Existential Psychology

Sometimes Listening is Better Than Giving Advice

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You learn pretty quickly in the counseling situation that sometimes what clients remember and appreciate was your compassionate listening, your presence as they hashed out problems themselves, although you thought it was your brilliant insight into those problems that would garner the most points. Sometimes listening is better than giving advice, and this holds true for every intimate relationship.

One of the central reasons why is that what makes human life so painful is the sense of isolation, of feeling like you are going through your trials and tribulations all alone on an island. Advice giving might seem like you are right there with the person, but really you are tackling a set of data, trying to come up with a creative solution to overcome a problem, meaning that in an emotional sense that person stays on the island and only becomes better equipped for survival if the advice is good.

Empathic listening, on the other hand, creates a connection where the emotions surrounding the problem are shared and mutually understood before trying to do anything about that problem. In this setup that existential isolation diminishes. You aren’t just providing tools but instead sharing emotional space, working to understand a point of view, taking on some of the burden.

Plus lots of the time a person sharing problems already knows the solution on some level and only appears to be asking for advice. The real purpose of the encounter is to reduce that burdensome feeling of being completely alone. I think one of the unconscious reasons most of us are so quick to move to the action stage where we try to solve the problem right away is precisely because we’re afraid of having to share that unpleasant emotional state and realize that focusing all our attention on possible solutions is the way around it. But we’re not giving that person what they really need and we’re missing an opportunity for increased connection and intimacy in the relationship.