Thursday, January 15, 2015

How Does That Make You Feel?

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.

Bernstein explains:

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.


Leo G said...

Conversation in my home.

When I discuss my day, I know my wife is not really interested, just wants to know I am making money, so I keep the info short, 3 - 5 minutes tops.

When we discuss her day, can go on for 15 - 20 minutes sometimes. I keep an interested look on my face whilst hoping that this will be the last sentence.

In my experience, women need this end of the day decompression far more then men.

Ares Olympus said...

My own experience observating male/female "communication styles" was to see a friend's mother on the phone after some important personal news, and she had three sisters, all long distance, and proceed to call each of them in series repeating the same story in over 10 minute coversations each call. I don't remember if her details changed in each call. I was just so surprised by her willingness to keep repeating the story. I couldn't imagine a man ever doing that, especially since no particular decisions or advice was needed. What she wanted was to hear their reactions to judge her own. She wanted them to be excited and ask questions.

When I think of a husband deprocessing his work day, it might have something of the same quality, but does he have any obligation to express his deprocessing in a way that his wife will find interesting?

On Active Listening, Wikipedia has a page. It sounds more about avoiding miscommunication. The article never mentions "feelings" as being central. And the process was invented by a man, Thomas Gordon, in regard to conflict resolution.

If a person like the husband is just "dumping" his day's memories all over the air waves, and it has nothing to do with the listener, then "active listening" might not serve a purpose, but a listener might have to think about how to stay awake.

I don't think there can be any right answers. It might be a wife's "role" is to passively listen and let her husband work out his story without interruption. Or perhaps she'll have a POV that wouldn't occur to him, maybe an alternative explanation for events he hadn't considered, maybe because of his non-feeling way of dealing with people.

Anyway, stereotypes are always trouble. Like a long while ago I went to a writer's group that ended up with most everyone 60+ and the women seemed hard and wanted critical judgments of their styles, while the men were weepy and sentimental, apparently deprocessing a lifetime of suppressed emotion?

I just can never make up my mind what things are worth until they happen, and usually communication turn out better than I expect, or could control if I tried.

I'd guess for myself, I'm terrible at reading people, and usually take them as they offer themselves, and so I'm always curious when I see possible contradictions in people's stories. I've accepted people are more dishonest than I'd have guessed when I was younger, so now I know why asking questions against consistency might be bad manner.

David Foster said...

I have a friend (female) who is fond of quoting Milan Kundera, especially this passage: ""We all need someone to look at us. we can be divided into four categories according to the kind of look we wish to live under. the first category longs for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes, in other words, for the look of the public. the second category is made up of people who have a vital need to be looked at by many known eyes. they are the tireless hosts of cocktail parties and dinners. they are happier than the people in the first category, who, when they lose their public, have the feeling that the lights have gone out in the room of their lives. this happens to nearly all of them sooner or later. people in the second category, on the other hand, can always come up with the eyes they need. then there is the third category, the category of people who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love. their situation is as dangerous as the situation of people in the first category. one day the eyes of their beloved will close, and the room will go dark. and finally there is the fourth category, the rarest, the category of people who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present. they are the dreamers."

I think Kundera's typology is incomplete, but his approach here is a fruitful one. Almost everyone does need a witness or witnesses, and it seems to me that the woman in this story has failed utterly at playing that role meaningfully in her marriage.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Sounds like Ruble would be an excellent therapist for "married" lesbians. I wonder how that would turn out. I wonder if the therapy session would ever end. I wonder if Ruble could remain an effective third party, or whether she'd be sucked into the swirling vortex of drama.

Facts and feelings are both important in a human life and human relationship. When my wife talks, I often wish for the "short version," which would be more fact-based. I have asked her many times not to think of me as one of her girlfriends, and her compliance has helped our marriage.

I find that I am living a compartmentalized, transactional, objectified life if I do not talk about my feelings from time to time. My wife and I have worked on this. This interlocution has great value to me, as I find it integrating and calming. But it is also productive conversation, carrying immense value in helping me work things out. It has nothing whatsoever to do with what looks to me like entertainment or drama. This kind of exchange is how I've come to see women connect and understand their experience. That's why I love it when my wife has girlfriend time. Very important. While she is out, I will hobby with objects, learn new things or work on puzzles... all by myself. Or I will have a friend come over for a beer, and we will talk about such things or engage in said activities. If that's "Greek" to people like Ruble, she's probably in the wrong field. Then again, she'll be very upset when her favorite tool or object breaks down because the engineers weren't paying attention to the facts of their work. Ahhhhh... justice!

"Active listening" is a pandering technique. It is ridiculous. It creates no connection, no intimacy. It's a sham designed to make feelings-based people feel better. It's not sustainable because it's like a death march for the facts-based participant. It feels phony, juvenile and stupid. It never lasts. However, the great benefit is that it makes one patient look at the the therapist as a momentary savior, which largely explains its persistence in the therapeutic lexicon.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Overall, the great disservice we've done to men and women in our culture is empower this idea that the "correct" way to communicate is a feminine model of sharing, talking about feelings as a deeply sacred component of the true, all-powerful, all-knowing self. Men look at this and just check out. So we wonder why men seem checked out in our modern society? We wonder why life halts when someone is "offended"? It's because we've made feelings sacred, and created this hegemonic self as the subjective purpose of all life. We lose appreciation for other human beings, we we micro-customize life, we treat people as transactional conduits, we abort inconvenient life, we call physician-assisted suicide "dying in dignity," we have 450 television stations, we generate tremendous waste, and wonder why we're all so disconnected and distrusting of each other. It's very silly. Me, me, me is dull, dull, dull.

Trishapatk said...

How about the basic fact that people, whether male or female, want their spouse to care about them? And people in general want to "be heard" or understood to some extent.
I think it's fair to say that what the husband said between the lines is that he is dealing with a few difficult things at work and that they were on his mind even as he was lying down to sleep. How hard is it to hear that? I doubt that he was hoping for her to propose solutions to his problems. I think he simply wanted his wife to care about him.

it doesn't have to be taken to the extreme of trying to draw out the guys feelings about it and expound upon them. He's got them whether he expounds upon them or not and he wants his wife to care. It doesn't take and special kind of "active listening" to hear that he'd like his wife to care about HIM - not the state laws or technical issues he is having to deal with.

I suppose it is possible that she is ignorant of the fact that he truly wasn't aiming to discuss work details - if so, she is absolutely in the wrong line of work. Given the fact that Traci Ruble is a Marriage and Family Therapist, it is astonishing that she has such a low level of understanding, kindness and basic listening skills. It seems like she lacks even the most basic relationship skills.

As for Elizabeth Bernstein or Graham Bodie, it seems that they're trying to dissect what good listening is to the point where some of the basics are obscured. However, someone like Traci Ruble, isn't going to be helped by breaking down what good listening is if she is already trained and still doesn't know the basics. It seems like a big picture summary that is based upon the Golden Rule would help. Treat others the way you'd like to be treated. Care. Be kind.

Gospace said...

When my wife starts nodding and listening without replying, I ask her, "You don't understand a word I'm saying, do you?" She then says "Yes" and we start to talk about something else. She'll keep nodding and listening until I notice.

Never happens the other way around.

Unknown said...

Hi There - Traci Ruble here. I read some of the commentary and want to say a few things:
1. I use my own flaws as a teacher in the room with clients. My marriage and the honesty and quality of my connection with my partner is the single thing I am the most proud of. My willingness to share flaws skillfully makes clients feel safe and I think consumers of therapy have had enough of therapists or coaches espousing "guru-like" perfection but rather understand it is the ability to reflect on ourselves that connotes mental health. I am so very proud of sharing my challenges listening at times. My hope is it will give others courage.
2. In light of that I think mental health is about flexibility - the flexibility to respond in many different ways to the stimuli in one's life and flexibility in the meaning we make of those stimuli. When we become inflexible - there are not enough developed synaptic pathways. I work with clients with extreme depression and sexual abuse and once they are in a neurological rut they struggle to get out. The work is to use therapy to create new options.
3. I agree mental health has become impractical at times and the consumer is right to be annoyed. This is why I base my work on evidence based practice. I leverage the latest in neuroscience and there are four legs on the mental healthstool: a) the ability to feel one's feelings in the body and track them as experiential sensations and soothe them when the nervous system becomes hyperaroused or hypo aroused and the pre frontal cortex is rendered useless bc the animal part of our brain has taken over - many couples I work with (60% of my practice is couples work) one partner has an Autonomic Nervous system hijak and needs help calming so their rational brain comes back online (I agree that psychotherapy has given too much primacy to talking about emotions as an end point when it is not) b) the ability to cognitively make sense of the meanings one's mind is making of stimuli c) the ability to know one's relating template (based on one's attachment status) and create new choices around spatial proximity in relationship - and create new flexibilities d) the ability to modify one's behavior and move from reaction to choice - sometimes those behaviors are old habits long out grown

Finally - I take into account the neurobiological differences in the male and female brain anatomy. The hardest part in any couple is to weather difference. I see a lot of men complain about women and women complain about men and those conversations devolve into gender stereotyping. Some of the stereotypes have their roots in neurobiology and I teach couples how to honor difference. It is the greatest feat in coupling - learning to honor difference and even be inspired by difference. Still gender politics often creeps out and the "feminine" "emotional style of communication" is deemed "flawed" in some settings and the "masculine" style of deemed flawed in others. I speak openly about gender politics in the room with my clients and provide psychoeducation on the male and female brain and challenge couples to understand differences and understand the part of themselves that shames difference. Difference can provide a great deal of novelty and thus a source of passion if a partner isn't frightened.

If you like what I have to say please check out my psychotherapy clinic. I direct a staff of now ten clinicians. All thoughtful about therapy. also have an online and print magazine where we take up therapy in the land of culture. Learn more here:

One of my more popular articles that seems appropriate for this audience was about MEN IN PSYCHOTHERAPY. I have a specialty working with men who HATE psychotherapy. I love this population.