Q & A for Supportive Listening Basics Class

IMPROVING YOUR SKILLS

I find that I forget to use Supportive Listening, and then realize later that it would’ve helped. Do you have suggestions for how to remember to use Supportive Listening?
(Paul)
Over time you’ll naturally get better and better at using an earlier. Learning new habits takes time–the more you use it, the more it’ll be natural.

Still, there are ways to encourage yourself to remember to use Supportive Listening.

1. Positive reinforcement. When you do use Supportive Listening a little silent encouragement or reward for yourself can go a long way. The book Don’t Shoot the Dog is all about the amazing power of positive reinforcement.

2. Find your signs. There are certain patterns in your life that lend themselves well to Supportive Listening. And there are signs that those patterns are happening. Pay close attention, during and after the fact, to what the signs are that it’s a good time for Supportive Listening. When you identify the most clear signs for you, then your mind will naturally be more able to spot them.

Below are some of my examples–look them over and then take a moment to construct your own.

example 1: giving advice
Situation: A friend describes a problem.
Sign 1: I’m eager to share solution.
Sign 2: I’m listening for a chance to interrupt the speaker.
Solution: I stay quiet, wait for them to finish, and then WIG.

example 2: consoling
Situation: I’m talking with my mom, and the topic of my brother comes up.
Sign 1: My mom expresses a concern about my brother.
Sign 2: I feel the need to defend my brother.
Solution 1: I consciously take several deep breaths, calm down. I’m getting curious about S-I, her relationship to the issue, and what’s it like to be in her shoes. I stay quiet and then when she’s done talking, I WIG.

When the speaker is silent, how do I tell what that means?
(Paul)
In my blog entry Three Kinds of Silence I talked about these types of silence:
• “I’m done with this train of thought.”
• “Is it OK if I keep talking?
• “I’m taking a moment to think.”
And I basically said, “just pay attention, and with practice you’ll get better at telling which type of silence it is.”

How do I decide when to give a long WIG, versus a short one, versus just staying quiet.
First off, I’d say try staying quiet where possible.

I use short WIGs to help maintain connection, while not disrupting the speaker’s flow.

I use long WIGs when speaker seems to have completed a train of thought, and doesn’t seem to be pondering anything. At that point my WIG may help the speaker notice a new angle on their issue.

How do I effectively give a long WIG?
I think of the long WIG as my chance to check in with the speaker as to whether I’m really getting the essence of what they’re saying, or at least of some piece of it. It’s a nice reality check for me as a listener because if I’m off track then the speaker will bridge the gap for me.

Thus to effectively give a long WIG, I think it’s important for me to put together a complete thought, and take that chance that I may be off by a bit.

The good news is this: you’re WIGs will be fine as long as:

  • your intent is to see the issue through the speaker’s eyes
  • you accept and respect that that’s their view
  • you don’t give advice

The more you try it out and see how it goes, the better you’ll get. Be brave, and pay attention.


DEALING GRACEFULLY WITH CHALLENGING SITUATIONS

As a listener, how do I get out of a conversation that I feel is going on too long?
(Paul)
First of all, I want to reassure you that it is perfectly fine as a Supportive Listener to exit a conversation. Take care of yourself; take care of your needs.

The key considerations in how to exit a conversation include the setting, my relationship to the other person, and the topic being discussed. This particular question comes from somebody who was trying Supportive Listening at a party, with somebody whom they hadn’t met before. Thus these ideas are all again that that particular scenario, and aren’t what I do in a different scenario.

The technique that I use most often to exit party conversations comes from best-selling author Susan RoAne’s book “How to Work a Room.” I look for an opportunity to give a WIG and then after I WIG I say, “Jane, it’s been nice meeting you,” and I start my, “I’m about to walk away” body language. Most people will get the picture, say a pleasantry, and then I’m off.

A few other ideas include going to the bathroom, or going and getting another drink. Or, scan the room, spot someone, and then say to the speaker, “Oh, I just saw somebody who I need to talk with. It’s been nice meeting you! Enjoy the party.”

A friend who leans on me got upset with my Supportive Listening. How can I handle this without derailing the conversation?
(Paul)
Sometimes it’ll derail when there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s okay–you can only do so much.

Consider this: the friend may be so used to you jumping in and giving advice that it’s jarring when you stop doing that. If you can remain calm, stay connected in a way that works for you, and hold the line on not giving advice then there’s a fair chance that they’ll get used to this change and start appreciating your Supportive Listening. And if that shift never happens, you can ask yourself, “do I really want to have this person leaning on me indefinitely?”

As a listener, what do I do when the speaker is saying things to try to push my buttons?
(Paul)
First off I’ll comment that this is an advanced Supportive Listening question. The reason is that for Supportive Listening, my focus is on supporting somebody with an issue that doesn’t have to do with me, the listener.

While it is possible to use Supportive Listening techniques in such a case, it’s much more difficult. Basically, thinking of the “listening triangle,” when the connection between the speaker and listener heats up, it takes a lot of skill as a listener to remain calm.

Secondly, as a listener, when it seems that the speaker is trying to push my buttons, it is helpful to remember that this may be a projection on my part. That in fact the speaker isn’t consciously trying to “push my buttons” but nonetheless they are getting pushed. The distinction here is whether the speaker has a conscious goal to push my buttons, or if the speaker simply is angry/frustrated/scared and thus acting in a way that ends up pushing my buttons.

Okay so now I’ll (finally) answer the original question, taking the premise at face value.

  1. The first thing that I do is I become conscious of the fact that my buttons are being pressed, and make a specific effort to calm myself down before I do anything else. For me, I find that conscious deep breathing usually does the trick.
  2. I switch to purely listening. This can be tough because the temptation is to get into a back and forth interaction. And these easily devolve into fights. Thus if I can resolve to just focusing on listening, and it simplifies interaction a lot.
  3. And then – if I am able to calm down enough to do it -I focus on seeing this issue through that person’s eyes. By bringing my focus to the other person’s perspective, it helps me remember that I’m just hearing their point of view.
  4. If staying calm, purely listening, and making real efforts to see the situation through the speaker’s eyes still doesn’t work, and the speaker is still trying to push my buttons, I might call out explicitly what’s going on. It might sound like this: “I’m doing my best to listen to you, but I’m getting the sense that you’re trying to provoke me. Is that your intention?” Sometimes this will “break the spell” of the other person’s reactivity, and help them get re-focused on what they want to communicate.

Finally, if all of this fails, I say this “My sense is that this conversation isn’t going in a good direction. Let’s try talking about it tomorrow.” We all have bad moments, and this might just be one of those for the speaker. I’ve had good luck with deferring heated conversations to later, as long as the conversations do actually happen.

On the one hand, the heat of the moment can help someone summoned the courage to talk about a difficult topic. But on the other hand, that heat can make it difficult to have a useful conversation about it. Thus that emotionality can open the door, and then you can walk through it later.

Do you set guidelines before starting a Supportive Listening conversation? This week, twice, I was insulted by the speaker. I was stunned and didn’t know how to react.
(Paul)
For the second part of this question, see my answer to “What do I do when the speaker is trying to push my buttons?”

In terms of setting guidelines, it depends on the context.

If the context is that I’ve invited the speaker to talk about an issue that is about me, then that is in advanced use of Supportive Listening, and will be more tricky to navigate.

When I use Supportive Listening in these scenarios, I strive to really stay focused on my position as a listener. The danger is that I’m going to step out of Supportive Listening, and we’ll end up in an emotional back-and-forth argument. Thus I might tell the speaker that I’m just going to listen to what they have to say, really try to understand it, and then get back to them later. The challenge of course is that it is so tempting to try to work through the issue right there. I believe that to the extent that I can take away what I hear and then go back later, the outcomes will be better.

I’d also say that when I enter a situation where I’m in the path of someone else’s intense emotions, it’s important for me to take care of myself. Thus I need to be a lot more conscious of how I’m doing in interaction, and be ready to shift out of Supportive Listening, or you can leave the conversation if I need to. While working through difficult issues isn’t fun, as a listener I don’t deserve to be subjected to verbal abuse from anyone.
I like to give the speaker a chance to shift out of “insult mode” to see how intentional and conscious they are about what they’re saying. Thus I might say something like, “I’m doing my best to hear what you’re saying, but it’s getting tough for me to hang in there.” This can help remind the speaker that I’m impacted by what they’re saying. But if nothing changes, I may defer the conversation to later.

Finally, whenever I noticed that I’m feeling insulted, it is to me an opportunity for self understanding. I ask myself, “Why is this issue so charged for me?” I’ve observed that many things that would have greatly insulted me many years ago, now leave me with less intense feelings such as disappointment or sadness. I think this shift has come from recognizing that intensity comes from within me, and isn’t something that someone else “does to me.”


ADVICE

What do I do if someone directly asks me for advice?
(Paul)
Often people ask for advice not because they actually want it, but because they’re feeling distressed and want to connect and get some support. An experienced Supportive Listener knows this, and first and foremost sees the request for advice as an opportunity to offer Supportive Listening.

Thus what we’re looking for is a seamless invitation that connects with the request for advice.

If the speaker hasn’t yet talked much about the issue:

  • “What are your options?”
  • “Could you outline for mean the considerations behind those options?”

Out of these invitations to talk, there should come many opportunities to WIG, and those WIGs will often help the speaker to further develop their thinking.

If the speaker has already talked at length about the options and considerations:

  • “Given all that you’ve just said, what’s coming up for you?”
  • “what other thoughts are you having about the situation?”
  • [just be silent and wait]

By “handing the microphone” back to the speaker, we can help them further develop their thinking, become more self-reliant, and grow wiser. Effective Supportive Listening really does make a difference.

What if the speaker really is looking for advice, and isn’t happy when I’m not giving it to them?
(Paul)
So first off, as a Supportive Listener I’m using every opportunity to invite the speaker to further develop their own thinking. And very often, the speaker will take me up on those invitations, continue talking, and forget that they asked me for advice. But once in awhile the speaker will continue to press me for advice. Then what?

I’ll break this down into three cases:

  • I have an opinion that I’m willing to share
  • I have an opinion that I’m not willing to share
  • I don’t have an opinion one way or another.

I have an opinion that I’m willing to share

In this case I think it’s important to be clear with the speaker that I’m going to shift from just listening, to sharing my opinion. Because great listening can create a lot of trust, it’s important for you as a listener to be very careful with how you frame your advice because the speaker may be more impressionable than they would otherwise.

I might say something like this:

“Okay, if you’d really like to hear what I would do, I can switch out of just listening and give you my opinion. But the fact is that I’m not you, I can only guess at the reality of your situation, and in the end it’s really your decision. So if it were me, here’s how I would look at the situation.”

I think that it’s most helpful to present people with key considerations, and key questions, so that they can answer those things for themselves. But I must point out that in doing so, I’m being much more directive—this may be of value, but it is no longer Supportive Listening.

I have an opinion that I’m not willing to share

Once a friend of mine who had just been given a raise asked me if I thought he should ask for more money. Although I could pretend to put myself in his shoes, and ask myself what I would do, I just didn’t want to go there. This seemed like such a complicated and important issue, that I didn’t want my unduly influence this important decision that my friend needed to make. I had a sense that even if I said the usual disclaimers, it was still a situation where I didn’t want to give advice. In the end I said, “

There’s just too much going on here that I don’t know about for me to say anything useful. It’s really up to you.” and he was fine with that.

I don’t have an opinion one way or another

Sometimes I’ll be asked for my opinion on an issue, but I honestly don’t have one. When I pressed, I say something like this:

“I just don’t know enough about this to formulate an opinion.”

I’ve met some people who have a real problem with this. My guess is that they don’t believe that I lack an opinion, but rather that I’m just holding back from them. Frankly if someone is determined to believe that I’m holding back from them, there’s probably something going on in the relationship between me and that other person, and until that is worked through they are going to change their mind.

How do I switch out of Supportive Listening… and into giving advice?
Eran has aptly pointed out that as Supportive Listeners, we need to be really careful with the trust that gets built up from good listening. In particular, if I’m switching out of Supportive Listening in order to give advice, the speaker may be more likely to consider my advice. That may or may not be good for them.
So when I make that decision to offer advice, I first to see if it’s welcome by saying “I have some thoughts on what you’re looking at. Is this a good time to share them?” I think this gives the speaker an easy out from my input.

Then if they are interested, I do my best to frame it in such a way that the speaker is very aware of the limitations of what I am offering them. I may say, “Look, you’re the expert on this and frankly I just don’t know the situation as well as you do. For what you’ve said, here are some things that I would consider. But at the end of the day, it’s your decision.”

Just keep in mind that when you give advice, the speaker is that much less likely to be resourceful on their own. It’s an action to use sparingly.

After I do Supportive Listening, I am often asked for advice. How can I gracefully handle the situation?
I think that the concept of projection gives us a great “out” from giving advice. It is always accurate to say, “I just don’t have enough of the picture to really know what’s going on.” I can try to hand them back the mic by giving an invitation like, “given everything that you’ve said here, what’s coming up for you?” I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how often the person will go on to continue thinking and working on their challenge.

But sometimes I’m pressed further, and if I really don’t want to give advice I might say, “I think this is a personal decision for you to make, and I just wouldn’t feel right telling you what I would do, because you’re dealing with the consequences, not me.”

In my experience, the more clear I am about projection, in particular that I really don’t fully understand what’s best for this other person, the easier it is for me to calmly and firmly decline the request for advice.

What are your suggestions for when to give advice and when not to?
Of course in Supportive Listening, the answer is “resist the temptation to give advice, and invite the speaker to think and grow and find their own advice.” Thus I don’t have good guidelines for way and to give advice.

The only time that comes to mind for giving advice is if someone is in real danger – then do what makes sense.

In terms of when not to give advice, besides “usually,” there are a couple of particular situations that I’d stay out of.

1. The speaker wants you to take responsibility for the decision.
In this case, the speaker is faced with a tough decision that they really don’t want to make. And so they press me for advice so if things go poorly they can say “don’t blame me, blame Paul. He told me to do it.”

2. You really don’t have a clear idea of what’s going on.
The speaker describes a complicated situation, and says “what would you do if you were me?” My best answer to this is generally to say, “I’d be asking myself what I want.” This answer is a bit directive, but it isn’t really advice. I prefer not to take guesses at things for the speaker to do because they may actually try it and end up in a worse situation.

I really think that when someone asks for advice, what they are really asking for is connection and emotional support-not suggestions.

What are some techniques you can use to resist the temptation to give advice?
Of course it’s one thing to intellectually know that giving advice often isn’t helpful. It’s another thing to actually do it. Here are some techniques that I’ve found helpful.

1. See *not* giving advice as a test of your willpower.
Eran did a fascinating study in which he had two groups of people take on a feat of strength and endurance. And he told the experimental group that this was a test of their willpower. And sure enough, they performed as a group better than those who weren’t directed to think of the task as a test of willpower.

Thus, simply thinking of not giving advice as a test of your willpower can help you.

2. Take a deep breath.
When you notice the impulse to give advice, become fully aware of that energy and dissipate it with a deep inhale and exhale. This helps manage the impulse, plus the breathing prevents you from talking right at that moment.

3. Silently encourage yourself to wait.
I’ll sometimes do this after I take a deep breath: I’ll silently think to myself, “wait a moment, let them talk, just wait.” In this way I’m being conscious about my actions.

And one last thing: when you do successfully resist the temptation to give advice, congratulate yourself afterwards in whatever way he works for you. Over time, you’ll be more likely to do what gets rewarded.


APPLICATIONS OF SUPPORTIVE LISTENING

What if you are a manager and it is your job to make judgments and shape emotion? For instance, feeling enthusiastic about one’s job leads to better customer service.
(Paul)
Supportive Listening is a specific tool for assisting people in a non-directive way. For directly getting people to be more enthusiastic, you’d probably want to use other tools.

Having said that, your question gets me curious about why people are not more enthusiastic. Some models of human behavior say “you have to pump people up” and other say “people can get naturally energized–you just have to find out what’s in the way.”

So if we look at the “natural energy” model, you might use Supportive Listening to invite people to talk about enthusiasm (or lack of it) for the job, and then really listen to what they say, really get into their shoes.

Note that many managers, when presented with this option say “Yeah, I already know what they’re going to say.” I would question that–I propose that if you could *really* see the issue through their eyes, then you’d know what to do. Focus on the S-I (speaker–issue) leg and you’ll get more clarity on next steps.

My older daughter told me that my younger daughter is concerned about an upcoming event that I have planned for the family. But my younger daughter hasn’t yet said anything about it to me. Is it OK to give my younger daughter an invitation to talk about this, as a way to initiate a Supportive Listening conversation?

(Paul)
Yes, it’s OK to give this invitation. Note that it’s an invitation, so she may not want to talk about it.

Also, one encouragement is to keep the initial interaction purely focused on listening, and really seeing it through her eyes. You can tell her that you’re going to think over what she said, and then get back to her later. For now, don’t try to segue into the problem solving discussion until at least a day has passed. Such a process does a few things:

  • it’s a great tool for managing any intensity that comes up for you–as the listener all your doing is WIGs, which keeps it simple
  • your daughter gets to develop her thoughts without being interrupted, plus with your WIGs she gets the message that you really are listening
  • plus as she corrects your WIGs, you’ll get a more accurate picture of where she’s at

A key point is that it frames the whole conversation around her getting her points across, and in that sense being “right” that that’s where she’s at, as opposed to a negotiation or competition about who is right.

Is Supportive Listening mostly used when the speaker has strong emotion?
Supportive Listening is useful for a variety of situations. Strong emotion is probably the most obvious one because it is most likely to bring out directive and rescuing responses from a well-intentioned listener.

Here are some other places to use Supportive Listening:

  • to help someone make a decision
  • to help someone work through an issue that doesn’t have strong emotional charge, but is confusing
  • to cultivate connection with someone who is telling you a story that matters to them
  • to encourage a speaker to talk about themselves
  • to learn about another person’s worldview

Any time that you interact with someone for 60 seconds or more, there is likely an opportunity to part of the Supportive Listening toolset.


FUSION AND AGREEMENT

If someone says something I think is morally wrong and I don’t express disagreement, and my implicitly agreeing with the speaker?
(Paul)
It’s a matter of perception, and in this case I think you’re asking about the speaker’s perception of your agreement.

In the simple case, if you become concerned about this, you might want to clarify with the speaker that you’re just listening, and neither agree nor disagree. if you feel the need to state your disagreement, then I’d advise telling the speaker that you’ve been just listening up to now, and now you’re going to shift to sharing your point of view. So that way they know that things are different now.

In the more difficult case, where you are experiencing a lot of intensity around the issue, you may not be able to be a Supportive Listener for this particular person in this particular case. And so I think it’s fine to exit the conversation-either subtly by saying that you need to go, or explicitly by saying that this is an issue that you have a lot of energy around, and so you’re not able to be a good listener for the other person anymore.

The key points here are to be real to yourself and to the speaker, and to have some clear contracting and communication around that.

Would you say more about the relationship between fusion and agreement
(Paul)
The core issue is less about agreement or disagreement, and more about the quality of the relationship and the emotional charge around it. A common scenario where this comes up is when I have a disagreement with somebody around a belief.

In the more fused case, I feel compelled to try to change the other person’s belief to match my belief. or I’d change my beliefs to match that other person’s belief, even though it is it really true for me. Either way, change is sought in order to dissipate the tension brought about by difference.

In the less fused case, I’m comfortable with the difference and can “live and let live” with full respect for that difference.

Example: I’m talking with a good friend about an upcoming election. I tell my friend which candidate I intend to vote for. My friend replies that he intends to vote for the other candidate.

a more fused relationship around agreement:
I feel distressed that my friend doesn’t agree with me on the topic of who to vote for. I make a strong case for why my choice of candidate is the better one, in the hopes that he’ll change his mind. It is very important for me to get my friend to vote the same way that I do.

a less fused relationship around agreement:
I’m surprised that my friend is voting for the other candidate, but it doesn’t distress me. Because I like and respect my friend, I’m curious to hear his thinking around voting for the other candidate. I’m not trying to change his mind, I’m just trying to understand him better. I may share my thinking around my candidate, and get into a spirited discussion, but at the end of the day it really is okay for me that my friend votes differently than I do.

What do I do when the speaker doesn’t like how I feel about their issue, and wants me to feel differently? For instance the speaker is upset and wants me to feel just as upset as they do.
It’s my experience that when I’m upset, I don’t think very clearly. And so I may make requests (or demands) that makes sense at the time, but that I’ve looked back at later and realized were no good. Thus an astute listener who he is, when I’m not can actually be doing me a favor by not getting carried away by my upset, even when I think that that’s what I want.

So in a nutshell I’m saying “accept however you feel as a listener, don’t give in to the demands of an angry person to change that, and do your best to hang in there.” And as always, if the conversation gets too heated for you, find a way to get out. It’s critical as a listener that you take care of yourself.

Also keep in mind that some people get so upset, but Supportive Listening won’t help until some time has passed, allowing them to calm down.

If the listener agrees with the speaker in an attempt to please the speaker, is that fusion?
The simple answer is “probably” and the more complex answer is “it depends.”

Scenario:
a friend turns to me and says “Roger Clemens is the best pitcher of all time. You agree with me, don’t you? Most people do.” And he keeps pressing me to commit to a position beyond just saying “I can see how you’d pick him as best ever.”
And in fact I think he’s good, but I’m not convinced that he’s the best ever.

Fused agreement response:
I’m worried that if I don’t agree with my friend, he’ll be angry and he’ll distance himself from me. So I agree with him because I’m afraid that if I don’t, it’ll damage the friendship. The way I see it, I have to pick between the issue and a friend.

Non-fused agreement response:
I feel the freedom to disagree with my friend on this issue. But he seems so worked up about it on this particular day, that I let him have this one – it’s just not worth the trouble today, and the issue is an important enough to me.

Commentary:
So I’m saying that if I agree with a speaker on an issue that doesn’t really matter to me, in a situation that I’m not worried about, that feels less fused to me. The challenge comes when the issue is one that I care about deeply, and I can’t just go along with. What it comes down to is taking the time to clearly understand the views of others, and of myself, accepting those views, and then letting the cards fall where they may.

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