.
2. Problem-solving suggestions: “Maybe you should look for a different job.” “Have you considered ending your marriage or relationship?”
The problem with these kinds of suggestions is that they implicitly dismiss the person’s right to have negative emotions. They suggest a simple solution that will remove the negative emotions. But they are disrespectful because most people have already thought through all of these simple solutions and either they’re not simple, or they’re not solutions that they are willing to take.
Sometimes problem-solving is reasonable, but is best done after lengthy supportive listening. And usually, it’s best to avoid problem-solving and advice-giving entirely.
3. Look-on-the-bright-side statements: “It’s not that bad, at least you have your health (money, relationship, kids, etc.)” or my favorite one, “At least it’s not cancer.”
These kinds of statements are not helpful because typically they are experienced as dismissive of our right to have these negative feelings. And we often push back and point out that there is no bright side, which can end up in a struggle between ourselves and the listener. This struggle is frustrating for both.
4. Changing the topic entirely: “Let’s not talk about your depression, what are you doing the rest of the week?”
Again, this is usually experienced as dismissive and unsupportive. It’s like saying to the person, “Shut up and stop talking about your suffering.”
5. Get therapy or go on medication suggestions. This is when your friend or family member suggests you may need therapy or medication to deal with your negative emotions. Again, this comes from a helpful place but is often experienced as dismissive. It’s like saying, “I can’t deal with your negative vibe, so please talk to somebody else.”
There are certainly times when it’s appropriate to recommend therapy, but this is best done after using positive listening approaches. Doing it at the front end is another way of invalidating the person’s feelings.
How to Listen Effectively to Strong Emotions
If these are all examples of what not to do, what should we do when someone expresses strong emotions to us? How should we respond? What skills can we use to listen effectively?
1. The first step is to listen empathically. What that means is to reflect back to the person what you hear them saying particularly the emotion. This skill is called a reflection of feelings. You basically just paraphrase their emotions, making an effort to be accurate as to the intensity. If someone says I am massively depressed, you don’t reflect back “You’re feeling a little bit down.” Instead, you reflect, “You’re really feeling overwhelmingly down.”
If you accurately reflect feelings, then the person will elaborate on what they are feeling and you reflect again. Or you ask open-ended questions like, “How did that make you feel?” or “What did you feel then?” This will also expand the responses to their emotions.
Another good option is to reflect back the emotion and then ask the person to tell you more. “Sounds like you’re really mad at your wife about her spending. Tell me more.”
Of course, basic listening guidelines apply. Make good eye contact, use head nodding and nonverbal encouragers like “mmmm”, and “go on.” And of course, turn off your phone or mute it so you can listen fully.
2. Try to avoid the temptation to problem-solve or give advice. Especially try to avoid what I call the narcissistic shift. The narcissistic shift is when you shift to your own experience instead of staying with the other person’s experience. Many people mistakenly believe that these kinds of shifts are actually empathic but they are not. Here’s an example of the narcissistic shift:
Speaker: “Ever since I went off my antidepressants I’m feeling very depressed.”
Listener: “Yes, that happened to me a few years ago. I ended up having to go back on them. That’s probably what you should do.”
Even though it may be true that the listener had a similar experience it is invalidating because typically the exact experience was quite different. Also, the message becomes, “Let’s not talk about you, let’s talk about me.”
It is like my favorite narcissist joke. The narcissist says, “Let’s not talk about me, let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?”
3. Normalize the speaker’s emotions. Statements like, “Of course you are feeling overwhelmed, so much has been going on lately.” Or, “Of course you are feeling depressed, you lost a job you loved. It makes perfect sense.”
The benefit of normalizing emotions is that it takes away the shame. Just try not to do the narcissistic shift as part of this. Avoid saying, “when I lost my job I got depressed also.” Just remember good listening is not about you, it’s about the other person.
4. Ask questions. Open-ended questions or encouragement to talk more are the best. Examples of open-ended questions are: “What are you feeling?” “How did that affect you?” Try to avoid asking why questions as they often come across as attacking. Example: “Why are you so sad?”
John Gottman, the well-known marriage therapist, suggests some of these questions:
- Tell me what happened.
- Tell me everything that’s bothering/worrying you.
- Tell me all of your concerns.
- Tell me everything that’s led up to this.
- Help me understand more about what you’re feeling.
- What set off these feelings?
- What’s the thing that’s worrying you the most?
- What’s the worst that could happen?
Notice that all of these encourage the person to feel safe venting and talking about their most painful emotions.
Some final thoughts on Listening Effectively
Listening effectively is simple but very hard. Most of us will have a strong temptation to do all of the wrong things when confronted with strong emotion in another person. Fundamentally, we are all uncomfortable with strong negative emotions both in ourselves and in other people. It is a hard practice to learn to accept and tolerate negative emotions in others and in ourselves.
Now you’re probably thinking about a friend or family member who tends to ruminate about things and wondering if this approach would actually be counterproductive with them. I tend to think that much rumination is actually an interpersonal phenomenon that is based on unsupportive listening. A good analogy, although somewhat gross, is training an abscess or boil. When it’s fully drained, a painful process, healing begins. If you just put a Band-Aid over it, it only worsens. Unsupportive listening forces the speaker into pushing back by staying stuck with their emotions rather than fully expressing them.
If you really believe that someone you care about is stuck in rumination, then do an experiment. Listen effectively and fully for an hour. Let them cry, scream, quiver, whatever they need. In most cases, they will feel better and be less stuck in rumination. And you will have given them an amazing gift of love and kindness. Try it sometime, you will be amazed at the results.