The False Choice Between Listening and Problem-Solving
You’ve probably heard this one: Two people in a relationship have a recurring disagreement. One of them has a tendency to give advice when the other just wants to be listened to. One half of the duo is repeatedly frustrated that their desire to be heard isn’t being satisfied. Meanwhile, the advice-giver is repeatedly confused as to why their friend or partner would want to talk about something without hearing their suggestions and taking action.
It’s often a topic that’s framed as a common issue between men and women in heterosexual partnerships. And while that must be a lot of people’s lived experience, in my own experience, it’s not limited to heterosexual partnerships. I’ve met a lot of women who are default advice givers and men who are good listeners, as well as seen times when men needed to be heard and women were asking for advice.
Whatever your gender or the nature of your relationships, my purpose today isn’t to make this a gender socialization or biology conversation (which is not to say that that isn’t needed - just that that's not the focus here). My purpose is to share a little bit of what I’ve learned - through the roles of friend, partner, and reiki healer - about listening, advice-giving, and helping one another through stress and hard times.
1. Listening vs. Problem-Solving is a false choice. Here’s a better question to ask.
One of the things I think is presented as a false choice sometimes is this idea that sometimes someone wants to be heard, and sometimes they want their problems solved. Because in my experience, all people, all the time, want their problems solved. Where we get tripped up is by not understanding the nature of the actual problem. A better question, therefore, is:
What is the problem that needs to be solved?
Because sometimes, the problem that needs to be solved is that the person who’s having an issue (like a work conundrum, family disagreement, or health concern) doesn’t know what to do about it. The solution to that problem might be for someone they trust to give them some suggestions or outside perspective that would help them take effective action.
Sometimes, however, the person with an issue knows exactly what to do. The “problem” they’re trying to solve by bringing it up to another isn’t that they’re searching for advice; the problem is that they need someone to listen to them for a little while so they can process the emotional energy around the issue and be ready to actually do the thing they need to do. Or, maybe they don’t know what to do, but talking about it will help them get there, and it’s something that they need to arrive at on their own. Finally, they may be wanting to talk about their situation because they’re feeling isolated and alone with their issue -- the problem is a feeling of loneliness, and the solution is to feel connected to another person through conversation and understanding.
In any of these cases, it’s not that the speaker isn’t looking for a solution to their problem. It’s that the problem is needing to speak out loud to another person and feel heard. For their counterpart, the act of empathetically and actively listening is the solution!
It can be super frustrating if you’re a frequent advice-giver to be trying to help someone who doesn’t seem to want your help or take your advice. But once you understand how to determine what the other person needs, it doesn’t have to be such a confusing scenario anymore.
Here’s an example from my own life to demonstrate what I’m talking about.
A while back, I got into a brief disagreement with my then-landlord. They had raised my rent and forgotten to tell me about it. An entire year later, I was informed that they believed I owed them back rent that totaled a four-figure sum. Needless to say, I was pretty surprised, and not in a financial position at the moment to be paying someone an extra thousand dollars. I was stressed about the possibility of losing money that I needed, and feeling a little pushed around by the management company as I tried to communicate with them to resolve the issue.
Over dinner with friends, I recounted to them my frustration at the position I was in. One of my friends could tell that I was in need of advice - my problem in that moment was that I wasn’t sure the right thing to say or do to bring this to a rapid conclusion. He sensed this and suggested that I be sure to document as much as I could about my conversations with the management company and the events surrounding our dispute. I hadn’t thought of that yet, and after we talked, I felt better, knowing what it was I needed to do.
I went home and documented everything as my friend suggested. It was through this action that I was able to send the landlord an email that ultimately led to them agreeing that I did not owe them money. That initial problem - of not knowing exactly what to do and needing advice - was solved.
Now, in the interim, while I was waiting for the management response, there was another problem still happening. At this point, I had taken all the actions that I could. I’d spoken to an attorney to make sure I was in the right as far as the law was concerned. I had double-checked my lease agreement, and I had taken my friend’s advice to document everything and send the landlord an email. And while I had every reason to believe that things would work out in time, it wasn’t yet certain that they would. I was still feeling annoyed and slightly fearful.
I’m a person who likes to process my feelings out loud sometimes, so I called a friend to vent. What I needed in that moment was simply to be heard and empathized with, so that I could feel less alone with my stress over the possibility of losing money, and I could let go of the feelings of frustration that weren’t really serving much of a purpose anymore.
Here’s where an interesting thing happened in my example that will bring me to my next point, which is:
2. Everyone processes and deals with their emotions differently.
Okay, this is going to be an obvious thing to a lot of people, and yet, it’s also something we frequently forget in the moment. I know I did when I called that particular friend to vent, and they did, too, in their response.
Because as I started to talk about what I was feeling, my friend listened for a brief moment, and then said something that was meant to be helpful but wasn’t so much. They said: “I know you just want to wallow about this, but I’m not going to let that happen.” They cut me off, and I wasn’t able to get the processing experience I was looking for.
My friend has a different personality than I do when it comes to this sort of thing. The same type of situation probably wouldn’t have stressed them out like it did me, and even if it did, they probably would have dealt with those emotions differently than I do. Most likely, had they been in the same situation, they would move through it more efficiently by distracting themselves rather than talking about it much. That’s totally valid for them, but it’s not me.
What my friend didn’t understand was that wallowing was the exact thing I was trying to avoid -- that I knew that distracting myself wouldn’t be very effective for me personally, that I would just end up thinking about it more, but if I had had a few more minutes’ opportunity to vent what I was experiencing and get a sympathetic response, the feelings would have passed quickly and not been a big deal anymore. Because my friend is not like that, they were trying to do for me what they would want in that scenario.
My friend was projecting their needs on to me, rather than seeing that my emotional needs are different. My friend had good intentions and was trying to help, don’t get me wrong. Had they been talking to someone else, that might have been the right response. Which brings me to my next point.
3. It’s not about always listening or always advice-giving or “always” doing anything else. It’s about learning to develop and exercise emotional intelligence.
Here’s a way of defining “emotional intelligence” that I like, thanks to Google dictionary:
The capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.
The term “emotional intelligence” was popularized by author Daniel Goleman, who has written about its value in the business world, among other things.
What I’ve learned is that emotional intelligence is a set of skills, which means that, like any skills, some people are going to be better at them than others. Some people are going to be more natural at them, and some have to work harder to be good at emotionally intelligent responses. It also means that some people will be highly motivated to develop this part of themselves - and others will have limited or no interest. But, it’s not a fixed thing. We can all learn to change and improve in this area. And when it comes to healing ourselves and our connections to others, focusing on emotional intelligence can be a big help.
In my example about talking to my friends about my rent problem, my first friend showed emotional intelligence. He knew what I needed in that moment - action advice - and provided it. In my example about my second friend, they didn’t display as much emotional intelligence, and I didn’t either. Had I been more emotionally aware, I would have consciously considered that what I wanted was listening and empathy. I might have chosen a different person to call, or I would have opened the conversation by stating that what I needed was to vent. (To use the words of Google dictionary, I would have been aware of my own emotions and handled my interpersonal relationships judiciously).
My first friend read me pretty well. But sometimes, as we all know, it’s not clear what someone needs. Which is why I developed a handy shortcut to figuring it out:
4. If in doubt, try asking what the other person needs. (Or request what you need if you're on the other side.)
When it comes to knowing when to listen or when to give advice, it might not always be clear. Some people are pretty good at intuiting what would help. Some of your friends and family members may have really similar personalities to your own, so even if they are projecting their needs on to you, it works out because, hey, you have the same needs! If you spend a lot of time around a particular person, and you’re both motivated to understand each other, you may get pretty good at reading each others’ cues as to what would best serve.
Sometimes, though, it’s not clear. Whether it’s because you’re in a new situation, with a person you don’t know well, or you are just starting to become aware of these kinds of issues, you may not be able to read or intuit the best way to respond to someone you care about.
So do this: Ask them! Try something like:
“Do you want my advice, or do you just need me to listen right now?”
“What can I do that would be helpful?”
Asking will help both of you, most likely. Sometimes, the reason you don’t know what to say or do for someone is because they don’t consciously know for themselves what they’re looking for. The moment you find yourself in a frustrating conversation, where whatever approach you’re trying doesn’t seem to be helping, asking can inform both of you. Your friend may have needed the prompt to become aware for themselves, and you can adjust your approach if necessary. Or, if you’re on the other end of the conversation and you’re getting listening when you want advice or vice versa, a straightforward (and kindly worded) request to that effect may get you what you need.
And, here’s the other important part: If someone tells you what they need, believe them. Trust them enough to do what they’ve requested, and see what happens.