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Lessons for Life

Can you listen without offering advice?

How not coming up with a solution might be the best solution

Jen Weigel

September 11, 2012

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Do you consider yourself to be a good listener? If so, then listen up: According to experts, there can be huge value in just letting someone vent without offering advice on how to fix the problem.

"I call this 'no-solution listening,'" said Michael Rooni, author of the book "Attractive Communication." "Sometimes people simply want to release hurtful emotions and get something off their chest. And for them communication is not necessarily about having their husband or wife or co-worker come up with a solution. They just want to be heard and want to be understood because they're hurting inside. "

While not coming up with a solution might be the best solution, listening without fixing can be very difficult for some, according to clinical psychologist Christine Costello.

"When you have an emotional attachment to the outcome, it's very hard to do this," Costello said. "When someone is working really hard to just understand what the other person is saying before they jump in and add anything, this can be difficult. ... I have adult children and I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut because they're adults — but I have more experience than they do and I do have something to offer, but I'm restraining myself because that may not be what they want."

Costello said people who are self-absorbed or narcissistic will also have trouble listening without offering advice.

"They tend to assume that they know everything or that it's all about them," she said.

"The narcissists are viewing the communication world through their own lenses," Rooni said. "They think 'If I were them, what would I want? I would want someone to itemize things and give me a solution.'"

No-solution listening can also be a test of intimacy — especially with personal relationships, Rooni said.

"Sometimes people are looking for a confidant and this is really a good way to tell if you can trust someone," he said.

Here are some tips to being a better listener:

Find out what they want from you.

"Do they want to be held, heard or understood?" Rooni said. "When someone wants a solution they will say 'Do you have any ideas or suggestions?' They will typically communicate what it is that they want if we actually ask them."

Be aware of your body language.

"Leaning slightly forward to listen communicates nonverbally that you're interested," Rooni said. "But if you cross your arms or put your feet on the table that says you are not interested and you won't connect. And don't underestimate the importance of eye contact. This establishes trustworthiness and credibility. It's something that you can use when you're engaging in listening that helps you connect."

Don't multitask.

"Multitasking has become a communicative epidemic," Rooni said. "If you're doing other things while listening, it can come off as disrespectful. The person talking will feel a lack of importance — that what they're saying is not important."

Be honest about your limitations.

"If you have a hard time restraining yourself from saying something you can say to them, 'I'm having a hard time just listening here because every core of my being wants to give you advice so I may not be the best person to vent to about this.'" Costello said.

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel