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Empathic Listening: Stop Trying To Fix Your Friend’s Problems!

Arthur Worsley
by Arthur Worsley
M.A. Psychology, Oxford. McKinsey Alum. Founder & Editor at TAoL.

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So, Erin and I were chatting with a friend on the weekend.

He’d just had an argument with his girlfriend, he was obviously feeling bummed about it and it didn’t take much prodding to get him to start opening up.

This is great,” we both thought, as he told us exactly what had happened, “It’s nice that our friend feels he can share this stuff. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do something to help.

And so we began chipping in with our own thoughts and advice on relationships.

We recommended books that we’d read. We explained how we thought he could handle it. We gave examples. We asked leading questions.

And our friend was nodding along and agreeing. He admitted that he hadn’t thought about some things. He said he’d try others. He acknowledged that our points sounded valid.

We were starting to feel pretty good about ourselves.

But then I spotted something sobering. Something I might not have noticed if I’d been chatting to our friend one-on-one.

Because as I watched him nod along to something that Erin was saying, I noticed that his body language wasn’t looking happier. In fact, he looked MORE miserable than he had at the start of our brief conversation.


We wanted to be good friends. We wanted to help him get through this. But instead of making him feel better; instead of supporting our friend through his problem, we were managing to make him feel WORSE.

And that’s when it hit me.

I realised that just because our friend was sharing his problem with us, it didn’t mean he wanted us to fix it. In fact, he almost certainly didn’t NEED us to fix it. Nothing we were saying was rocket science. It probably wasn’t stuff he didn’t already know.

And even if it was the best relationship advice ever given… that wasn’t the point.

It didn’t even matter.

Because it suddenly struck me that our friend had just had an argument with his partner. He felt guilty. He felt wronged. His frustration had been simmering inside him. And all he wanted, right now, was for someone to shut up and listen.

He just wanted a chance to be heard.

But instead of giving him that space to unwind in, we were shutting him down with solutions. We’d dissected. We’d advised. We’d evaluated. And though we’d been listening attentively, we’d been so busy trying to fix things that we’d failed to really understand him.

So here’s what I decided to do next…

First up, I pulled up the conversation and apologised. (And because listening is something we’re both working on, Erin was instantly on the same page). We explained we were sorry for interrupting and we asked him to start over again.

Second, we tried much, much harder to listen. We focussed on the tone of his voice and his body language. We paid attention to what words he said AND how he said them.

Third, we tried to reflect and rephrase his position. We didn’t try to take sides. We didn’t try probing or leading. We just tried to reflect back the thoughts and emotions we were hearing. (E.g., “You’re frustrated because she didn’t warn you this was important to her.”)

And finally, we tried not to fill in the silences. We allowed him to pause and to think. We let him restate and repeat himself, no matter how tempting it was to jump in and no matter how awkward it felt.

And you know what? It wasn’t easy.

It felt hard to focus. It felt hard to sit there with his guilt and his anger and frustration. It felt hard not to offer solutions.

But it also totally transformed the conversation.

Because, instead of feeling interrupted and frustrated, our friend finally got to finish his story. Instead of feeling judged and evaluated, he finally got to get things off his chest.

And without prompting and without problem-solving or advice, he came up with a more creative, more mature and more personalised solution to his problem than anything Erin or I could have given him.

We even picked up some new ways to think about our relationship.

Pretty cool, huh?

Now, I wish I could say that I did this consistently. (It’s still a major work in progress)

But this was just one of those moments that felt so powerful that I wanted to share it.

Because the thing is, better listening is something we could all benefit from – in our homes, in our workplaces, in our communities and our governments and our schools.

And the thing is, it’s NOT rocket science. All it takes is to stop talking and start listening more carefully. To stop trying to fix things. To let other voices sink in.

So tell me…

  • When was the last time you really listened to your loved ones?
  • When was the last time you just listened empathically to you?
  • Who else are you failing by constantly trying to fix them?

I’d love to hear your stories. I’d love to listen to your thoughts. I’d love you to leave a comment, send me an email or join us in TAoL‘s TRACKTION Community.

And in the meantime, be awesome, listen carefully and go well.


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