I’ll solve your problem

Looking at a long life I sometimes try to recall incidents or discoveries which I took to heart, and have continued to benefit from since then. The first one which occurs to me is when I learnt how to listen. Back in the late ‘60s I became a marriage counsellor. Of course I was trained for this, and before long I was sitting in a presbytery, and meeting a range of people whose lives were going wrong. In theory they would all be married couples, in practice it could be people with gender change or deep-rooted homosexuality – or almost any other personality distress you could think of.

So I had to learn to listen. I had started under the impression that I was a good listener, and even better at providing workable solutions. But I was taught that this was not the listening required. It was no more than a form of narcissism which gave me a conceited sense of wisdom.

If you think about it, normal conversations are like a tennis match. We take in quickly what the person has to say and, already, we are preparing our answer. And so the ball of conversation flies backwards and forwards. Minimal listening, maximal responding. Counselling is the opposite. Here, the counsellor listens very carefully, taking in every nuance and watching any nonverbal signals. Then he (or she) reflects what he has understood, both in terms of information and emotion. The client, who is not used to anyone actually listening, gains the confidence to explore their difficulties at a deeper and deeper level. Later the counsellor will help the client think about what they have described, and how they might takes steps to improve the situation.

Of course formal counselling is a specific situation, but I found that really listening: to my wife, children, friends, colleagues was enormously valuable. I no long appeared as the ‘know all’ . Instead I was someone whom you could talk to and who wouldn’t judge you, and who might help you to solve a problem or two.

I would like to claim that I am constant in this approach. But no. The gravity of my ego pulls me down to becoming the ‘know all’ again. I regularly have to look at my conversations and check how well or badly I have been listening – and to make a new resolve.

So you might like to try an exercise. Look out for an occasion when someone, perhaps close to you, starts a conversation. And then see what happens if you use listening in the way I have described. You may find that difficult to do. I was obliged to practice again and again, and in different circumstances, before the message began to stick. A phrase I was taught to keep in the back of my mind was ‘you feel X because of Y’. As in ‘you feel low today because you had some bad news yesterday’. I found that helpful.

You may find the outcome surprising. The speaker may well have never had the experience of someone really listening to him. And, as in the counselling room, a great deal more will emerge. It may end up not with ‘I’ll give you the solution for that’ but with ‘what do you think the solution for that would be? This could lead to practical objectives which the speaker is helped to identify. The listener is not solving the problem but guiding the process which enables the speaker to solve the problem.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to I’ll solve your problem

  1. Barrie Machin says:

    The wonderful counselling service that Quentin speaks of is as ever in short supply these days whereas the need for such seems to mount daily. I could never be accused of being a good listener – I just wish I was. A bigger problem that I realise was not really Quentin’s brief this time is what could we say or how do you get the chance to raise a query or make a point with the person who seems to be going on forever without a breath?!!

  2. ignatius says:

    I’m not an especially good listener either but the point is we are talking here about skill not temperament.. Over the past thirty years or so I have occupied several roles – Osteopath, Prison Chaplain,Samaritan, Educator, Deacon… I had to learn how to pay attention to others principally by becoming genuinely interested in their story and wanting to understand it better..even if only for
    the purpose of fully comprehending their account. As Quentin says, persons become more responsive if they perceive an interest in them.
    With regard to the person not breathing..just deflect them a bit from time to time and slow them down a bit.

  3. John Nolan says:

    BBC’s ‘Question Time’ is a prime example of how not to conduct a civilized argument – panellists continually interrupting and attempting to talk over one another, even to the extent of shouting down an opponent. It’s not as if most of them have anything interesting to say; they merely spout political platitudes.

    The show also busts the myth that women are better listeners than men. In fact they are the worse offenders, their high-pitched and strident voices giving them an advantage. Just compare the near-hysterical Anna Soubry with the calm, courteous and measured Jacob Rees-Mogg.

    There’s David Starkey, of course, but in his case rudeness is accompanied by erudition. I can understand his frustration at having to listen to so much nonsense.

    • John Candido says:

      Listening is similar to changing gears in a car. The teacher in you John Nolan, is very much in your reply. There is nothing wrong with that if you have certain goals to achieve or business to attend to and there are time limits.

      However, you have to balance this with a completely different attitude and set of skills if you want to add a complimentary ‘bow’ to your training and discipline as a teacher.

      If you were interested I could suggest that you ‘Google’ ‘Rogerian psychology’ or get hold of a copy of ‘Parent Effectiveness Training’.

    • Alasdair says:

      Yes indeed. I used to enjoy watching Question Time but have stopped doing so for the reasons you describe. I also feel that nobody ever has anything new or interesting to say. I used to enjoy watching Channel 4 News but became very annoyed by the fact that the interviewers (2 in particular) clearly have an “angle” which they will not allow the interviewee to challenge.
      A recent famous example of this was the widely viewed-and-commented-upon Prof Jordan Peterson / Cathy Newman interview on the gender pay gap.
      link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMcjxSThD54

  4. Iona says:

    One of the most useful bits of advice which I picked up in my days as an educational psychologist was to refrain from breaking into a silence (e.g. if I had asked a question and the person seemed to be groping for an answer; or had given an answer but seemed as though s/he might have more to say). It’s very tempting to try and move things on by suggesting Perhaps This, or Perhaps that; whereas just waiting, with polite interest, seems to provide a receptive space into which the person can expand. Such a simple thing to do (or, abstain from dong).

    • Geordie says:

      Silence can also be productive when a person doesn’t want to accept the fact that they have a problem. Human nature hates a vacuum and if you wait long enough he or she will fill in the emptiness. It may not be the full truth but it often provides a starting point.

  5. G.D says:

    Yes ….. Revealing truth through relationship is an activity of ‘silent stillness’. … Being mindful of the ‘gap’ between perceiving (seeing the other AS they are) and thinking (forming an opinion of WHAT they are) is where truth can reveal itself. ….. Which demands perceiving the truth of self, in that ‘gap’, and relating from it, before judgement of self or other. …’ I & Thou ‘ rather than ‘ I & it ‘.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s