Whether at the office or home, it is common to prematurely rush into problem solving mode rather than simply listening to the other person as they share their feelings.
Communication experts describe several reasons why it is easier to rush to problem solving. They are:
- Being intellectual and rational is highly valued in the Western world;
- Worrying that, if uncomfortable emotions are acknowledged, the feelings may take over the meeting or interaction with a loved one, making things worse;
- Acknowledging emotions is not as useful to the other person as is solving the problem that caused the feelings in the first place; and
- Concern that, if the other person’s emotions are validated, they may overly identify with how they are feeling. An example might be if your partner says: “I feel sad.” You secretly may worry that your partner will tell themselves that they are a sad person, making things worse for them.
None of these reasons have shown in research to be true. In fact, research indicates that the opposite is true in most cases. When someone feels listened to, they feel validated, appreciated, and have a much greater capacity to solve problems for themselves.
In most cases, when a person shares their emotions, they report feeling better. Being heard helps the emotions to move through the body and not be repressed and come out later as resentments or judgements. Resisting emotions pushes them down and can cause more difficulty in the long run.
Prematurely leaping to problem solving can step over powerful emotions and may lead to limiting decisions. When people are forced to swallow their emotions before making decisions, they may not feel safe to bring their boldest ideas forward. Rather, decisions may be based upon an urge to “get on with things,” rather than staying open to a range of possibilities.
Prematurely going to problem solving and neglecting the emotions renders the emotions invisible and implies, “emotions don’t count around here.” Discounting the emotions that lead people (or entire teams) to get upset sets everyone up for more drama down the road. When drama strikes in the future, you can bet people will not feel free to speak up.
If people are forced to swallow how they feel, there’s a very good chance resentments will grow, leaving little room for original thinking or novel ideas. But when difficult issues arise and people have a memory of being listened to and acknowledged, they’re quicker to want to support others and to build a culture where people can work through difficult situations.
Here are a few suggestions to support listening before jumping to problem solving:
- Tell yourself the truth about how well you listen when others are expressing uncomfortable feelings. Is this a learning edge for you? Start observing what you do in such situations. Do you give advice, change the subject, or come up with a discounting cliché (e.g. “Let’s get over it and move on.”)?
- Use language that you’re comfortable with that expresses a genuine appreciation for what the other is going through. An example might be as simple as: “This must be hard for you right now.”
- Express your own emotions as others shares how they’re feeling. You may say, “I’m really feeling upset too. These are uncomfortable emotions right now.”
We are not suggesting that you encourage endless rounds of emotional outbursts. Rather, we encourage valuable moments to allow free expression of feelings before problem solving. Once expressed and acknowledged, the energy can be freed up for creative problem solving.