EC Tips

Listening and Affect Attunement

“I want to tell him about my problems and frustrations. And I want him to listen. He listens for a few minutes and then tells me what to do to solve the problem. I would like to kill him! Sometimes he even says, ‘Get to the bottom line!’” Why does that kind of response make our spouses so angry when we are only trying to help? Because it is not the kind of help they need. We miss or ignore the affect and go right to the task, but it is the wrong task. This is a common interaction with spouses of professionals and executives, and will be the topic of the next three Tips. (In the example, the spouse is a woman, however, many husbands of our women executives have the same complaint.)

This is one manifestation of how executives and professionals are outstanding at achievement and poor at attachment. Giving answers sometimes helps create attachments, but often it does not, and rarely does it help when the person is working on a problem of emotional growth. Getting tactics to solve the problem in external reality is not the issue. Gaining understanding of internal (personal) reality is the issue, and that means working with affects.

Here are some tips for helping another person who is wrestling with a personal challenge.

1. Be opportunistic. People rarely say, “Are you in the right mood to help me with something that is personally difficult for me?” Usually they present a problem when you are tired and thinking about something else. Your clues that they want someone to listen and not give answers are that the problem is affect laden and the solution is easy to see (and when it is given it increases the negative affects). To help, you have to be able to take advantage of the opportunity to give what they need. You can’t do it all of the time, because you have your own needs, but if you do it some of the time magic can happen. The magic is that of personal growth.

2. Be careful. Sometimes there is a subtle difference between when a person is making idle conversation and when a simple question is a genuine request for an answer. Most of us know that questions like “How is it going?” or “How have you been?” are not to be taken seriously. But questions like “How was your day?” or “What is bothering you?” may deserve a more straightforward answer. Then the person may decide to try to tell you what is really bothering her. She tries to tell you because she doesn’t really know. She needs to think out loud about it. One man told me: “When I was a child my parents said, ‘Think before you talk.’ As an adult, I discovered I have to talk in order to think about personal things.”

Perhaps, you have had the experience of someone asking you a question about yourself for which you had only a partial answer. That meant it was a good question. You didn’t want to answer because you knew your answer would be too clumsy, yet you did want to see if another person could understand what you did not fully understand yourself. Even if the person who asked didn’t understand, but just listened and accepted your inadequacies it could have been helpful. If you only found a few ways to clarify your thoughts you would have been grateful. And, if everything went well, that person might even ask you how you felt about it in a way that suggested they really wanted to know. Unfortunately, you started to give a framework and they interrupted to tell you what you needed to do. Then they started telling you their ideas about the solution they just gave. Perhaps you are more mature than I am, but I have found it very hard to listen to them after my expectations were so missed. Then we had two people who were talking in parallel. We both missed an opportunity and I resolved to be more protective of my vulnerability the next time.

3. Be flattered. Think of how honored you are that someone would invite you to participate in such work! So feel honored and grateful that she would trust you that much. Here is a person who is willing to try one more time to share with you feelings and thoughts she doesn’t yet understand. It is a moment of vulnerability, even though it may be hidden in bravado and self-righteousness.

This also happens in the work setting. Any time the task is personal development these issues are important.  Mentoring, career counseling, coaching, and consulting are all examples of times when the helper needs to be appreciative of the affective vulnerability and ready to respond to the opportunity.