By: Shanyn Olpin

One night a few years ago, I was in a deep sleep when I began to feel the presence of someone else very close to my face. I opened my eyes to find my six year old daughter staring at me from about three inches away. Startled and a bit freaked out, I jumped up to find she had apparently been there for a while, wondering if she should wake me.
“Mommy, I had a bad dream.” I took a deep breath and asked her what it was about. “There was a monster in my closet.”

From here, I did exactly the wrong thing as you will soon see. I said,

“Erica, you know there isn’t a monster in your closet.” To this she replied, “But Mommy, he was so big.” Her voice began to shake.

Now for my even bigger mistake - I said, “Let’s go see. I’ll show you there is no monster in there.”

Erica wouldn’t budge. “But Mommy, he was so big and he had big teeth!” She began to sob. “His claws were coming at me.” She was getting more upset by the second and I knew that if I didn’t think quickly, neither one of us would be getting any more sleep that night. Then it came to me, something I had discussed in a class recently, and I gave it a try.

“Erica, that sounds so scary.” She stopped crying and looked at me. “It was.” I kept going. “It must be awful to be so frightened. Those kinds of dreams give me yucky feelings inside.” She settled a bit. “It was scary Mommy.”

We kept talking for a bit and then the miracle happened. We went back in her room, we checked the closet, I tucked her into bed, and she went right to sleep. How in the world did we go from near hysteria to a solid slumber in such a short time? I validated her feelings.

Now, I am not a fan of many listening techniques because they seem so insincere and cheesy. I mean really, if you want to irritate me, start repeating everything I say. When people do that with me, I find myself leaving the conversation both mentally and physically.

But this “technique” is different because it forces people to really listen, to really understand. At the same time it also frees the listener because there is no obligation to solve, agree, judge, or fix anything. All you need to do is show them you understand how they feel.

In the book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey, it talks about this kind of communication under the habit, Seek First to Understand. I highly recommend this book and that habit.

When someone comes to you with a problem, they want you to understand how they feel. When Erica came to tell me her problem, the first thing I did was to tell her there wasn’t a problem. “There are no monsters in the closet.” When I did this, I did the opposite of validating her feelings. I told her there was no reason to be scared, so her feelings were not valid.

Faced with this rejection, the natural response for anyone is to defend how they feel. Erica, even at six years old, did just that. “But Mommy, he was so big and he had big teeth!” She was defending her feelings. There was a reason to be scared.

The next mistake I made was to try and solve her problem. “I’ll show you there are no monsters.” This usually makes things worse. People who are sharing their problems rarely want you to solve them. They probably already know the answer. What they want you to do is understand how this problem makes them feel.

Finally, when I got it right, I did just that. “Erica, that sounds so scary.” I did not solve the problem. I also did not judge her or agree with her. I just figure out how she was feeling. The more that happened, the better she felt.

I have had numerous students tell me that when they have tried this type of communication, they have had great results. One student, we’ll call her Lori, was a substitute teacher. One day before substituting, the other teachers warned her about a certain girl who would misbehave during class.

The girl did misbehave terribly all day. Finally out of desperation, Lori started the class on an assignment and took her outside in the hall. She said the girl was ready for a fight. She knew she was going to be punished.

Instead of scolding her, Lori said something like, “It can sure be frustrating to come to school and have to do things you don’t want to do.” This caught the girl’s attention. Lori went on to identify what she thought were the young lady's  feelings. “I can see that you have been bothered by something today. You seem angry.”

The girl listened to Lori. Here was someone who actually cared about her feelings. Lori offered a listening ear and after a few moments of silence, the little girl opened up. Her parents were going through a divorce and she thought it was her fault. She had no one to talk to at home, no one to understand how guilty she felt, and no one who knew how lonely she was.

Lori didn’t tell her the divorce wasn’t her fault, (although we know it wasn’t). That would be telling her she didn’t need to feel the way she felt. She didn’t try to solve the problem by telling her what to do or how to feel. She didn’t DO anything, except listen to how she was feeling.

After about 20 minutes, this little girl was a completely different person. She had been validated. Lori didn’t have to agree, judge, or solve the problem. She just took the time to really listen to her. From that moment on, that little lady not only didn’t misbehave, she was the best student in the class.

Sometimes, it is hard for me to really understand others. It is easier to be more concerned with explaining my own position, than to take the time to figure out why someone else feels the way they do. I will tell you though, that when I remember to do this, my relationships with others are much better and I am more helpful and sincere.
The following poem sums this up nicely. I wish I knew who wrote it.

Could You Just Listen?
When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving advice,
you have not done what I asked.
When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way,
you are trampling on my feelings.
When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to do something to solve my problem,
you have failed me, strange as it may seem.
Listen! All I asked was that you listen, not talk or do – just hear me.
Advice is cheap: you can get both Dear Abby and Billy Graham
in the same newspaper.
And I can do for myself; I’m not helpless.
Maybe discouraged and faltering, but not helpless.
When you do something for me that I can and need to do for myself,
you contribute to my fear and weakness.
But, when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel,
no matter how irrational, then I can stop trying to convince you and
get about the business of understanding what’s behind this irrational feeling.
And when that’s clear, the answers are obvious and I don’t need advice.
Irrational feelings make sense when we understand what’s behind them.
Perhaps that is why prayer works for some people -
because God doesn’t interrupt you with advice or a quick fix.
God listens, and then lets you come to your own conclusion.
So, please listen and just hear me. And, if you want to talk,
wait a minute for your turn; and I’ll listen to you.
-Anonymous

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36 Comments

  • Ada

    I really enjoyed this article and I have a 12 year old daughter who lately tells me that I don’t really listen to her. After reading this article I now know what she is talking about. Thank you for posting this article, I will start to implement in my relationships, not only with my daughter, but others.

  • Eli Kassab

    This article hit home for me because I do what it says “not” to do with all my friends who talk to me about problems they have. I never thought about looking at it as “validating” the problem rather than trying to fix it. It makes a lot of sense and I’m glad I got to read this article. I will be applying this method in real life.

  • Adam

    I really enjoyed this articial. After reading this I realized that I was doing everything wrong. Me and my wife especially will get into arguments over this kind of thing all the time. She will tell me a problem or will be venting and I immediately try to either fix the problem or tell her my feelings on it. From now on I will try to just listen instead of trying to fix the problem.

  • Tony B

    It’s funny how without changing your view on the situation you can defuse it simply by acknowledging and understanding the other persons feelings.

  • Riley

    This article was really eye catching for me. I love the meaning behind the whole thing, on how just to listen and just listening is what I need to start doing. Love the poem really hit home with me.

  • Austin

    This was a very interesting article because I do exactly what it tells me not to do. When ever someone starts telling me about a problem they have I try to come up with a solution to their problem, which usually doesn’t actually work. Now I understand that they really don’t want the solution, they came come up with that on their own they just need someone to talk to. I’m going to try and starting doing it this way.

  • Lindsey

    I really enjoyed this article. There was a lot of great advice. I know that I appreciate being listened to but sometimes am quick to forget to listen to others. This was a good reminder to listen to those whose feelings I may not agree with, but should just validate them.

  • Sarah

    I loved this article. I have made this same mistake with my three year old daughter. I have learned to throug listening to her and having her tell me how she felt, it does make her feel better. So know when she has a nightmare, I go in her room and sit on her bed while she is laying and and she tells me all about her dream. And soon enough she is asleep. I think we all need to just listen sometimes and give a ear instead of a comment. This was and is great advise for anybody a parent or not. Thank you

  • Lindsay

    I recently had a friend who was going through some hard times. I could tell something was wrong but she wouldn’t tell me. One night I made sure no one else could hear and I asked her again. She unloaded all of these bottled feelings inside her. I didn’t even have the opportunity to give advice, she just needed someone to listen to her. She needs to know that someone cares. I love this article. I can always improve on my listening skills to strengthen relationships.

  • Tucker

    This was such a great article. I can’t begin to tell you how many times my wife has complained to me that I am not a good listener. As I read these stories I realized that I’m always trying to solve her problems and always giving advice when I should be trying to understand how she feels. I can’t wait to try these new ideas and see if it helps me improve my listening skills.

  • Sam

    Great article. Great advice. There are always those in our lives that we have a hard time getting along with. Im going to give this a try and see if I can improve those relationships that are lacking in one way or another.

  • JaLynn

    This artice was great for me to read. I always feel as if I have to help solve the problem but I now know that just listening is the key. I think this will really help my in my relationships.

  • I loved this article. It had wonderful advice. I had never thought of simply “listening,” usually I do offer advice, or help to try to slove the problem. After reading this- I am not going to try to slove anyone’s problem- but listen and validate them. This is an article that everyone should read!

  • Sara

    Great article! I really think this simple strategy can benefit every relationship. I know I’m not the best at this and I plan on trying harder to be a better listener and better at understanding the other person and validating their feelings. This is also something great to keep in mind with children – sometimes all they need is to feel heard.

  • Amy

    Great advice!! I really took the part where it said, “People who are sharing their problems rarely want you to solve them. What they want you to do is understand how this problem makes them feel.” I think a lot of the time when people talk to me about their feelings I feel obligated to help or fix something in some way, but now I am just going to work on being a good listener and understand where they are coming from.

  • Alycia

    Reading the first portion of this article really hit home. I have a three year old son that is constantly waking up from night terrors and my first instinct was to tell him he was being ridiculous in thinking his dreams would come true and to just go back to sleep while thinking happy thoughts. I soon realized this doesn’t work!! It was only when i started asking him to tell me about his dreams that i began to understand just listening helped. Also, telling him to fight the monsters like a superhero made him laugh and his frame of mind returned back to normal.

  • Mekenzie

    The message in this article is powerful. It is so important to LISTEN to people and validate how they feel. I have been in the situation before where I don’t feel like the person I am confiding in is listening to me. My feelings aren’t validated and I’m left feeling frustrated. I also know how it feels to have someone really listen to me and understand what I am saying. When that type of communication happens, it strengthens the relationship. Its important to keep this concept in mind when we are trying to help the ones we love.

  • Kim

    I could really identify with the story about your response to your daughters nightmare. I think as a mom sometimes the easy thing to do is just to try and make things better for them. When the better but harder thing to do is stop and listen and be there for them as they come up with their own solutions. Great article!

  • Arika

    I loved this article it perfectly shows how important we are to someone. If we dont reflect that care or show that person that we understand them and care about what they care about we will hurt them deeply, and ruin the relationship.

  • Krystina

    I love this article, it proves that there is a right and wrong way to listen to people. When someone comes to you with a problem, most of the time they aren’t looking for you to fix it, they’re looking for sympathy, empathy and just someone to listen to them and validate that what they’re feeling isn’t crazy.

  • Amber C

    I loved this article because it not only suggested a book for further reading (which I will go to Amazon and buy right after I leave this comment) but reminds me of why some conversations I have with people I love, somehow get misconstrued. I want to help solve, I want to fix, and help my kids not be afraid, but in the end I’ve noticed that it didn’t really fix anything. When my children told me I don’t listen to them, I couldn’t figure out what they were talking about. Your story brought it all home and put it in a context that was both valuable and understandable.

  • Rico

    This is great advice! I am a dental assistant at a pediatric dental office and dealing with the fears of the kids has been so much easier using this key listening skill.

  • Emil

    Being a parent I can relate to this scenario, you tend to forget about the child’s feelings and try to solve the problem quickly because all you’re interested in is sleep or because you know that something isn’t true. We tend to forget that kids want their feeling acknowledged just like adults, parents are so quick to assume that any concern a child may have needs to be solved but after reading this article and thinking about it that’s not true just addressing that you understand how they feel will solve the problem. Very good advice I need to try.

  • Jake T.

    This article is one I can really relate to. I have actually used this technique before on my wife. I just listened to her stressful day experiences and didn’t offer any solution to her problems. I just let her know that I understood that she was upset and she seemed to brighten up a little bit more. And the greatest part about this technique is that everyone is happy in the end.

  • Brittany E.

    I loved this article, but it definitely shows that I can change some things when it comes to listening. I think I try to solve everybody’s problems. I don’t think about the fact that maybe they already know the answer and could just want me to listen and understand. I am going to try to be a better listener. I think it could make all of my relationships better.

  • Taely S

    This was a great article and one that I too can relate to. I have two small children and I have started using this listening technique with my oldest, who sometimes feels like I am very unfair and not listening. Since doing this he has been much more responsive to the situation and I too have felt like I am doing him much more of a favor by approaching it and letting him know that I am on the same page as he is.

  • Tiffany S

    I have two children and I have also made that same mistake. When I was growing up I never felt like my feelings were validated. My father was emotionally abusive and it never mattered what my feelings were. So for my children how they feel is important to me. I may not agree but everyone is entitled to their feelings. Now that my children are 11 and 13 I think i is even more important to validate their feelings because this is such a weird and difficult time for them. Everyone is always entitled to their feelings, even if you don’t agree.

  • Lyndsey

    I haven’t read the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People but I’ve heard from many people that it is a great book. I may just have to go buy it so I can read it. I really like the habit that you shared in this article. I can see how just listening to people without judging them or telling them what to do can be effective. I know that I feel a lot better when I have someone to just listen to me share my concerns.

  • Joe Nielsen

    I am a huge believer in the book you mentioned in your article. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, has been a sturdy pillar in my life since discovering it six years ago. I make a yearly study of it and strive to live what it talks about. It has been about a year since last I cracked the spine and have recenlty noticed that I have not been praticing this type of feeling-validation technique with my wife. I am grateful I have been reminded of the significance of such a simple practice to help my most cherished relationships be full of love, understanding, and happiness. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Darla Paulsen

    This is an interesting view point. Generally women are thought of as the gender that needs listening and understanding. While men are fixers. Somehow just being heard is enough to start on the path of recovery. I agree with the poem that fixing or telling feels like a trampling.

  • Erica

    I particularly enjoyed this article. The title first grabbed my attention because some relationships always need a little help. When I read the part that says “People who are sharing their problems rarely want you to solve them. They probably already know the answer. What they want you to do is understand how this problem makes them feel.” I realized that I probably do the wrong things all the time when listening to other people. I will try to use this and listed closer and give less advice, but try more to understand how this problem makes them feel.

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