Listening Effectively to Strong Emotions

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.

Listener:

  1. Cheer up, it’s not that bad. You still have a job and I’m sure eventually you’ll get promoted.
  2. Wow, that sounds really upsetting. It makes sense that you’re feeling down that’s 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 which 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. 

Emotional Toggle Switches

Too bad we don’t have one of these on our forehead! Instead we need to listen effectively to strong emotions. 

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 it.

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 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 just listen empathically. What that means is to reflect back to the person what you hear them saying particularly the emotion. This skill is called reflection of emotion. 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 about 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 encouragements 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.

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

How to Forgive: A Cognitive Behavioral Model for Forgiveness and Letting Go of Anger and Frustration

What is forgiveness?

Here’s what it is not. It is not for anyone else, only for you. It doesn’t imply reconciliation with the person who hurt you nor does it imply that you approve of their actions. It does not mean forgetting what happened.

What is forgiveness?

It is only for you, in order to help you feel better. As one well-known researcher said, “failing to forgive is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

Forgiveness means understanding what is causing your current distress. It is not what offended you or hurt you years ago or even a few minutes ago. The primary cause of your suffering is from your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in response to your thoughts about the event.

This is a subtle concept. Most of us believe the reason we are angry is because someone has done us wrong. And it’s true, that if we could erase the event, we would stop being angry. But none of us own a time machine so we can not erase the events.

What makes us suffer is each moment that we think about the offending person or event. And how we think about these events. It is as if you own a DVD collection of movies of different events in your life. If you were to choose to only watch the upsetting movies, your overall level of happiness would greatly diminish. Choosing to forgive is choosing the DVDs of your life that are positive and full of joy.

There is another component of how people think about grudges. We often have a magical belief that our anger at someone else causes them to suffer. We imagine them feeling guilty about their behavior and suffering even when we are not present. We think of ways to hurt them in return – the silent treatment, constant criticism, reminding them of their offenses. But the reality is that most people are very good at blocking out guilt and punishment. Whenever they’re not around us they tend to think about other things. And they develop good ways of avoiding our punishment. So really the one who suffers is the person who’s angry and who fails to forgive, not the offender. And if the person we take out our anger on is someone we are still in relationship with, it damages the relationship and makes it even less likely we will get what we want.

Another trigger for resentment and anger is holding onto what the anger and forgiveness researchers call “unenforceable rules”. These are what most cognitive behavioral therapists call “Shoulds”. They are the demands we make on the world and on people around us. You can’t force anyone to do something they don’t choose to do, and you can’t require people to give you things they choose not to.

For instance, you might want fidelity in your romantic partner. You certainly have every right to want that. But you can’t demand or enforce fidelity. If your partner chooses to go outside the relationship, you can’t really change it. The only options you have are how to react to this. You have choices to make about the relationship and about your future relationships.

The research on forgiveness is very interesting. It reduces blood pressure, stress, anger, depression and hurt while increasing optimism and hope. The primary researcher on forgiveness, Dr. Fred Luskin at Stanford, has even done forgiveness research with women in Northern Ireland whose husbands were murdered. Even with these extreme cases people have found the forgiveness model very helpful at easing the pain.

I’ve written about how to conquer anger using the S A P model. In this model you change your shoulds into preferences rather than demands, you place into perspective the events that have caused your anger, and you shift out of the blame model and depersonalize most events.

Forgiveness is about being happy. Living your life to its fullest is the best revenge you can take on someone who has offended you. Instead of focusing on the hurt or betrayal, focus your energy on getting what you want in your life in a different way other than through the person who has hurt or betrayed you. Take responsibility for your own happiness rather than placing it onto other people and then being disappointed when they don’t provide happiness.

Change your story. Too often we have what is called a grievance story. We tend to tell this story to many people. It always ends with us feeling stuck and angry. Change your story. Change the ending so that it ends with a powerful and strong choice to forgive.

 
So to summarize, here’s how to forgive:

1. Let yourself first feel the pain. Share the experience with a few close and trusted friends.

2. Recognize that your anger is a result of your choices about what thoughts to experience about an event. Decide to forgive so that you can move forward and feel better.

3. Recognize that you probably won’t be able to get rid of your hurt and anger by punishing the other person. All you will accomplish is to damage the relationship or make the other person suffer while you continue to suffer.

4. Recognize the role that your “unenforceable rules” or Shoulds plays in your continued hurt and anger. Change or eliminate these rules.

5. Figure out what you want in your life and how to succeed in achieving those goals even if the other person doesn’t provide the answers. Remember that happiness is the best revenge.

6. Use the S A P model to change your shoulds, eliminate exaggerated awfulizing thinking, and take away blame.

7. Rewrite your script. Tell the new story where you were hurt but recovered and forgave and moved forward. You are a hero!

 

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

How Anger Works: The SAP Model ™ (Part 1)

In this article I will give you a simple cognitive behavioral explanation of how we get angry, and how you can use this knowledge to short-circuit and defuse your own anger. Anger is probably the most cognitive of all of the emotions. We can’t get angry without thinking. And most anger directly stems from our distorted thoughts.

There are three cognitive steps to getting angry. The first two are absolutely necessary for anger, and the third is like gasoline on fire, it intensifies anger. The acronym for remembering these three steps is SAP(tm), which is what anger will make you if you think these thoughts.

To help illustrate this lets consider a common situation where a person might get angry. You are driving on the freeway and a car cuts you off. You instantly react with anger. You steam all the way to work.

STEP ONE: VIOLATION OF SHOULDS or “SHOULDY THINKING”

The first step to getting angry is that you must have a set of shoulds or expectations that have been violated. Without this there is no anger. In the driving example what are your expectations? You tell yourself that the other driver shouldn’t have cut you off. He or she should have looked first and seen you. Obviously this should has been violated. This is what some cognitive therapists call “shouldy” thinking!

STEP TWO: AWFULIZING

But just having a set of shoulds or expectations is not enough to generate anger. The second step is necessary. In this step you exaggerate the negative consequences of the violation of the shoulds. You tell yourself it is awful and terrible that this event has happened. In our driving example your self talk is “Wow, the idiot could have killed me. It’s awful and terrible that they allow people like that to drive. Grrrrrr!” This step is called Awfulizing. Or Terribilizing, if you prefer. The key distortion is that you blow the event out of proportion. After all, if you are able to have these thoughts, then obviously no serious accident has ensued.

STEP THREE: PERSONALIZING

The first two steps will get you mad, but the third step of Personalizing or Blaming will make you crazy angry. If you tell yourself that the person didn’t see you, and it was an accident that they cut you off, you may still get angry. But if you tell yourself they did see you and purposely chose to cut you off anyway, then your anger spirals out of control. Blaming thoughts are like pouring gasoline on the fire of anger. They are responsible for such things as road rage.

So this how anger works. Let’s consider another example. This time we will use one closer to home. It’s early Saturday morning, and you are sleeping in after a long hard work week. Suddenly you are awoken by the loud noise of a lawn mower. It’s your neighbor George, who for some unknown reason, has decided that Saturday at 7:30am is a good time to mow his lawn. You are furious.

Let’s analyze this. What are the shoulds? Basically that your neighbor shouldn’t do noisy activities until 10 or 11 am on a weekend day. This should has been violated by George. What is the awfulizing? You are thinking that now you will be tired all day, and you’ll be cranky and irritable, and won’t have any fun. Is there a personalizing statement? Yes, you think, “George knows I work late, and knows I like to sleep in, so mowing his lawn so early is a direct insult to me!” And so you explode with anger.

So there you have it, a simple cognitive model of anger, the SAP model: Shoulds, Awfulizing, and Personalizing. Try an experiment. For a week, write down each anger incident you have by identifying the three Anger Thought Steps. This will help you to increase your awareness of how anger works, and prepare you for the next step, learning to defuse and eliminate your anger, which I will discuss in Part 2 of this article,  How to Stop Anger in its Tracks.

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge/ TPL Productions All Rights Reserved

 

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.