The following is a paper
Brant Burleson wrote that I translated from academic language
into conversational English. Burleson's paper is titled, Some
Distinguishing Features of More and Less Effective Messages Intended
to Provide Emotional Support. Burleson is a researcher at
Purdue University, studying communication and emotion, and he
has discovered some very powerful facts about listening.
Burleson is perfectly capable
of writing conversational English, but hasn't written his work
for the layman yet. He's a researcher, and he writes for academic
journals and textbooks and his language is technical, but his
work is very useful, so I thought I'd make it available for us
Burleson's research is
for anyone listening to anyone, but to help shorten this piece
and make it easier to read, I wrote it specifically as advice
to a man about listening to his wife.
I recommend you bookmark
this article or print it and save it for when you need it. Next
time someone you know is troubled, you can pull it out and read
it, and you'll read it with a strong desire to understand. That's
a good way to learn.
What Really Helps
When your mate is having troubles and talks
to you about it, some of what you do will be helpful, and some
won't. Research shows clearly that many of our attempts to help
someone we love fail even when we sincerely wish to help.
We often don't know how to help effectively, so it often goes
badly. Helping someone is sometimes tricky and complicated, and
so many things can go wrong, often we don't want to even try.
Very few of us have any formal training
in listening. Very few of us have seen a competent helper in
action, and we feel inept, uneducated, incompetent. Brant Burleson
of Purdue University has looked at this subject thoroughly, reading
the studies of others and conducting his own experiments. After
a complete review of the research on the subject, Burleson can
say with a fair degree of certainty that most people will find
the following helpful:
1. Your intention to help. Tell
your mate you want to help. Make it clear you have a strong desire
to help her. Just knowing someone wants to help makes a difference.
When people are experiencing negative emotions, they aren't as
good at reading your intentions as they usually are. So make
it very clear you want to help, and spread that message throughout
your conversation, emphasizing your sincere desire to help.
2. Acceptance and positive regard.
A desire to help someone can be interpreted as meaning, "You
aren't smart enough or skilled enough to deal with it yourself."
In other words, your expression of your desire to help can have
the effect of making your mate feel invalidated. So this second
point needs to be emphasized also yes, make it very clear
you want to help, but also make it clear you are a helper
and she is the main actor in this situation. She is in control.
She is the one who makes the decisions about her own life. She
is the boss. This problem is hers and you are only an assistant.
Convey your respect clearly and strongly. And acknowledge her
strengths. With your words and tone and body language, make sure
she knows you accept her, like her, feel affection for her, respect
her, and recognize her competence. This is positive regard.
3. Situation interest. Indicate
clearly you care about her situation. Express concern
and interest in the circumstances bothering her. This allows
her to open up without feeling she is taking your time when you
don't want to listen. It makes her feel welcome to talk freely
about the situation, which she will find helpful because it allows
her to think about it; to examine the facts and her feelings
about it. When she gets an opportunity to think things through
without interruption, it will lower her feelings of distress
and increase her ability to resolve the problem successfully.
Remember, everything written on this page is based on solid research.
4. Empathy and understanding. Anything
you express that says, "I understand what your circumstances
are and I understand why you feel the way you do," will
be taken well. Sincerity is important. Express your sincere appreciation
for her feelings and circumstances. In other words, really try
to put yourself in her situation and imagine what it would be
like for you to experience those circumstances
through her eyes, not yours. And make sure you communicate your
understanding carefully. Don't say things like, "I completely
understand what you're feeling." Sincerity means honesty,
and your expressions of understanding need to be honest. You
don't know for sure you completely understand exactly
what she is going through. You can't really say (and it doesn't
help) that you have felt exactly what she is feeling.
5. Make yourself available. In whatever
way you can, make sure she knows you are available to her, you
will listen, you are not going anywhere, and even if she's upset,
you will not abandon her. Encourage her to talk, and limit your
own talking to whatever will encourage her to talk more about
the problem and her feelings about it.
6. Ally. Make sure your mate knows
that no matter what, you are on her side. You are in full alliance
These six things (above) are appreciated
by almost everyone, and will very likely help your mate handle
her emotions better and deal with her circumstances better.
Another category of actions you can take
that will very often help is to tell her you recognize the legitimacy
of her reactions to the situation. We can break this category
into five separate kinds of legitimacy:
1. Make sure she knows you think her feelings
and actions are reasonable and perfectly understandable. Express
your genuine feelings that her response is legitimate.
2. Let her know you think her feelings
are normal and fit the situation.
3. Let her know you appreciate how difficult
her situation is.
4. Let her know you sincerely believe she
is not at fault (in areas where she is blaming herself unjustly).
5. Make sure she knows it's okay with you
she's expressing her upset. In other words, do not ever give
her the impression she shouldn't be crying or appearing upset.
Let her know expressing her distressed feelings is understandable
and you fully allow it.
What will make this sincere is putting
yourself in her shoes. Imagine what it must be like for her.
Imagine what it would be like for you if you were in her shoes.
This is the key to empathy. And that means completely
in her shoes. With her perspective on things. With her
values. With her past experiences. Imagine what you would
feel like if this event happened to you but you were experiencing
it from her point of view, not yours.
Another category of helpful communication
is encouraging your mate to go into more detail about the circumstances
and her feelings. There are six ways to do that:
1. Say things that let her know you are
interested in hearing her story.
2. Say things that let her know you want
to hear about her feelings and reactions to the situation.
3. Ask open-ended questions about her feelings
4. Tell her what you guess she must be
feeling, but tell her you're guessing and ask her about it.
5. When she describes her feelings, tell
her what you heard. "So that made you angry, huh?"
6. Make sure you acknowledge her statements
and say things (and use your body language) to encourage her
Most people will find it helpful if you
encourage them to talk about their feelings, but one study indicated
some people prefer you let them decide whether they want
to talk about it or not. It is fairly safe to ask open-ended
questions about the circumstances, and of course, encourage her
to tell her story. But make sure this doesn't come across as
Sometimes you might have something to say
that will help your mate actually solve the problem she's distressed
about. And sometimes giving information or advice is greatly
appreciated, but sometimes it isn't.
Information and advice is risky for two
reasons: First, she'll only think it's helpful if the information
is relevant and she considers the source of the information to
be an expert on the problem. If she feels the advice might truly
be effective and if it's something she could really do (and not
some "ideal" action she could not conceivably do),
there is a chance she'll find it helpful.
Second, even if you meet those requirements,
your advice can still backfire if it carries the implied message,
"You are inept." Don't make her feel wrong and don't
be domineering. If you come across too controlling, she will
feel you are taking away her autonomy. Both of these are considered
by most people to be distinctly unhelpful, even making things
Here are a few more things that sometimes
help and sometimes don't help:
1. Reassurance: Saying, "Everything
will work out."
2. Statements you have no way of knowing:
"The worst is over." "Things are getting better."
3. Trying to make your mate see things
more positively: "Well, look on the bright side
4. Trying to distract her from thinking
Because these are sometimes helpful and
sometimes not helpful, it is probably best to avoid them altogether.
You have plenty of definitely helpful things you can do.
What Doesn't Help
Now we get to things fairly certain to
be unhelpful. When you violate one of the three rules below,
you have a good chance of making your mate feel worse than she
1. Don't say (verbally or nonverbally)
her feelings or the way she's expressing her feelings are wrong.
2. Don't indicate she should stop doing
what she's doing (pacing back and forth, wringing her hands,
3. Never try to stop her expression of
emotion. Don't tell her to calm down, for example.
Let's go into more detail about exactly
what Burleson found to be counterproductive. Violate any
of the rules below and it will probably make things worse when
your mate is talking to you about a problem. Follow the
rules below and you'll be a better, more helpful listener:
1. Don't tell her she's overreacting or
blowing things out of proportion. Don't minimize what she's feeling.
2. If she's upset about a problem with
a person, don't insult or put that person down.
3. Don't tell her she has no right to be
upset about what happened because it's her fault it happened.
4. Don't imply that the reason she's in
this mess is that she's incompetent.
5. Don't indicate that expressing her negative
feelings makes her problem worse. This is a form of rejecting
her feelings and doesn't help.
6. Don't make her think her emotions are
uncalled for because her problem is so small. Don't say her upset
is unnecessary because the problem is so easy to solve. This
is another form of rejecting her feelings and saying her feelings
are not legitimate.
7. Never tell her how she should think
or feel about her situation.
8. Don't tell her to forget about her problem.
9. Never tell her to ignore her feelings.
10. Don't tell her to think about happier
11. Don't spend very much time (if any)
on your feelings about the situation, or about something similar
that happened to you.
12. Beware of being too involved to the
point of intrusiveness. Don't be overly doting or overly concerned.
It is possible to take your care and concern too far, and when
you do, it ceases to be helpful and can even be harmful when
it crosses the line into trying to control or persuade her to
do what you think is best, or making her feel like a "poor
little thing" which is a way of implying she's incapable
dealing with it.
In other words, completely avoid criticism
of any kind about anyone or anything when someone is troubled.
It isn't helpful.
Burleson thinks one of the main reasons
good listening helps a person feel less upset is it gives your
mate a chance to think about her situation differently. There
are basically two ways to help someone with a problem: Actually
help her solve the problem, or help her interpret her problem
differently (so the problem, even though it hasn't changed, becomes
less upsetting because of the new interpretation).
By following the 12 rules outlined above,
your mate is able to talk openly about the problem and her feelings
about it, making it easier for her to think about it (because
you aren't interrupting, you're making her feel okay about talking
about it, you're not trying to control her expression, etc.).
Because you're listening, as she struggles
to tell you about her situation and her feelings about it, she
understands the situation better. She's able to start making
sense of it.
As she thinks about it without any persuasive
efforts on your part, she can begin to change her mind about
some of the conclusions she originally jumped to. She begins
to change how she interprets her situation. When she changes
her interpretation, her feelings will change.
As she calms down, her thoughts become
even more rational and practical, and her understanding of her
problem improves even more, and her understanding evolves toward
something more constructive than her first take on it.
The kind of conversation that really helps
has three main characteristics:
1. Safe environment. You make a
safe place to talk. You let her know you accept and have affection
for her, and that you care about her, and that your intentions
are good. You encourage her expressions of her feelings and then
encourage her to go into detail about them, never invalidating
any of her feelings, always helping her know it is safe for her
to speak honestly. And you keep the environment conducive to
communication by minimizing interruptions and distractions.
2. Encourage feelings. You encourage
her to talk about her emotions. You keep an ear out for any expressions
of emotions she has about the problem, and then follow up on
every one of them, helping those feelings come out in the open
and inviting her to express the emotions in detail not
for any therapeutic-venting purposes (which research has shown
to be ineffective), but to help her learn what her real feelings
are about the situation. You ask questions about the problem
and her feelings and the way she is interpreting the situation,
and you assure her it is okay to talk about her feelings.
3. Get the whole story. You encourage
her to talk at length. Most conversations are two-way, with each
person taking a turn, more or less equally. But you can help
a person more by helping her get a longer turn, asking good questions,
and then more questions about the answers she gave you. You let
her know you want to hear the full story you don't want
her to make a long story short. You encourage her to go on. You
don't interrupt. You don't let the conversation get sidetracked
by you talking too much. You avoid giving advice. You
avoid evaluating the situation or interpreting it for her, because
that stops her from talking. You try to extend the narration,
not cut it off.
Sometimes you can help your mate deal with
the problem itself, but that best comes after she has had time
to fully express it and after she asks you for advice. Then
you can help through brainstorming or discussing possible solutions
to the problem and alternatives and the consequences, actually
taking some actions that help, etc. Any information and opinions
you have about the problem should always be given in a way that
never makes her feel wrong or "not enough." Never communicate
advice in a way that comes across as commanding, domineering,
You truly want to help your mate, and if
you do the things that work and avoid the things that don't,
you will help her. Your mate will become less upset and
she will be able to figure out good solutions to her problems.
You may not get any glory because she probably won't even notice
how skillfully you've helped her, but you will know in your heart
you've done some good, and that is reward enough.