When You’re Trying to Help and It Isn’t Helping

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Doctor Neha: Hi, welcome to Talk RX with Doctor Neha. Today, I have a lovely guest, Arcelia, who’s willing to ask her communication questions so that all of you can learn. Welcome, Arcelia.

Arcelia: Thank you.

Doctor Neha: What have you been thinking about?

Arcelia: What I think about the most and struggle most with is how to communicate with someone who is very negative and puts up walls. How do I get through without internalizing it and getting into a confrontation? Wanting to listen, wanting to be there, but at the same time, always feeling like I’m the doormat once I leave. I’m just getting frustrated.

Doctor Neha: How do you deal with negative, conversation that you feel is negative, and then after you leave, you feel like a drain? What do you feel when you walk away in your body?

Arcelia: I feel it in my stomach. I internalize all of the negativity, and it just wipes me out. I get very frustrated because I want the person to do some action rather than just talking about it—just do something. I want to help, and I feel I can help, but it always turns out that I’m the heavy. How do I get through without sounding like I’m dictating? I’m actually trying to listen and try to give some helpful advice, but I’m always the bad one. How do I deal with that?

Doctor Neha: Okay, so you asked some great questions. First of all, is this family?

Arcelia: Family.

Doctor Neha: Family, okay. I’m distinguishing between family, friends, and business. With family, there’s not really a choice, right?

Arcelia: You’re stuck.

Doctor Neha: You’re in this with them. You’re riding this lifetime with them. Whenever there’s something like this going on, you want to ask yourself, “What is it that I’m trying to do?” You’re trying to help. You just told me you listen and you try to give advice, right? The first thing I would start with is by asking them, “How would you like me to listen to you? I notice that when we talk, I find myself trying to help solve your problem and be useful. I’m wondering if maybe you would just like a sounding board, and you would just like me to listen.” That’s number one. Does that make sense?

Arcelia: That makes great sense. I’m just wondering if I can do it.

Doctor Neha: Okay, then let’s give you a few tools to be able to do that. When somebody’s speaking to you and you perceive that something is negative, you said you internalize it. One great tool is to repeat back what you heard; that shows how intently you’re listening to them. You’re going to repeat back what you heard. Give me an example of something someone would say.

Arcelia: “I just can’t take this job anymore. I hate it.” So I say, “Get your resume together. I’ll help you.” I can do that.

Doctor Neha: Great example. You have somebody in your life who says they’re unhappy with something. They complain about it, and you swoop in to solve the problem. “Get your resume out. I’ll help you.” No one ever spoke about resumes. We haven’t even gotten there yet. What’s happening is you’re listening to them, but only on the level of words.

Now, let’s drop a layer lower and listen for emotion. When this person is saying to you, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do this job anymore. I can’t take it,” what emotion would you hear underneath the words?

Arcelia: Frustration.

Doctor Neha: I hear frustrated, upset, annoyed, irritated. Maybe powerless. When somebody’s speaking to you with any level of emotion, if you meet them only on the level of words, you will be going around in a figure eight loop: “Did not,” “Did too,” “Did not,” … “What about your resume?” “I can’t do that.” “What do you mean you can’t do that? I’d help you.” “You know, you aren’t doing anything”… That’s what you’re describing.

Arcelia: Oh, absolutely.

Doctor Neha: Whenever someone comes to you and having an emotional experience, meet him or her on the emotional level. Then, if you want to get even fancier, you drop down to what’s important about that and you get curious. You ask about what they value about what’s happening, and then you get curious. So let’s role-play. Tell me about your frustrating job just like this person in your life would.

Arcelia: “Oh my God. I just can’t do it anymore. I hate going there. People are really rude. It’s just a negative environment. You know what, I call in sick all the time just because I don’t want to deal with it.”

Doctor Neha: “Well, Arcelia, not only do I hear how frustrated you are, it really seems like you feel disrespected by these people.”

Arcelia: “I guess so. I never really thought about it that way.”

Doctor Neha: “Who would want to go in if that’s how you’re feeling? I know how important collaboration is for you and I know how important community is for you. So I’m wondering, how could I best support you?”

Arcelia: “Wow, I’ve never gotten that! I’d probably say, “Maybe just by listening and just hearing me out. It gives me an outlet and validates that I’m not going crazy, that it’s what’s happening outside, that it’s not internal. I just want to validate that they’re wrong and I’m right.”

Doctor Neha:“One thing I respect about you is that you actually know how you’d like me to listen to you. There was this way that I’ve been trying to give you advice and trying to tell you I’ll do your resume and help you get a new job and all of these things. I want to apologize for that, because I recently learned some new tools in communication, so I’m going to show up a little bit differently. I really want you to help me help you in any way that I can do that because you’re really important to me.”

Arcelia: I will definitely try that. That’s going to go a lot better than what I’ve had.

Doctor Neha: The other thing that you want to pay attention to is what’s happening in your body. As you’re trying to solve someone’s problem in the way that you would solve it, this may go on for years; it may go on for a lifetime.

Another way that you could engage with them is say something like this, “So I hear how frustrated and upset you are and that you’d like me to listen. If a year or two or five from now, we’re still having this same conversation, would it be okay for me to remind you that we had this conversation a year ago? Would that work?” You ask permission so that somebody has now agreed to say, “Yeah, be my support system and let me know if I’m doing the same thing over and over.” Make sense?

Arcelia: Yeah, it does.

Doctor Neha: All right, give me your takeaways.

Arcelia: First of all, don’t listen just to the words. Really understand what the emotion is. Allow them to tell me how they would like me to help them, how they want me to listen, and I don’t have to solve. I can just be there to listen.

Doctor Neha: You’re amazing. I cannot wait to hear how this goes.

Arcelia: Stay tuned.

Doctor Neha: All right. For all of you viewing this, if you have ever wanted someone to just listen to you or to help you solve a problem and you didn’t get the response that you wanted, then either one of you—the person listening or the person speaking—can ask, “How would you like me to listen to you?” or “What I’d like is for you to listen to me, not solve the problem.” Either one of you can make that choice.

Also make sure when a conversation is emotionally charged, that you’re not just answering it on the level of words. Instead, meet that person at their emotional level. Tell them what’s you’re hearing that seems to be important about it. If they say, “No, that’s not what it is. It’s not that I’m disrespected; it’s that I’m irritated and not honored as a fellow colleague,” they’re right. Don’t argue with them.

The takeaway here is to know how you want to be listened to or, if someone is speaking to you, ask him or her how he or she wants or needs you to listen. Second, listen below the words for the emotions and what’s important to them. Then get curious. It always helps. Thanks for being with us.

Send me your questions — drop me a tweet at #AskDoctorNeha or write your question and comments down below.

Awareness Prescription

  1. Listen for the emotions underneath the words.
  2. Listen even deeper for what someone values.
  3. Ask: How can I best support you? (You don’t have to do all the work!)

To verbal aikido,

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