Effective Communication: Listen Before You Fix It

Richard was telling Cathy that his son has just been diagnosed with an illness. He was preparing to accompany him to the hospital to run more tests and get a second opinion.

Cathy is a nurse, and her medical background immediately kicked in. She asked how the doctors arrived at the diagnosis. Then she told him what he should do at the hospital. “Be sure to take notes, ask questions, tell the doctor this, do that…”

When Cathy asked Richard if he had any questions for her, she noticed that he appeared distracted. His mind seemed to be elsewhere, and she sensed that he had not been paying much attention to what she was saying. Cathy was puzzled by this. She was imparting important information, and could not understand why Richard was not interested.

Her confusion only grew when Richard suddenly said, “I need to go now”, and left without so much as a thank you. Cathy began wondering if she had made a mistake or done something to offend her friend.

Actually, Cathy did make a mistake–two mistakes, in fact–and all-too-common ones. She ignored some key principles of effective communication.

The first mistake that Cathy made was rushing to give advice. After hearing Richard speak, Cathy immediately went into “fix-it” mode, asking questions and giving Richard advice on how to proceed. However, this is not what Richard needed at that moment. His thoughts were on his son and on the sadness he felt about his son’s illness; he was also concerned about how all this might affect him and his family. The first thing Richard needed was to have those feelings acknowledged.

How might Cathy have done that? She could have said something like “My heart goes out to you” or “I am so sorry to hear this” or “I cannot even imagine how difficult this is” or simply “I am so sorry”. This would give Richard the first thing he needed when strong emotions are present, which is to be heard, understood and acknowledged, otherwise known as empathy.

The second Cathy made was to offer Richard advice he did not request. People tell us things for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes they want advice; other times they simply want to be heard empathically.

When Richard wanted to be heard and Cathy gave him advice, she committed the mistake of giving unsolicited advice. And it is a major mistake. Think of it this way: unsolicited advice is like walking into somebody’s house uninvited and without knocking. You don’t want to offer advice unless you know it is welcome.

One way Cathy could make sure her advice is welcome is to ask, and it might sound something like this: “As I am listening to you, I am having some ideas that might be helpful. Would you like to hear them?” Richard would then have said ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and Cathy would have proceeded accordingly.

Good advice is a great gift we give people. And Cathy had valuable information and wonderful intentions—she really wanted to help Richard. But she lacked the skills to complement her good intentions. The result was wasted time and frustration.

When we communicate effectively, we first Listen Well–and that includes responding empathically, when needed–and then make sure our advice is welcome. Whether or not people ask for our advice, and whether or not they act on it, they will be grateful to us for the way we have listened and responded.

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