If you want to improve your communication skills, don’t ask a therapist for help.
That’s the first take-away from Elizabeth Bernstein’s new column on how to be a better listener.
Bernstein opens with the example of Traci Ruble, a marriage and family therapist. One must note, yet again, that professionals like Ruble would do best not to advertise their inadequacies in the press.
When in bed with her husband one night, Ruble responded to his conversational gambit thusly.
Bernstein tells the story:
When Traci Ruble and her husband, Clemens Gantert, climbed into bed one night recently, he began telling her about his day at his software startup. He explained that changes in a state law would affect his business. And he told her about a technical problem he was having with a security certificate for the software.
After several minutes, Ms. Ruble turned to look at him. Then she burst out laughing, picked up the remote and turned on the TV. “Whatever you are saying is like speaking Greek to me,” said Ms. Ruble, who is a marriage and family therapist.
“I can’t believe you get paid to listen for a living,”
Mr. Gantert replied, calling her on her behavior.
Of course, Gantert deserves credit for understanding more about communication than does his hapless therapist wife.
And yet, the vignette is less about listening and more about failing to communicate. Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard, but therapist Ruble does not know how people forge connections through effective communication.
Note well that Gantert begins the conversation by sharing information about his day. He is communicating facts, not feelings. And, Ruble becomes undone when faced with facts. Her bailiwick is feelings. She thinks it better to lose herself in a television show than to discuss the facts of husband’s life.
My advice: don’t try this at home.
People can forge durable connections by finding common ground. Referring to the same facts creates a common reference, about which people can think and feel as they wish. Without that reference they can only express their feelings, but this in itself can only produce a simulated connection.
(For those who don’t know it, I discussed this matter at length in my book The Last Psychoanalyst.)
One might imagine that Ruble and Gantert represent female and male communication styles. This might seem correct, but it represents a caricatured view of the difference between the sexes.
I would go so far as to say that it shows how ideology has corrupted the supposed science of psychotherapy.
Ruble is presenting a therapeutically correct view of communication. And she believes that she has the right to impose her view on males who believe that reality matters.
By rejecting her husband’s attempt to communicate, Ruble is attempting to force, to coerce, to bully him into communicating in terms that make her comfortable.
If Ruble is supposed to be helping couples to heal their distressed marriages, she seems to believe that she can only do so by beating down the man and making him function as his wife’s soul sister.
For several decades I practiced psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. For better or worse I have always found that emphasizing feelings drew people out of their lives and into their minds, out of the real world and into their dreams.
For nearly all people, this was not a constructive step.
I also noticed that women were much more comfortable with this activity than men were. To put this theory to the test I have on occasion asked clients to tell me how they feel about this or that.
Invariably, women responded by happily discoursing about their feelings. Men most often returned a blank stare, as though they had no idea what I was talking about.
I have not performed this experiment in quite some time. It might well happen that today’s metrosexual male will feel perfectly comfortable expressing his feelings. If so, I feel sorry for him.
As for women’s ability to talk about their feelings, this might well reflect the fact that women have been less involved in the worlds of business and commerce and the professions. If so, then it is even more important that they learn how to deal with objective and factual information.
Anyway, Bernstein has found an expert named Graham Bodie who counsels something he calls “active listening.” Since listening is fundamentally a passive activity, performed through the ear, the phrase “active listening” is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron.
One is not surprised to see, yet again, that eminent psychologists do not know how to define concepts. Let’s think it in terms of active engagement.
While “active listening” can contain a few Yeps and Uh-huhs, it seems to be more about feelings than about searching to understand the facts or to find common ground.
Legitimize the other person’s feelings by reflecting them back: “That must have been stressful for you.” Draw the other person out by asking open-ended questions: “How did that make you feel?” “What are you going to do now?”
Use short words or even sounds such as “yep,” “right,” “mmm hmm”—all known as “minimal encouragers”—to urge them to continue. Periodically paraphrase what your loved one is saying, and follow the paraphrase with something researchers call the “checkout”: “Am I understanding you correctly?”
“Active listening starts with the real desire to help another person think through their feelings,” says Dr. Bodie. It takes time. “Don’t try to fix the problem right out of the gate, and don’t rush things,” he says. [boldface mine]
We are happy to know what Dr. Bodie considers our real desires to be.
Bodie’s notion of good communication is based on the kind of therapy that I hope people have had enough of.
Only an incurable therapist would believe that the purpose of a conversation is to help people to “think through their feelings.” Only an incurable therapist would imagine that this help anyone to fix or solve a problem.
Bodie is espousing a form of therapy that invovles two disconnected individuals who will never connect. If each person is trying to help the other person to get more deeply into his or her mind, they will end the conversation as disconnected as they were when it began.
If you want to solve problems and if you want to help people to solve problems in their lives the one thing you do not want to do is to help them to work through their feelings. You want to help them to take a step back, to evaluate all of the information in as objective a way as possible and to think through the different options and the different possible outcomes.