How does one person have a positive effect on another? How can we better understand the ingredients and limitations of helping relationships?

Let me start with a quick story.

Meghan watches as her mother finish a telephone call.
“Mommy, why are you crying?” she asks gently.
“I’m okay,” mommy sighs, “I’m okay.”
Meghan leaves the room and comes back moments later.
“When I’m sad, I hold on to Mr. Brown,” she says, handing over a teddy bear to her mother.

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Mr. Brown, “Thank You for Listening”

Meghan does a lot of things in this little exchange. Her actions encapsulate what it means to help others. She empathizes with, holds, or acknowledges her mother’s sadness, without being overwhelmed by it. She doesn’t implore her mother to stop crying. She doesn’t burst into tears herself. In addition, Meghan’s able to share her treasured toy (which is also a coping mechanism) with her mother. …

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Cooperation is the foundation of human civilization. Yet it can be fragile, easily undermined by distrust, bias, ignorance, and short-sightedness. How can we promote cooperation and synergy at home, at work, in society, and beyond?

Let me tell you a story. A few years ago I had to go downtown to meet a client. It was around 9:30 in the morning. Along the way I noticed there was a shoe store that was open. Not only was it open, there were customers inside.

This great consumer demand for shoes puzzled me, and it took me days of wondering before I could sort it out. I thought about fashion. I thought about women’s clothing and how many different kinds there are. The breakthrough came when I realized how complicated everything was. There are many options for each article of clothing. Sleeves can have different lengths and styles. …

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Being heard is like sex. There’s a buildup of tension, until you’re understood, and you achieve release.

Listening is like lubrication. A little bit can go a long way in reducing friction. Frankly, it’s painful when there’s not enough of it.

People get grumpy when they haven’t been heard in a while. You can listen to yourself, but it’s more fun when you listen to each other. It’s a turnoff if you don’t care and you just go through the motions. In fact, some people fake it just to get it over with. …

Can we actually learn how to get along?

According to Wikipedia, the term “Road Rage” was coined by television hosts in Los Angeles in the midst of a number of violent road encounters around 1987–88. It describes violent and aggressive behavior by motorists.

Most people agree that road rage is bad. It can cause traffic jams, property damage, and even death. Drivers are taught to yield and practice other safe driving behavior. …

A workplace acquaintance once told me she was pregnant. The pregnancy was unexpected. “I just need to talk. I don’t know what to do,” she said. I listened to her concerns about making ends meet and praised her for anticipating for the future. I listened to her talk about her recent promotion, and praised her for taking the initiative and securing it. At the end of a long conversation, she said, “The baby was conceived in love. It will be raised in love.”

I was once put in charge of a complex project at the last minute. I quickly requested a meeting with my manager. I told him I was going to work on the main part first. I explained what I was going to work on next because it was what the client requested. Afterwards I was going to work on the remaining components. Then I discussed the various metrics I was going to collect to make sure everything was fine. He patiently listened throughout, and we both felt more confident afterwards. …

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Virtual assistants don’t really listen

Do virtual assistants, like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, actually “listen”?

By some textbook definitions, they do. They have very good microphones that never get tired. They remember what we say. They “think about”, or at least process what we say. And they respond, sometimes with surprising usefulness. But despite all this, people aren’t going home and sharing their days with their virtual assistants (not yet anyway). They aren’t cancelling their therapist appointments in droves and pouring their hearts out to their virtual assistants. Why?

The short answer is that virtual assistants are not human. They don’t understand human stories: the pains, struggles, consequences, joys, and triumphs. Since they don’t understand this stuff, there’s really no point in sharing it with them. …

What do you say to someone who is grieving or ill?

It’s not hard to find articles on the web that give you advice on what not to say. Some might even give you examples of better things to say. But I’d like to go further and talk about why certain things work and others don’t. I’d like to help you understand what is happening, and I’ll give you a simple rule to deal with these delicate situations.

Imagine you saw a movie with some friends. It’s a story about a man and a woman.

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She had overcome earlier adversity and found a creative job that she loved. He came from a traditional family. He worked in an insurance company and volunteered at the animal shelter in his spare time. They seemed meant for each other. …

I have a simple definition of listening. It’s made up of three parts. To listen is to put someone else’s speaking, thinking, and feeling needs first. This naturally leads to the three most important things in listening:

1. Let the other person speak before you speak.

Even better, help the other person tell their story, without taking over, or stealing the punch line. If it’s an issue that concerns you, try not to get defensive or to push for your own arguments, because you’re likely to end up interrupting or arguing.

We all want to be heard. We like to talk about unusual things: “Guess what I saw today!” We like to share more serious things: “I just got some bad news about my favorite high school teacher.” Let people finish their story (or make their case) and don’t interrupt or tell yours. …

Listening is important. We are constantly searching for better ways to offer practical tips, meaningful strategies, and passionate reasons to help people improve their listening. But what are some of the problems we encounter in this process? How can we best convey knowledge and excitement about listening?

Let me begin by reviewing some techniques I found on the internet: restating, summarizing, minimal encouragers, reflecting, and emotional labeling. Now what happens if we use these techniques to respond to “I love you”?

Restating — “You’re making a declaration of your feelings about me!”

Summarizing — “So it sounds to me as if you have strong feelings for me.” …

A small business owner Lillian once told me this story. Her company was in the final stages of launching a new product. Things were hectic and there was a lot of planning. As they got ready to launch, Lillian got more and more worried. She was worried that she was missing something.

Then Lillian got an idea. They had just hired a new person, who obviously didn’t know anything about the new product. She asked to speak to him. When he got to her office, Lillian proceeded to explain everything about the new product to him. All he had to do was be quiet and listen. In other words, just be a sounding board. …


Marc Wong

Author of “Thank You for Listening”. Listening is the art and practice of putting someone else's speaking, thinking, and feelings needs ahead of your own.

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