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Why it's also important to listen, not give advice

Sometimes all that a person wants is a safe space to articulate their feelings—give them your attentive presence

Attentive presence by itself is a gift and it is enough in a lot of situations.(Unsplash/Kevin Laminto)

By Sonali Gupta

LAST PUBLISHED 18.01.2024  |  01:00 PM IST

A client recently asked: “What is the best way to address a situation with a friend where I want to talk and vent about what I am feeling but I am not looking for any advice or a solution?"

She said she had begun avoiding discussions with family and friends because she felt they move on to trying to solve the problem when all she needed was a listener in a safe space. This is a situation many of us have been in at some point in our lives. At the same time, some of us, without even realising it, have also been at the other end—jumping in to offer suggestions and recommendations to address the situation without checking if the other person wants this.

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The concern here is that the person who wants to share what they are going through ends up feeling that their need of being listened to is not met. On the other hand, the person who wants to help, by providing a solution, feels that their intention and what they are saying is not well received. As a result, these situations are often followed by an awkward silence or smiles—and the conversation abruptly moves to something else, most likely trivial.

As a therapist in sessions when clients want to talk about an experience, I ask, “How can I be present today, so that you feel heard?" There are times when the clients say they need to narrate what has happened and how they are feeling. Some say they don’t feel emotionally ready to address the situation yet or are too tired and caught up in the feelings to work through the situation that’s troubling them. All they need is a compassionate hearing.

This is the same principle I have learnt to use in friendships, when I need to vent or when friends want to share their concerns. The good thing is when stated specifically that all you want is a patient, non-judgmental hearing, it sets the tone for the conversation and makes it easier for people to be attentively present.

Attentive presence by itself is a gift and it is enough in a lot of situations, so ask for it. I encourage clients in their personal relationships to begin conversations by stating a need so that the expectations are set right at the onset.

One way of doing this is by saying something as specific as, “I want to share what I am going through; I need you to listen and be there for me. I am not ready to receive any feedback or advice yet, would you be able to offer that compassionate space."

On a podcast I once heard, the host said “unsolicited advice is criticism". I often use that insight in conversations to gauge how to go forward. Specifically, in personal relationships when I feel the urge to suggest or offer advice, I remind myself of this.

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I hear clients tell me how sometimes when they can see a solution in sight, they offer advice because they don’t want their loved one to struggle and continue being in pain. I understand the place they are coming from, but I also know that people come to their own solutions and learnings in their own time.

Even if they have been told repeatedly, advice/solution becomes real and feels right when we are ready to receive it and mostly when we have emotionally arrived at it. So, while it can feel like a test of patience, it’s a good idea to work on that skill and show up for friends and family where you are offering them trust in their own capability to solve and arrive at their own answers.

When we are going through difficult situations, there is a feeling of helplessness and loss of control. We have the care of others until we find our way. This in itself is healing and all we need in the moment. When we are heard, not judged, and experience a soothing supportive presence, we may find the courage to listen to our own inner voice.

Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.

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