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Listen Up!

One of the biggest complaints that comes up in counseling with couples is the listen vs. fix-it conflict.

Actually, it doesn’t just apply to couples, but to any interaction where one person is venting about something and the other person is listening.

I say listening loosely here, because in many instances, the person on the receiving end is not really listening, but is trying to fix the situation.The best way to avoid this problem is simply to ask the person who’s venting if she’s looking for advice or help in solving the problem, or she just wants someone to listen.

If she chooses the latter, then it’s time for you to sit back and listen attentively until she’s finished. Sometimes when the venting winds down, then she might solicit advice, but not always, and if not, don’t give it.

Here’s How to Listen Effectively


Start with an empathetic observation or statement based on what’s presented to you to show that you (1) care, and (2) understand the person’s distress. Make it short and genuine.

“You look sad. What’s going on?”


Extend an invitation to continue. Make good eye contact, and say something along the lines of

“I’d like to hear about it,” or “I’m all ears.”

This creates some room in the conversation, and allows the other person to relax into what they have to say with confidence that you’re truly present and attentive.


As the conversation unfolds, make comments that show you understand what’s being said, and ask questions to get more detail if necessary.

The goal here is just to really understand what the other person is thinking and feeling.

Comments can be very minimal during this part of the conversation. Say just enough to show that you get it.


Containing takes place at the same time that reflecting is going on.

Emotions are transferable, so as someone speaks or vents, the emotions they feel are also felt by the listener. As the listener attends, reflects, and is quietly present while the other person speaks, the listener shares in containing the emotions that are felt by the speaker.

A lot of what goes on in psychotherapy is that the therapist contains the client’s emotions for them so that they can safely discharge them and work them out. The therapist’s strength in dealing with the emotions is transferred back to the client.

The idea is

“If she can stand the feelings, then so can I.”

Same thing happens on a more limited basis when you listen to someone talking about something that has a strong emotional edge to it.

You feel with them, and help contain the emotion. Your strength transfers strength back to them.

Find a Solution (Optional)

Finding a solution only occurs if the person speaking asks for help in doing so.

Sometimes the initial desire is not to have help in fixing the situation, but after listening takes place and the emotions are diffused, they may ask for an opinion or advice. If so, then give it, but only if asked.

When there is no receptivity for fixing, any attempt at it will just create resentment.

What if I Don’t Want to Listen?

If you really don’t want to listen to someone vent about something or talk about a problem, then find a way to get out of the conversation.

There are people who constantly vent. They’re what I call professional victims.

They see the world as predatory, and they generally don’t take responsibility for their lives, much less their emotions.

Listening to a chronic complainer or someone who is negative most of the time is not time well spent – not for you, not for them.

You should not feel compelled to listen in these circumstances. Good listening requires your time and energy, and you can choose when you want to give it.

Things to Remember

  • When listening, don’t interrupt by interjecting your own stories. Good listeners never turn the attention back towards themselves while in the process of attending to someone.
  • Listening is a means of connecting and strengthening a relationship. It is a must for any intimate relationship, and also very useful in work situations.
  • Listening should be genuine and not done for purposes of manipulation later on.
  • Listening puts room into intense emotional situations, and reduces anxiety.
  • If you can really adopt the attitude of being a listener, it makes conversations much easier and you will find that you have more connection with others, not to mention, you will learn a lot!

If you are a parent, you might enjoy my article at called “Just Listen.”

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