Most people surprisingly and unintentionally make the following two mistakes during a difficult conversation:
1. They share a similar story about their life to try to let the other person think they understand what they are going through.
2. They offer unwanted advice.
This happened to me years ago when I was dealing with a lot of stress in my job and considering changing careers. I began to talk to someone, a counselor, about how I didn’t like being a lawyer and wanted to change careers. The counselor then made these following communication mistakes during our session when he responded to me and my concerns…
He said, “I know how you feel. I used to work in a toxic work environment. If you can find a better work environment like a good law firm, then you will be much happier.”
Well, that counselor made these two common mistakes. First, he tried to share a similar story he had gone through to try to relate to me and make me feel like he understood what was going on. He told me how he had worked in a toxic work environment. This is a common occurrence in conversations when one person is sharing a difficulty they are going through. Most people have good intentions when they share a story about their life to try to relate to someone. They are trying to relate to the other person and make the other person feel like they are being understood. However, this mistake has the potential for the following negative consequences.
a) It can actually make the person feel like they are not being understood.
In my example, after the counselor told me he had worked in a toxic environment to relate to me, I concluded that he did not understand what was going on with me. The problem was not that I was working in a toxic work environment. The problem was that I wanted to change careers (and eventually did which I can tell you more about if you want know)…
b) Additionally, sharing a similar story can make the other person feel like their experience has been minimized. In this situation, I felt like my counselor was minimizing my problem by trying to explain to me it was me working in a toxic environment, when the problem really was a much bigger: me wanting and needing a career change.
c) Finanlly, sharing a similar story takes the attention off the person who is originally talking about their problem and switches the focus of the conversation on to the other person. In this situation, instead of my counselor focusing on my problem, he shifted the focus of the conversation to his past experience. This changed the dynamic of the conversation to forcing me to respond to his experience instead of me feeling like the focus of the counseling session was on my goal and problem.
Sometimes, it is of course, okay to share a similar story, but it risks making the other person feel like they are not being understood, minimizing their experience, and taking the focus of the conversation off of the other person and shifting it back to you, especially when the person is talking about a very difficult situation they are going through.
The second common surprising and unintentional mistake people make in a conversation is offering unwanted advice. Again, this usually comes with good intentions. Most people give advice because they are trying to help the other person and trying to solve the other person’s problem. The potential negative consequence of giving unwanted advice is that it can make the person feel like they are not being understood. Further, sometimes people DONT want advice; rather they just want to vent or be heard and let their feelings out and express them. Additionally, sometimes the unsolicited advice can be misinterpreted as criticism.
In my situation, my counselor offered me advice by telling me if I work in a good law firm, then I would be happier. Again this resulted in 3 negative consequences.
a) It made me feel like he didn’t understand my problem, because I didn’t need to start working in a law firm. I needed to completely change careers and eventually did switch careers.
b) At that time also, I didn’t want his advice. Instead, I really just wanted to express my frustration and vent my anger and have someone listen to me.
c) I did not feel like he was criticizing me, but some people do interpret advice as criticism because they feel like the other person is telling them what they should do, but are not currently doing….
Obviously, sometimes it can be helpful to give advice. But, usually, it is always best to ask the other person first, “Are you telling me your problems because you want me to just listen and you feel like venting. Or, are you hoping I can give you some advice?” Asking that question is always the safest way to go.
Moreover, there is an alternative to these 2 common communication mistakes to help deepen the conversation and improve relationships. The alternative is active listening. Active listening is the process of summarizing what the other person has just told you in your own words so that he or she feels heard, listened to, empathized with, and like you are genuinely trying to make an effort to better understand them. Active listening can open communication and increase intimacy and depth in relationships. Three common active listening skills are
a) Summarizing what the person said in your own words,
b) Identifying their emotions
c) Validating their experience
In my situation an example of what a summary my counselor could have given me might be him saying “So, you are not happy with your career.” An example of identifying my emotion might be, “You seem really anxious about your career.” An example of validation might be him saying, “This must be really hard and stressful for you.”
These type of active listening responses are effective because they make the other person feel understood and valued. Then, when the other person feels more understood and valued, then they are more likely to feel appreciated and open up deeper communication with their partner, friend, or colleague.
So, next time one of your friends, loved ones, or coworkers talks about their problems, instead of sharing a similar experience or immediately giving them advice, try to offer them active listening instead. Simply stating to them, “That sounds stressful and really hard” can make them feel like you are trying to listen to them, make them feel heard, and validate their experience.
I have used active listening in my own relationships and seen them improve tremendously and believe this something anyone can implement into their own conversations and see similar improvements in their relationships
Founder of Spiritual Media Blog
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