Communication

How To Listen so that Others Feel Heard People don’t want your advice – they want to feel understood

Have you ever had someone tell you about a challenging or frustrating situation they are going through, but when you tried to help them, they wouldn’t listen to you? Why do people ask for our help if they don’t want to hear what we have to say? 

The answer is that people don’t want your advice or reassurance, at least not to start with. At first, they just want to feel understood

Giving advice or reassurance, however, is the opposite of making someone feel understood. Imagine you are struggling to meet an important deadline, and you decide to call a friend to help you deal with the pressure. After telling your friend about the overwhelming stress you are going through, how understood would you feel if your friend responded with any of the following? 

  • “Don’t worry; I’m sure things will work out.”
  • “At least you got a week left to finish it.”
  • “You should [fill in advice].”

You would probably feel as if your friend hadn’t heard you at all. You just spent several minutes telling them how stressed out you are, but none of the above responses acknowledges those feelings. 

When someone tells you that they are struggling, what they really want from you is to acknowledge their feelings. And the way you do that is to: 1) put their feelings into words, and 2) validate that it’s understandable they would feel that way. 

Let’s look at a conversation when the listener fails to use these two principles. The following is an excerpt from Michael S. Sorenson’s fantastic book I Hear You, which shows a conversation between the couple Amy and David, where Amy is expressing frustration about her sister, Emily.

 

Amy: “Ugh. Emily is driving me crazy!”
David: “What happened?”

Amy: “You know this sisters’ trip we’ve been planning? She keeps changing the plans and doesn’t seem to listen to—or care at all about —what the rest of us want to do.”
David: “Well, have you just told her what you want to do?”

Amy: “Of course I have. We all have! She always seems to havesome reason for doing things her way. Ugh. I’m so sick of this.”
David: “You should just tell her that—that you don’t feel like she’s listening.”

Amy: “I’ve tried that. She always does this. I feel like I’m crazy because everyone else just backs down and lets her take over. I’m not about to spend all this money and take a week off work only to have to follow her strict schedule all day!”
David: “Well, if you don’t want to go, don’t go.”

Amy: “Of course I want to go! I just want to go and actually have fun!”
David: “Then just talk to your other sisters. I’m sure you guys can figure it out. Or I’ll talk to her!”

Amy: “No, I can take care of it. I’m just frustrated.”
David: “What if you each planned one day?”

Amy: “It’s not that easy. The sites we want to see are too far apart from each other.”
David: “What if you just booked a tour group instead?”

Amy: “No, we want to do it ourselves.”

 

David (not quite sure what Amy is expecting from him at this point): “Well, you’d better figure it out soon. Isn’t the trip in a few weeks?”
Amy (now frustrated and ready to end the conversation): “Yeah. It’s okay. I’ll figure it out.”

 

Why did David’s multiple attempts to help his wife go so poorly? He thought that Amy wanted advice, but what she really wanted was validation – to have her feelings acknowledged. Amy remained frustrated because David tried to fix the problem right out of the gates instead of first validating her frustration. 

Here’s how the conversation might have played out had David validated Amy instead of immediately trying to reassure her: 

 

Amy: “Ugh. Emily is driving me crazy!”
David: “What happened?”

Amy: “You know this sisters’ trip we’ve been planning? She keeps changing the plans and doesn’t seem to listen to—or care at all about —what the rest of us want to do.”
David: “Really? What’s up with that?”

Amy: “I don’t know! It’s driving me crazy. The trip is in a few weeks and I’m afraid we won’t be able to get reservations.”
David: “Ugh, that’s so frustrating. What are you going to do?”

Amy: “I don’t know. She always does this. I feel like I’m crazy because everyone else just backs down and lets her take over. I’m not about to spend all this money and take a week off work only tohave to follow her strict schedule all day!”
David: “Well, yeah—you’re splitting everything four ways, right? It’s your vacation as much as it is hers.”

Amy: “Seriously. I’ll figure it out. It’s just so frustrating.”
David: “Yeah, that really would be. Especially if you keep running into this with her.”

Amy: “I do! I’ve just come to expect it from her. Ever since we were kids.”
David: “That would drive me crazy.”

Amy: “Ugh, tell me about it!”
David: “Ugh, I’m sorry.”

Amy: “It’s okay. I think I’ll just talk to her about it again. If she really won’t budge . . . I don’t know. I might even do my own thing when we get out there.”
David: “Not a bad idea. Hopefully, she loosens up a bit.”

Amy: “Yeah.” [Brief pause]

Amy: “Anyway, thank you for listening. How was work?”

 

If you just take one thing away from this article, it should be this:

People aren’t ready to hear your advice or reassurance
before you have acknowledged their feelings.

The next time someone tells you about a challenging or frustrating situation they are going through, remember to acknowledge their feelings first. And the way to do that is to: 1) put their feelings into words, and 2) validate that it’s understandable they would feel that way. 

Often, this is the only thing the other person needs. Only if you have acknowledged the other person’s feelings, and they still feel stuck, can advice or reassurance be helpful.

How To Explain so People “Get It” Reverse the order you explain, and inspire your audience to take action

Have you ever tried to explain an object, a concept, or an idea to someone, and they just didn’t “get it”? Or has someone tried to explain something to you, and you left feeling even more confused afterward? 

The reason why most explanations fail is that we try to explain through definitions. But we humans don’t understand things by what they “are”. 

We actually understand things by how they can help or hurt us


Example 1: What is a knife?
We think of a knife as: 

  • something you can use to cut things 
  • something you can hurt yourself on if you are not careful 

We don’t think of a knife as:
“A sharpened piece of metal with a handhold.” 

 

Example 2: What is Facebook?
We think of Facebook as: 

  • something you can use to connect with your friends or find entertaining content
  • something that will waste your time by sucking you into a vortex of mindless scrolling

We don’t think of Facebook as:
“A company providing a computer application that interfaces with a network of user profiles.” 

 

The advantages of help-hurt explanations

There are three reasons why explaining how a concept can benefit or harm your audience is much better than explaining through definitions: 

  1. You gain your audience’s interest
    When you start with how the concept could help or hurt your audience, they instantly get why it’s worth listening to you to learn more. Definitions give no reason why anyone should care.
  2. Anyone can understand you
    With definitions, you simply explain the concept by using other words. But your recipient may not be familiar with these words, or they may have a different interpretation of them than you. Help-hurt explanations require no complex words.
  3. Your audience understands how to act
    If I explain that naproxen sodium is something you can take to relieve headaches – and that more than 1000mg/day can cause dizziness and nausea – you instantly know how to act. Even though you still don’t know what naproxen sodium actually is.

 

How to explain: WHY => HOW => WHAT

The help-hurt piece, however, is not enough. There are two other pieces your explanation needs for your audience to “get it”. 

Imagine three circles with the same center point.

  • The outer circle is WHAT the concept is (definitions) 
  • The middle circle is HOW the concept works
  • The inner circle is WHY the concept matters (how it can help or hurt your audience)

Your explanation needs all three of these pieces for your audience to fully understand the concept. But the pieces must be introduced in the right order

Most people explain things by going from the outside in. And it’s the completely wrong approach. 

Great communicators explain from the inside out. They start with WHY the concept matters (how it can help or hurt you), then explain HOW it works, and only define WHAT the concept is at the end. 

For example, this is how I might explain what Facebook is by starting with WHY: 

 

What is Facebook? (WHY => WHAT)

    • WHY: Facebook is something you can use to connect with your friends or find entertaining content. 
    • HOW: The way it works is that you create a profile on their online platform. Then you can message, play games, or share content with your friends that also have a Facebook profile through your phone or your computer. 
    • WHAT: Facebook is a social media and social networking service. It has almost 3 billion users and is owned by the company Meta Platforms.

 

Now, contrast that to if I were to use the exact same words, but just reverse the order of information:

 

What is Facebook? (WHAT => WHY)

  • WHAT: Facebook is a social media and social networking service. It has almost 3 billion users and is owned by the company Meta Platforms.
  • HOW: The way it works is that you create a profile on their online platform. Then you can message, play games, or share content with your friends that also have a Facebook profile through your phone or your computer. 
  • WHY: Facebook is something you can use to connect with your friends or find entertaining content. 

 

It’s a completely different message. When we start with WHAT, our audience has no reason to care. And our technical definitions are more likely to confuse than enlighten them. 

But when we start with WHY – how the concept can help or hurt them – your audience gets why they should listen to you. They get how the concept works. And they get how they can use it in the real world. 

 

If you want to explain so people “get it”, then start with WHY the concept can help or hurt your audience.