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5 Nov 2008

Things You Never Thought to Ask about Supportive Listening

Posted by eranmagen. No Comments

There are quite a few scientists out there who are studying how people support one another, and the conclusions they’re arriving at are not exactly intuitive. In this post I’d like to discuss two of these findings, which are especially relevant to Supportive Listening. Ready? Here we go:

1) Receiving emotional support can be dangerous.

2) Giving emotional support is always helpful… for the person providing the support.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Receiving emotional support can be dangerous

What? Receiving emotional support is harmful? Isn’t the whole point of support to help make things better?

Well, yes, but while trying to offer help and support it’s easy to hurt the person in front of us, especially if they are in a vulnerable place. The main problem culprit appears to be the supporter’s over-eager attempt to solve things for the speaker – to “rescue” the speaker, if you will.

As psychologist Kent Harber and colleagues put it, “By taking charge of too much, supporters may communicate through their very acts of support that copers lack the skills or strengths needed to remedy their own problems” (2005, p. 692). This creates a sense of helplessness in the person who is experiencing the difficulty, and helplessness is a dangerous thing indeed. While the “supporter” may feel good about solving the problem at hand, the “supported” learns that he cannot solve problems on his own, which is likely to (a) make him feel worse, and (b) make him feel even more overwhelmed when the next problem comes around.

Supportive Listening offers a way of providing support without such damaging side effects. In the same study, Brown and colleagues tested the effect of directive and nondirective support on hope, self-efficacy (feeling that I can handle challenges in my life), sadness, and loneliness. By now You can probably guess the outcome: When people reported receiving more directive support, they also reported more sadness and loneliness. Conversely, when people reported receiving more nondirective support, they also reported greater feelings of hope and self-efficacy.

These results are not conclusive, since it’s possible that people received more directive support because they seemed so sad and lonely, and their supporters interpreted the situation as an emergency. Nevertheless, these results make a strong initial case for the dangers of directive support and the benefit of nondirective support.

Giving emotional support is always helpful… for the person providing the support

In a number of studies, psychologists have found that receiving emotional support may have a negative effect on its receivers. The study I described above (Brown and colleagues, 2005) was unusual, in the sense that most studies do not distinguish between directive and nondirective support. It’s probably fair to assume that there is a fair mix of both in the real world, so there is a good deal of directive support, making people feel a little bad about themselves (even while trying to solve their problems). Therefore, it’s not surprising to hear that many studies have found that emotional support has mixed effects on its recipient.

Results are much less mixed with regards to providing emotional support. Two large studies have found that providing emotional support brings clear benefits. Brown and colleagues (2003) studied older couples for a 5-year period, and checked the frequency with which the study participants provided and received social support. The finding? People who provided more emotional support were less likely to be dead by the end of the study, relative to people who provided little emotional support to the spouses.

Did receiving emotional support keep people alive? Not really. People who reported receiving a lot of emotional support were just as likely to die as people who reported receiving little emotional support. These results held even after taking into consideration the physical and mental health of participants at the start of the study. In another study, Gleason and colleagues (2003) studied couples for a period of 4 weeks, and tried to understand how giving and receiving emotional support influences their moods (rather than their likelihood of surviving, brrr).

Their findings were clear: Giving emotional support greatly improved people’s moods, while receiving emotional support (remember that this may have well been directive support that they received) had negative effects on their moods. However, the negative effect of receiving emotional support was counteracted by reciprocating and providing emotional support to the other spouse. This reciprocity resulted in the best mood for everyone.

So where does that leaves us?

Are we to learn that we should always seek to push help on others, so that we may benefit and they may suffer? Or are we to learn never to support others, so that we don’t accidentally support them?

Of course not. It is possible (and helpful) to provide support in a way that is beneficial for the recipient. Remember what Brown and colleagues (2005) have found in their study: Nondirective support is beneficial for the receiver, while directive support is harmful. Learning to provide nondirective support is a critical step in learning to provide real, healthy support. And, in all likelihood, it’s good for the person providing the support, too. Through Supportive Listening, Paul and I are refining tools that enable everyone to provide exactly this kind of gentle, truly helpful, healthy support to the people around them.


  • Brown, S., Nesse, R., Vinokur, A., & Smith, D. (2003) Psychological Science, 14(4), 320-327.
  • Gleason, M., Iida, M., Bolger, N., & Shrout P. (2003). Daily supportive equity in close relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(8), 1036-1045.
  • Harber, K., Schneider, J., Everard, K., & Fisher, E. (2005). Directive support, nondirective support, and morale. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 24(5), 691-722.

© 2008 Supportive Listening

23 Oct 2008

Bad Assumptions, Part 2: "HONK HONK"

Posted by paulandrew. No Comments

I had an unpleasant driving experience the other day it got me thinking about my own impatience when driving.

I’m waiting in line at a busy intersection with 4 way stop signs, and am behind several cars. The traffic is moving along but not particularly fast. The car in front of me is signaling to turn left. When he finally gets to the front of the line, he is unable to advance, though, because there are pedestrians crossing the crosswalk of the street that he’s turning into.

So naturally he waits for them to cross. And I see that that’s what he’s waiting so I wait patiently too. That’s when things go awry. The car behind me starts honking, as if there were no good reason for us to be waiting.

I wonder what’s going through his mind? Is he thinking that somebody just isn’t paying attention? That we are less concerned about moving forward than he is? That we just enjoy sitting at a stop sign, and are doing this to antagonize him? What is it?

In any case, I just didn’t like the use of the horn. It put me on edge, and in this case had no good application at all. I say if you’re frustrated in your car, bang on your steering wheel, shout to yourself, but please don’t use your horn just to say “screw you.” It has a negative impact on other people.

This experience got me thinking about the times when I had seen cars inexplicably stopped and gotten frustrated by this. In almost every case, within a few seconds I saw the good reason that people were stopped, and calmed right down. I initially made bad assumptions that got me upset.

Now my impulse, when I see something that doesn’t make sense is to wonder “what’s going on?”

16 Oct 2008

Bad assumptions, part 1: “NO CELL PHONES IN THE LIBRARY”

Posted by paulandrew. No Comments

Just yesterday I was on the receiving of someone’s ire. I didn’t think it was warranted. It got me thinking about assumptions and judgment.

I’m in the library. I flip open my phone to check my schedule when suddenly a call comes in. Normally my phone would give me the choice of taking the call or ignoring it, but because I had just happened to open the phone, the call automatically picks up. Damn.

So now I have a choice: I hang up on a colleague, or I answer the call and tell her that I’ll call her right back. So I decide to answer the call and about three seconds after I say “Hello?” a librarian comes over, red in the face, shoots me a look that could kill and through gritted teeth grunts “NO CELL PHONES IN THE LIBRARY.” The velocity she comes at me with is startling. Fortunately she goes away before my “fight or flight response” fully kicks in. I tell my colleague that I’m in the library and I’ll call her right back.

Look, I know that there is a no cell phones rule in the library. I am aware of this. But why does the librarian need to get so excited about this? Had she waited another five seconds she would’ve heard me telling my colleague that I was in the library and I needed to call her back. But I’m guessing she assumes that I had bad intent–that I was either unaware or unconcerned of the library’s cell phone policy. Her outburst was jarring — is she aware of the impact that her intensity has on other people?

Being on the receiving side of such intensity got me thinking about myself. Do I do this to other people? Am I even aware of it? And if I do, what can I do to manage my own intensity?

I think one powerful way to hit all of his intensity off before it even starts is to be very careful about making assumptions about other people–especially bad ones. The road forward is to give the benefit of the doubt upfront, be curious and take a moment to find out the other person’s situation, and then act accordingly.

Quick negative judgments are harmful and unnecessary–we can do better.

11 Sep 2008

Can SL Be Useful for Teens?

Posted by paulandrew. No Comments

Today’s New York Times brings a fascinating article, Girl Talk Has it’s Limits, about a phenomenon  called “co-rumination.” The main case that the article looks at is with teenage girls who talk with each other about problems. The article gives the sense that on the one hand, teen girls connecting with one another about their concerns can be a good thing. But the way that they interact makes all the difference.

The article has a great quote from a college student about seeking advice:

It’s like you want to solve a problem whatever it may be, but the advice of one person never satisfies you and you’re constantly on the hunt for more advice.

Here’s my read: a certain degree of dependency can be a useful thing. It’s like in good tango – good connection there is a bit of lean. But can easily get out of hand, to the point where a person is unable to stand on their own two feet anymore. This “hunt for more advice” is a lean gone out of control. And I think it can be made worse by a well-meaning friends who want to be supportive and intend to help somebody feel better, and as a result they give the asked for advice.

But taking this discussion to a higher level, it could just be that this extreme leaning and supporting amongst teen girls is simply a developmental stage. And thus while I can be intense and troubling at the time for some girls, it isn’t something worth freaking out about as a society. I’d add as well that at least they are talking about what they’re going through. How many guys never learn to do that, with anyone? I think it’d be easier to work with somebody who talked too much then one who never shared it all.

What I would propose is that simple training in Supportive Listening could be very beneficial for teens so that they would have a tool with which to give their friends healthy support. I bet everybody can relate to the dilemma of on the one hand wanting to help a friend feel better, but on the other hand being frustrated because of not being able to get anywhere.

An additional bonus for teams who learned Supportive Listening would be that they would get a better understanding of what kind of support to seek themselves. Thus the Supportive Listener understands not just what’s good for others, but what is good for oneself.

1 Sep 2008

The power of curiosity

Posted by paulandrew. No Comments

The other night I was having dinner with a friend (I’ll call her “A”) when something interesting happened. The waiter came over to check on how we were doing with the meal, and within a few moments A had engaged him in a conversation. She was doing most of the listening – and he was happily telling us about how he had worked at this restaurant for many years, but now had a job building elevators. He was just filling in tonight as a favor to the owners. I noticed that as he talked, there was a certain joy in his sharing. His face lit up.

I’ve noticed that A seems to do this wherever she goes and so I asked her about it. Okay well first I acknowledged and admired what I was observing. She said that she has a deep down curiosity for other people, and their experiences in life. I know that I’ve certainly experience that with A.–before I know it I’m talking and talking and getting even more excited about my own ideas. As if that curiosity is contagious.

Every once in a while I’ll get a question in the class that goes something like this: “How do I appear interested as a listener?” I’ve seen magazine articles that give various physical things that one could conceivably try in order to appear in gauge. You’ve heard them before: “lean forward, make eye contact, nod.” Although it may be possible to fool some of the people some of the time, I’ve got to ask: ” Why resort to trickery?”

Nothing beats authentic curiosity. Add to this “positive regard” and you’ve got a potent listening combo. Furthermore I think you can do many of the techniquey things “wrong” but if you are genuinely curious and present, the speaker will pick up on it. I’ll add that I’ve had listeners who did the techniquey stuff right but just weren’t present, and I picked up on it right away.

Thus the more useful question than “How do I appear interested?” may be “How can I cultivate interest as a listener?” Something just tells me that Eran has some great ideas on that.

13 Aug 2008

How to say "I accept you"

Posted by paulandrew. No Comments

I was recently having dinner with a friend when she related a bad experience that she’d had. She’d made some bad decisions, things didn’t go well, and I’m guessing she was feeling ashamed about it.

As a Supportive Listener I know that just giving her space to talk and be heard is valuable, and so I stayed quiet and let her talk. So far so good. This went on for a little while, and she seemed to be benefiting from the chance to talk without being interrupted.

But then her sentences started to get shorter and she seemed pensive, worried. Trouble. Finally she blurted it out:

“You think I’m an idiot, don’t you?”

I had apparently overused silence. My intent had been to give her lots of room to develop her thinking, say what she had to say, without interference from me. But at some point her need to talk had shifted to hear from me, to have that connection reestablished.

And so I turned to that tool, my good friend the WIG, and told her some of the things I’d heard her say. Not verbatim, but a summary in my mind of some of the key things she had said. And as I was talking she seemed to relax a bit. As if she was relieved to see I was still tracking with her, I didn’t have anything critical or preachy to say–I was just there with her, implicitly saying “I accept you” (even if you think you did something stupid.)

For the rest of that part of the conversation I was more atuned to the balance between just listening and sharing a WIG. Of tending to that connection so that she felt accepted and supported.

It is very easy as a listener to forget how alone a speaker may feel when relating a story about bad decisions. If the speaker, within her own experience is thinking “wow that was stupid” then it’s no surprise that she would think that I, as a listener, would be thinking the same thing. Thus the WIG is a really valuable tool for demonstrating to the speaker “hey, I’m not judging you, I’m just right here next to you.” And even to go another level “hey, we all make mistakes. I still accept you.”

One important point here–notice how even though I “made a mistake” in taking the silence too far, the situation turned out just fine in the end. My friend pushed me on the silence, in her own way, and I had just the right tool to reestablish the connection and get back on track. I maintain that if my intent–acceptance and respect–is on the mark then the Supportive Listening interaction will be able to withstand all kinds of “mistakes” on my part as a listener. We’ll make it through.

And finally, I’d say it’s much easier to notice an issue if I err on the side of silence, rather than if I err on the side of talking. One of the most common challenges for people new to Supportive Listening is that they have trouble sitting through the silence, and so the speakers don’t get enough space. Push your limits for silence as a listener, and your speakers will surprise you.

30 Jul 2008

SAVED by the WIG at a cocktail party

Posted by paulandrew. No Comments

Picture this scene: I’m at a party and I meet somebody who works for a company with a technology product. I am familiar with her field and I guess the product – well, her competitor’s product – and she quickly corrects me.

Then comes the question: “Why don’t you use it?” I hem and haw about this but she assures me that she wants to know: “no really just tell me.”

And so I (foolishly) fess up. “Well a good friend of mine who is in the field of psychology tells me that the jury is still out in the research world regarding the efficacy of this product.”

She’s not so happy to hear this. Not happy at all. “Look this product works. We have several universities who are working with us to use the product. They’re not light weights. I don’t need to wait for some researcher to tell me what works. I can see that the product works in the field.”

Thankfully I had enough distance from this interaction to see that I had entered sensitive waters. My guess is that the energetic center of the conversation had shifted from the efficacy of this technology to be of a more personal nature.

And I knew just what to do. The WIG came to my rescue. “So for you, you don’t need the research to know that it works.” And to this she replied with an emphatic “YEAH!”

I think she was expecting me to press my argument, but in my mind we were past the point of being able to have a scientific conversation. And so I just hung in there with WIGs and she got frustrated. “You’re doing it – you’re doing that listening stuff on me!”

I laughed! She continued, “Come on I want to hear what you think.” And I couldn’t help myself at this point and so I left my Supportive Listening mode and said “I already told you what I think and you didn’t like it.” I was laughing pretty hard by then, and it helped shift the energy.

The WIG is an extremely valuable tool for hanging in on a conversation when the speaker is too intense to hear any new information. It helps me to maintain connection while giving time for the speaker’s intensity to work itself out. Only then can we really talk.

23 Jul 2008

Second Chances for Supportive Listening

Posted by paulandrew. No Comments

A friend had a bad experience in apartment hunting. I got really “hooked” by what she was saying–I got worried, and I ended up giving her lots of unwelcome advice.

And I felt bad after. “I blew it!” I had the chance to just listen, which would have been the most helpful thing, and in a moment of intensity I gave lots of “direction.” I don’t think it helped, and certainly not at that moment.

But the next day she talked about the situation again, and this time it wasn’t as intense for me. I guess I’d had a chance to calm down over it. Plus I remembered what happened last time, and so I could “pattern match” very quickly and know what behavior I wanted to avoid.

And sure enough this second time I did a much better job at doing Supportive Listening for her. I had to remind myself that just listening really well is in itself powerful.

I am coming to realize that this is a learning process, and it takes time. It’s not fair to expect that I’ll get it right all at once, the very first time. And when I do make the mistake, frankly I’m probably no worse off than I was before I was even trying to do Supportive Listening!

So give yourself a break! If you are trying to do Supportive Listening and don’t do it as well as you’d hoped, don’t worry—you’ll have another opportunity in the near future. Keep at it!

16 Jul 2008

Listening by Choice

Posted by paulandrew. No Comments

Choose consciously

One of the most common concerns that I hear about listening has to do with people who talk “endlessly.” The other day somebody said, “My mother calls me and wants me to listen to her for hours. Sometimes I just can’t handle it and so I put the phone down. She doesn’t stop talking unless I interrupt.”

And this brings up a great point – what role does the speaker play in Supportive Listening? To me, good Supportive Listening is about balanced connection. It’s true: it really does take two to tango. Thus as a listener it’s up to me to decide if the connection isn’t to my liking, and to take action.

Here is an example. It is thought provoking, whether or not you would have handled it this way.

I’m at a networking event and I join a small group of people. There’s a lady who is talking about herself and her achievements. She’s a good talker, and so it’s engaging for a few minutes, but after a while it doesn’t feel right. It feels like she just wants an audience, rather than really being interested in a two-way connection. She doesn’t ask other people questions, and when others talk, she steers the conversation back to herself.

Being ever the optimist, I ask her a question about her experiences in college, with the intent of inviting her to connect at a more personal level. She goes on to list her accomplishments as an alumni, and and to stress how much the school needs her help.

When my attention starts to wander, and I think of walking away, she somehow focuses on me more and tries to draw me back in. The thought crosses my mind that I’m not here listening by choice – I feel trapped.

Now consider here:

  • Have you ever been in this situation?
  • Are you obliged to stay?
  • What would you do?

Back to the story: I have an epiphany – it occurs to me that I am no longer able to be a good listener in this situation. And that it’s time for me to get out. I decide to go check out the band that is playing, and I excuse myself to do that. Sure enough, she can’t let me go without making a comment on how I’m bailing. Frankly I’ve had enough.

As a smart, responsible listener it is important for me to look out for my own needs as well. And a big part of that means listening by choice.

7 Jul 2008

Exploring New Frontiers

Posted by paulandrew. No Comments

Eran and I have been leading a phone class, and in week 3 of the class we invited participants to offer the following question to people they listen to: “What’s that like?” Ever since that week I’ve been playing with this question a lot, and I’ve been delighted with the results.

A common lead-in for me to pose this question is when I’m talking to someone who has just had a novel experience. They’ll say “Last week I went to New York City for the first time” and then I get excited.

Why do I get excited? Because here is an opportunity for me to see the world through somebody else’s eyes. What do they highlight? How do they talk about it? What was it like for them? I know what New York City is like for me (although frankly it still surprises me) but I don’t know what it’s like for someone else. That’s a new frontier.

And so I ask my question in whatever way feels natural, “What was it like?” and I listen up, like a little kid hearing a new story. Plus with my Supportive Listening tools I’m well equipped to stay connected and yet not get in the way, so that I can hear more of the story. It’s great, and is a nice way to connect with people.