3 Feb 2009

More Support, Less Drain: Differentiation in Supportive Listening

Posted by eranmagen

2angryTrue emotional connection is one of the key ingredients of good listening.

Unfortunately, when we come into emotional contact with someone who is upset, the experience can be difficult for us: We put forth our best Supportive Listening attitude, we try to relate to the other’s experience and to understand what it must like to be them – and we find that we are becoming upset ourselves, just like the person we are listening to. I can’t believe they did that to his car! How dare they talk about her like that? It’s just heartbreaking that he lost everything…

Many people intuitively assume that we provide the best support by displaying, and even experiencing, the same emotions as the person we are talking with. The reasoning is something like: This way they’ll know I’m on their side, and will feel better. He is sad? I’ll be sad as well. She’s annoyed? I’ll be annoyed too. These are examples of taking on another person’s emotions – a state that Murray Bowen termed “Emotional Fusion.”

Although this approach makes intuitive sense, it leads to two problematic consequences, which diminish our ability to provide effective support:

(1) Being upset is an emotionally intense state, and will drain us before long. If we know that whenever we talk to somebody who is angry (or sad, or afraid) we become angry (or sad, or afraid), we will begin avoiding these conversations, and provide less support overall.

(2) Ironically, the person we are supporting may realize that he is making us upset and. If he is sensitive enough, he may actually self-censure so as not to upset us too much.This, of course, is the exact opposite of the result we are hoping to achieve when providing support – namely, providing the other person with a space to express himself and process his experience in a safe, accepting space.

Does this mean it would be better if we remained aloof and unconcerned with the other person’s emotions? Such lack of connection may be unpleasant for us, and will certainly do little to comfort another. If You are reading this, You probably care about other people, and wish to alleviate their suffering as much as You can. But if taking on the other person’s emotions is unhelpful, and remaining aloof and uncaring is also unhelpful, what is left for us to do?

What we can do is try our best to remain engaged, caring, and connected, without taking on the other person’s emotions – to adopt a stance that Murray Bowen called “Differentiation.” Being differentiated is not the same as being uncaring, nor does it mean being cold. It means being able to recognize another’s emotions as his own, while maintaining our own emotional balance.

Carl Rogers defined “Accurate Empathy” as the ability to “…sense the [other’s] private world as if it were your own, but without ever losing the ‘as if’ quality.” This ability to maintain this frame of mind, to interact with a distressed person without taking on his distress, even while caring deeply about his distress, is a fundamental skill that lies at the core of Supportive Listening.

– Eran

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