Shut up and listen -- how to help people help themselves

You can rarely solve anyone else’s problems but by listening and asking questions you can help them to help themselves. It’s not easy though, says Nick Booth.

There’s nothing more depressing than someone who decides they know the answer to your problems. For no apparent reason, they’ve appointed themselves judge, jury and executioner over your personal life. They can never know you or your situation well enough to be qualified to make a judgment.

Oh, but that doesn’t stop them.

Under the circumstances, they should observe the lessons of the ancient Chinese proverb: never judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.

They don’t though. So if you mention a problem you’ve got, they don’t think you’re looking for a sympathetic ear. They interpret it as a sort of tender for instant judgements from an unqualified know-it-all.

As US comedy legend George Burns once said: “It’s a shame the only people who know how to run the country are cutting hair and driving taxis.”

It’s a bit like that with mental health. The people who really know the human condition are wasted in their normal environments, which seem to be football club changing rooms, radio phone in shows and propping up the bar in my local Weatherspoons. It’s mostly blokes in my experience, although women seem to be catching up in the self-importance stakes.


Butt out

Everyone has a friend who has an instant verdict that he has to deliver. Sometimes it’s so urgent they have to butt in before you’ve even finished your sentence. If you don’t know who it is in your circle of friends, it’s probably you.

To be fair, we’ve all done it. We all think we know how to sort everyone else’s problems out. We all might struggle with our own relationship challenges and work conflicts. But those are complicated, you see. However, for some reason there is a natural tendency to assume we can see the answer to everyone else’s problems with compete clarity. Not only that, we can dispense an instant answer. Usually, this pithy advice is delivered in a single sentence that begins with the words “I’ll tell you what you need to do...”

Even if this patronising advice is well intentioned, it’s incredibly insulting. It’s based on the assumption that the person being given this pithy advice is so stupid and pathetic that they couldn’t spot the solution to their problems, even though it only took you five seconds. Not only that, you are trivialising something that’s obviously causing them a great deal of pain.


Ignorance has no age

When I was a ten year old kid and my mother had died, I remember adults asking me if my dad was going to get married again.

Yes, adults.

Like it was that easy for my dad to replace his dead wife and for a new matriarch to be installed. As if the Booth family was replacing a defunct piece of kit. And these were not children asking me this. These were adults!! I will never forget the pain of these insulting, patronising and callous interventions. Bad interventions only make thing far worse.


Advice? Just stop it

But guess what? That still hasn’t stop me giving other people stupid, unsolicited advice. Even though I should have known better. The problem is, it’s so satisfying to give other people advice. It’s easy to get addicted to the instant gratification of personal problems solving, as if it were a form of emotional bubble wrap.

I have managed to stop now, mostly as a result of formal training. If you volunteer for any sort of mentoring or counselling work, one of the most valuable instructions they give is to never give people advice. Once you get in the habit, it’s quite liberating really.

You should never assume you know more about the person’s life than they do. Besides, a lot of the time, when people are telling you a story, they’re being selective about the facts they give you. These may not tally with the other party’s account of events.

Under the circumstances, the worst thing you can do is be partisan. But how often have you heard people advising their friends to “divorce the monster” and “sue them for everything they’ve got” only for the warring couple to get back together again.

The most important reason you should be a listener is that it empowers the other person. As we have established, if you hijack their story and offer patronising advice, you are demeaning them.

On the other hand, if you listen to them talking, you will help them to reason out their problems. Often people are conflicted by a competing set of emotions - love for their partner, say, but anger at some aspect of their behaviour.

By listening, you are helping them to unravel the tangle of their emotions. After which they will be the best person to analyse what they see and act accordingly. You can help them on the way by asking questions which both shows you are interested and helps them to clarify their own thoughts. In the Samaritans, they call this steering towards the pain.

Ultimately, you want to get them to a spot where they have talked everything out and can see their own situation more clearly. And then, when they are

ready, they may choose to take action. Or they may not. You can only do that by patiently asking open questions. Resist the urge to push them in any direction - agonising though it may be - because unless they are the ones making the decision, on their own steam, the whole process will be fatally undermined anyway.

If you make a partisan intervention, you will end up being blamed if anything goes wrong. I mean, is that what you want mate? Is it? No, it isn’t is it? I could have told you that.

Bloody obvious isn’t it?

Nick Booth is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter here...

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