The Do's and Don'ts when listening to painful emotions from our loved ones
Updated: Aug 14, 2019
I think we have all been here, someone we love is in pain, going through something difficult and they come to us, trusting us with their emotions... and sometimes, we don't know what to say or do to help our loved one. I hope this article sheds some light in that area.
I have been a therapist for many years, but only in the last 8 years did I incorporate family therapy to my practice. I feel privileged to learn from my clients. I would like to share some of the patterns I have observed that seem to help connection with our loved ones. Whether you are a boyfriend, a parent, a sibling or just a friend, we all want the same: for our loved ones to feel better.
Here’s the mistake I have observed we make when we are on the receiving end -even with the best of intentions-, and I include myself in this category. I had a client that had tried to commit suicide, and luckily was found in time. She was a mother, wife and grandmother who believed she was no longer needed. Since I am a family therapist, I had individual sessions as well as with her family members. As soon as Mom would try to explain a feeling, such as “I don’t feel useful.” Guess what her family members would say? You got it, “…but you are!”
See the problem? I see this pattern over and over in my practice. A loved one expresses and emotion, and we in return say something meant to be positive, but in reality blocks the process of then person in pain from fully expressing what they feel. If we are honest with ourselves, we do it because we are empathic to the emotion and feel the pain ourselves and we want it to stop. For our loved ones, but also for ourselves.
Think about this. We block the expression of painful emotions.
Analyze the latest interactions you’ve had, meaningful and not so meaningful, zero in on what people shared with you and think what you said back. Analyze several interactions, and voila! that is your pattern.
Feeling a bit uncomfortable? I guess but how great is it that you are here, trying to see how to process your interactions and improve. Good for you! By making this effort, as painful and uncomfortable as you might be right now, you are trying to improve. A YOU 2.0 kind of moment, thank you.
Let’s talk about the DO’s and DON’Ts. Your loved one is opening up to you about a painful situation. Just listen, sit next to them if they are comfortable about physical proximity (ask), and then just let the person go where they want to go. That might mean crying, to keep talking about the issue or simply be quiet. First rule, listen. Just listen. Want to know what to say back? How about we start by just saying things like “oh,” “uhm,” “aha,” or “tell me more,” or express what you truly feel -without judgement-. Do you feel that is a tough situation? Say that, “sounds like a tough situation to be in.”
Next, I know you want to make their pain stop -and by the way, that could be expressed to the person- but pay attention to their verbal and non-verbal cues. They might just need a shoulder to cry on, not someone to dispense advice and BTW, we are not there yet. Advice is down the road, maybe at another time and only dispensed if your loved one asked for it. You can not give a headache medication if what the person has is a stomachache. This lead to asking questions to help your loved one express what they feel. Ask if you could ask questions, and if your loved one is ready for this step, follow their clues. This technique is called tracking.
I learned and taught this evidence-based technique to many parents and therapists. An example of tracking:
"I feel hurt"
Here is your clue, your loved one feels hurt. There’s your key word: hurt. Think of questions you would like to be asked, if the situation were reversed, and then ask them. For example, these are a few questions I would like to know if a loved one was hurting: what hurts, in what moments the hurt manifests, when does it hurt, how does this affect them, do they feel powerless, are they ok, is it overwhelming, etc. If you go blank, don’t worry, just say “tell me more, please. I want to hear what you are going through.”
I hope I am doing a good job at explaining how your questions could help your loved one express some of the pain they have inside of them. Going back to the Mom that had tried to commit suicide. When she would open up to her husband, this his how the exchange would go:
Wife: “I feel useless”
Husband: “How about going to the office with me?”
“I need help with X, Y and Z” “I could use your help”
Or he would say “Noooo, you are not useless”
By the way, my clients were beautiful people. This gentleman was amazing. A kind, decent, hardworking father and husband who loved his family very much. The problem was, he would block his wife opening up by giving an immediate solution and negating her feelings. Not done with a bad intention at all, he was simply someone in love with his wife, trying to help her.
The problem is not the behavior per se but the timing of the behavior.
Giving advice is step #4, not #1. I stopped the interaction right there, and asked them both to analyze what had just happened. She told her husband that when he gave her advice, she felt more alone and misunderstood. The husband did not know his wife felt this way, told her this was never his intention, that he was sorry and that he would listen. It was hard for him, we practiced right there in my office, over and over not blocking. I admired him for holding back his own pain and worry, to listen to his wife.
Next step, remember this please: when a loved one comes to you, they are trusting you with their inner most emotions. Hear them out, ask questions and ask if they want to hear your opinion. If you intervene too quickly, you might block the person from self-reflection, building resilience by rescuing them from painful emotions. Ask, “would you like to hear what I think?.” And then, really do what the person is asking you to do. If they give you permission, say what you really feel, but if they said no, then respect them.
There will be other conversations where solutions and advice are called for. Track before you act, your loved ones will open up if they feel you can contain their emotions.
And as always, let me close this article by giving you a visual formula to remember what you read:
Listening + Asking questions = Could help our loved one unblock more emotions
SECOND CHANCE PURPOSE
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