4 Common Listening Pitfalls; How to Listen Well and Let People Rescue Themselves

How to listen well

One thing I’ve noticed as a coach is that people are rarely listened to. 

And I think we’re all craving it. We just want people to listen, and listen well. 

In our busy world we rarely have time to reflect and process our thinking and so we may rush to solutions and ignore difficult emotions so that we can get back to being productive. We seek out friends, colleagues and peers when we need guidance, but my theory is we’re left unsatisfied. Perhaps this leads us to further shut down and stop seeking out support….

If you want to help people and find you’re regularly sought out by friends, colleagues or peers to help, read on.

You can help people to rescue themselves and free yourself from the need to rescue them. 

Here I’m sharing 4 common pitfalls that people make when listening. I know I’m guilty of these at some points. How about you?  

1. Collusion

“Oh that must be awful”

“That sounds terrible, you poor thing”

“Oh my god, how are you coping?!”

“Seriously, that’s the worst thing I’ve heard all week”

Our responses are well meaning but collusion is unhelpful. I’ll explain why in a bit. 

2. I get it

“I’ve been through that before I know just what you mean”

“When this happened to me, I felt so angry I didn’t know what to do with myself”

“I completely understand what you’re saying, a friend of mine had something similar happen to her”

“Yeah, I know what you mean, I’ve read a lot about this recently”

What tends to follow the ‘I get it’ is your story, your experience and how you worked your way through this problem. This too is not always helpful. More on this in a sec. 

3. I have the solution

“What you need to do is……”

“You should try…….”

“Have you tried….. yet, this would definitely help”

“What about doing……I know it worked for me and I’m sure it would really help”

You probably do have some interesting advice and solutions but, there’s another approach that’s even better.  I’ll tell you more shortly. 

4. Cheer up

“Oh don’t worry, it’ll soon blow over”

“No use crying over spilt milk” (Do people still say this?!?!?!?!)

“It’ll be old news next week, forget about it”

All probably right, but not necessarily helpful. 


So why are these approaches not helpful to people who are in a problem or crisis? 

Let’s take a look at each in turn. 

1. Collusion: That must be awful……. You poor thing ….I can’t believe he/she did that?!

So what if it isn’t awful? Maybe our peer/friend/colleague thinks something else? By interrupting with our opinion we give them additional baggage to process. 

How do they feel or think about their situation? Do they even know? 

It may feel important to agree with your friend/peer to show sympathy and whilst sympathy is nice, it’s not necessarily helpful. Also, how much information do we have before we interject with our own thoughts. In my experience it’s usually very little. We rarely have all of the information. Can you seek first to understand before reacting? 

Collusion distracts people from their own thinking. It interrupts people’s ability to process their own emotion and can rob them of the ability to see things objectively. Often a more helpful thing you can do is to listen and ask questions. 

2. I get it…. I understand….. I know what you mean

Can we really ever know how someone means? How sure can we be that we “totally get it” or “completely understand?” 

Many people, even good listeners, listen to respond. We listen and run what is being said through our own experience in order to offer something helpful. 

Whilst it may look like you have dealt with a similar situation before the truth is you haven’t. 

Everyone thinks differently. We all have different values, beliefs, attitudes, preferred learning styles and this means that everyone experiences the world differently. It’s just not possible to have been through the same experience that our friend/peer has and therefore we can’t ever completely understand. 

Our own personal stories may be comforting to hear, and also interesting to see how we dealt with something that is similar, it’s nice to know that we’re not alone but they’re unlikely to help the person resolve their emotion. 

Instead, try listening not to respond, or judge or share. Simply listen, knowing that we can add more value by helping our friend/peer search through their own thoughts rather than hearing what crops up from ours. 

3. I have the solution….. here’s what I’d do if I were you

So, in coaching, something I see time and time again is that an action or solution born out of a client’s own thinking is endlessly more powerful than any suggestion I could offer. 

When someone has a problem they’ll be thinking about it, a lot. They’ll probably also have thought of many possible solutions to their problems before they come canvassing for more. I believe that people don’t need solutions. What they need help with is working out why they feel the way they do and what is stopping them from trying any one of the 20 or so solutions they’ve already been churning over. 

And why not offer a solution?

Solutions we can offer our friends may give them some good ideas on how they can move forward but when people want to be listened to it’s often not about fixing something, more often than not it’s about feeling heard or having time and space to just talk about what’s going on without the pressure of having to do something about it. 

When we offer solutions we are subconsciously saying to the other person “I know what to do, why don’t you? Or this is simple, why are you struggling so much” or “I’ve heard enough now”

Going in with a solution short cut’s the persons ability to think for themselves and work out what is going on. What solution would be right FOR THEM? Can you help them to develop their own thinking?

4. Cheer up

We love to sweep things under the carpet? If something is too hard, or too emotional it’s easier to ignore it and move on. 

And I get it. No-one want to be sad, or hurt, or feel guilty but sometimes we need to so that we can get to the other side. 

When we carry around bags of unresolved emotion it represents itself all the time. 

Ever watched a sad movie and found yourself blubbing uncontrollably at the puppy that has to be put down?

What about when someone has stolen your parking space in Sainsbury’s car park and you’re raging for the next 40 minutes? 

When we experience disproportionate negative emotion to an event it’s a sign that we’re carrying unresolved emotion. Let’s not encourage people to sweep it under a rug, we’re doing them an justice. 

People are brave and resilient, strong and inspirational, we just have to give them the space to realise that. 

So if you’ve read this far, thanks for sticking with me.

Here’s the crux of it……what do we do instead…..?

We listen. 

Listen without judgement – refrain from bringing our views about the topic

Be there without the need to fix them – hold back from offering solutions

Sit in silence whilst they think, and process and ask themselves questions – be silent for at least a minute if you need to, even when this feels like a really long time. Your presence is enough. 

Show care and empathy – “I’m here for you if ever you want to talk”

Observe – “I can see this is hard for you…”

Offer support – “How can I help?”

Encourage reflection – “What is most important for you in this?” 

Inspire creativity – “How else could you think about this?”

Let them indulge – “How are you feeling?” “What’s that like for you”

Explore patterns – “Have you ever felt like this before?”

Normalise emotions – “It’s ok to be sad, we all feel sad sometimes”

Reinforce resilience – “Whilst this feels hard now, you’re going to be OK” 

Follow up – “How about we talk again next week?”

Your presence is enough to help people to heal themselves, you don’t have to fix people’s problems for them. 

We are all more resilient and creative than we give ourselves credit for and when we can ignite someone’s ability to see that for themselves we give them more than any piece of advice can ever do. 

Be a listener and you automatically become a confidant, friend, mentor, coach, leader. 

If you are inspired to learn how to help people differently please consider training to be a coach. You can train with me in Plymouth, Reading and Bristol. I have courses running in September 2019 and March 2020. You can keep in touch with this by signing up to my community mailing list below. In this list I also send you these weekly blogs, stories from behind the scenes and special offers. Join me and join the rest of us! 

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