A common piece of interacting-with-people advice goes: “often when people complain, they don’t want help, they just want you to listen!”
For instance, Nonviolent Communication:✻✻ Nonviolent Communication, ch. 7.
It is often frustrating for someone needing empathy to have us assume that they want reassurance or “fix-it” advice.
Active Listening:†† Active Listening, p. 2
Similarly, advice and information are almost always seen as efforts to change a person and thus serve as barriers to his self-expression and the development of a creative relationship.
You can find similar advice in most books on relationships, people management, etc.
This always used to seem silly to me. If I complain at my partner and she “just listens,” I’ve accomplished nothing except maybe made her empathetically sad. When I complain at people, I want results, not to grouse into the void!‡‡ Empirically, I did notice that I usually got better results from listening than from giving advice. So I inferred that this advice was true for other people, but not me, because other people didn’t actually want to fix their problems.
Frequently the “just listen” advice comes with tactical tips, like “reflect what people said back to you to prove that you’re listening.” For instance, consider these example dialogues from Nonviolent Communication:§§ Nonviolent Communication, Chapter 7, Exercise 5.5, 5.6 and solutions.
Person A: How could you say a thing like that to me?
Person B: Are you feeling hurt because you would have liked me to agree to do what you requested?
Person A: I’m furious with my husband. He’s never around when I need him.
Person B: So you’re feeling furious because you would like him to be around more than he is?
I say this with great respect for Nonviolent Communication, but these sound like a 1970s-era chatbot. If I were Person A in either of these dialogues my next line would be “yes, you dingbat—can you turn the nonviolence down a couple notches?” I’d feel alienated knowing that someone is going through their NVC checklist on me.
Recently, I realized why people keep giving this weird-seeming advice. Good listeners do often reflect words back—but not because they read it in a book somewhere. Rather, it’s cargo cult advice: it teaches you to imitate the surface appearance of good listening, but misses what’s actually important, the thing that’s generating that surface appearance.
The generator is curiosity.
When I’ve listened the most effectively to people, it’s because I was intensely curious—I was trying to build a detailed, precise understanding of what was going on in their head. When a friend says, “I’m furious with my husband. He’s never around when I need him,” that one sentence has a huge amount underneath. How often does she need him? What does she need him for? Why isn’t he around? Have they talked about it? If so, what did he say? If not, why not?
It turns out that reality has a surprising amount of detail, and those details can matter a lot to figuring out what the root problem or best solution is. So if I want to help, I can’t treat those details as a black box: I need to open it up and see the gears inside. Otherwise, anything I suggest will be wrong—or even if it’s right, I won’t have enough “shared language” with my friend for it to land correctly.
Some stories from recent memory:
When we started doing a pair programming rotation at Wave, I suggested that, to make scheduling easier, we designate a default time when pairing sessions would happen. A coworker objected that this seemed authoritarian. I was extremely puzzled, but they’d previously mentioned being an anarchist, so I was tempted to just chalk it up to a political disagreement and move on. But instead I tried to get curious and explore more deeply whatever “political” models were generating that disagreement. After a lot of digging into what was or wasn’t authoritarian for them and why, it turned out the disagreement was because they’d missed the word “default” and thought I was suggesting a single mandatory time for pair programming.
My partner, Eve, wrote a post about Polish attitudes about sex, with some details that upset her (Polish) parents. When her parents told her that, she initially got very stressed about having to have a conversation to calm them down. I thought she shouldn’t be worried and the conversation would be fine, but of course just telling her that wasn’t very helpful. Instead, I summoned up my curiosity and asked lots of questions about her relationship with her parents, her parents’ relationship with each other, each of their relationships with Catholicism, etc. By the end of the conversation, after thinking through all the baggage involved, Eve agreed with me, and her attitude about the upcoming conversation shifted from impending doom to compassionate curiosity about where her parents were coming from.
I was stressed by work and complained to Eve about some things that I felt frustrated and stuck about. Instead of suggesting solutions, she kept asking for more details until she had more or less a complete snapshot of my mental state. At that point, she observed that every time I mentioned feeling sad, I sounded contemptuous and exasperated with myself. She hypothesized that I wasn’t giving myself permission to be sad. The “solution” to my problem ended up being to give me a big hug and let me cry on her shoulder for a bit, after which I immediately felt much less stressed.
In each case, the “helper” tried to learn about the “complainer’s” reality in as much detail as possible—not just the problem, but the whole person and whatever else was behind the immediate issue. And that’s what made it possible for them to actually help.
It often feels like I understand enough to be helpful without knowing all those details. But when I think that, I’m usually wrong: I end up giving bad advice, based on bad assumptions, and the person I’m talking to ends up having to do a bunch of work to argue with me and correct my bad assumptions. That makes the conversation feel disfluent and adversarial instead of collaborative.
It turns out this is a really common failure mode of helping-conversations, which is what I think generates the old saw at the beginning of this post, that “sometimes people don’t want help, just to be listened to.”
But I think that’s actually too nice to the helper, and uncharitable to the complainer (in that it assumes they weirdly don’t caring about solving their problem). What’s really going on is probably that your advice is bad, because you didn’t really listen, because you weren’t curious enough.
When I’m curious about what someone’s saying, I often do repeat things back to them in my own words. But it’s because I’m genuinely curious, not because I’m checking off the “reflect words” box in my “be a good listener” checklist. That means I do it in a way that sounds like my natural speech, instead of mimicking them like a chatbot.
When done this way, reflective listening feels validating rather than alienating. It’s a way of demonstrating that I care a lot about what someone has to say. Putting their idea into my own words shows them that I’ve fully digested it, and helps us establish a shared language in which to talk about it. That, in turn, makes the conversation fluent and collaborative, rather than a zigzag of bad assumptions and corrections.
So the right advice isn’t “listen harder and repeat everything back”—you won’t be genuine if you’re just imitating the surface appearance of a good listener. Instead, be humble and get curious! Remind yourself that there’s a ton of detail behind whatever you’re hearing, and try to internalize all of it that you can. Once you’ve done that, your advice will be more likely hit the mark, and you’ll be able to communicate it clearly.