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November 2008   Supportive Listening™   Newsletter
Listening Tips:
Throw 'em Softballs

There is something amazingly simple that any listener  can do to help those around them be smarter and wiser. What is it?

It occurred to me while watching the World Series—asking a question is just like throwing a pitch. I put it out there, and then see how well it is "hit."

Consider this scenario: you're at a baseball practice and you're helping a friend practice hitting.

You've got a choice to make—do you throw clever, tricky pitches that are challenging to hit? Or do you throw "softballs," just right in the middle of the strike zone, easy to hit?

It depends on your goals, of course. As a Supportive Listener, I say avoid the clever "pitches" and give 'em softball questions. Here's why.

When you try to deliver the deep, insightful, clever questions then you're taking control of the conversation. You're assuming that you're the smart one.

What's powerful about Supportive Listening is that you're saying "Speaker, it's all about you, you're the expert. I'm here for support, not direction." People really respond to this.

And for listeners, it's actually great news. Why? Because it allows you to relax and stop trying to ask the "perfect" question.

Instead, your job is to ask easy questions—"softball" questions that the speaker can "hit" where ever they want.

I've observed over and over again that speakers light up to well delivered softball questions. They do great thinking and head in very relevant directions for them that I would have never thought of.

It has become a particular joy of mine to "throw the softball" and watch with curiosity to see where the speaker will "hit" it.

Good softball questions are open-ended questions that invite the speaker to not just share what they're experiencing, but to also to discover new clarity. Here are some of my favorites:

  • “What's that like for you?”
  • "How is that going?"
  • “What have you thought of so far?”

How could a simple question lead to new clarity? My take is this: it's one thing to think about something in my head. But it's quite another to form my thoughts into words that'll make sense to another person. And in this process of communicating, and even hearing myself speak, I get new insight. 

So here's my offer for you: sometime in the next day, find two opportunities to give "softball" questions, and see what happens.

— Paul

btw, What are your favorite “softball” questions? Drop me an email and let me know.
Spreading Supportive Listening

It's one thing to advocate for listening—it's another to let people know about it. To help get the word out, Paul recently joined the National Speakers Association and was interviewed about Supportive Listening. The link includes a short audio clip of the interview.

Our efforts are paying off—we were recently invited by the Stanford LGBT to do a series of workshops for their staff, who are in an important position of listening within the Stanford community. We're looking forward to seeing the impacts of this training over the next year.

We believe in the power of listening. Thus we are looking into various ways to scale our efforts and get Supportive Listening training to as many people as we can. Do you have ideas on how we can spread Supportive Listening? Please shoot us an email.

Thanks again for your support. Remember—listening works!

Best regards,

- Paul and Eran


From the Listening Labs:
Things You Never Thought to Ask about Supportive Listening

There are quite a few scientists out there who are studying how people support one another, and the conclusions they're arriving at are not exactly intuitive. In this post I'd like to discuss two of these findings, which are especially relevant to Supportive Listening. Ready? Here we go:

1) Receiving emotional support can be dangerous.

2) Giving emotional support is always helpful... for the person providing the support.

Let's take these one at a time.

Receiving emotional support can be dangerous

What? Receiving emotional support is harmful? Isn't the whole point of support to help make things better?

Well, yes, but while trying to offer help and support it's easy to hurt the person in front of us, especially if they are in a vulnerable place. The main problem culprit appears to be the supporter's over-eager attempt to solve things for the speaker - to "rescue" the speaker, if you will.

As psychologist Kent Harber and colleagues put it, "By taking charge of too much, supporters may communicate through their very acts of support that copers lack the skills or strengths needed to remedy their own problems" (2005, p. 692). This creates a sense of helplessness in the person who is experiencing the difficulty, and helplessness is a dangerous thing indeed.

While the "supporter" may feel good about solving the problem at hand, the "supported" learns that he cannot solve problems on his own, which is likely to (a) make him feel worse, and (b) make him feel even more overwhelmed when the next problem comes around.

Supportive Listening offers a way of providing support without such damaging side effects. In the same study, Brown and colleagues tested the effect of directive and nondirective support on hope, self-efficacy (feeling that I can handle challenges in my life), sadness, and loneliness.

By now You can probably guess the outcome: When people reported receiving more directive support, they also reported more sadness and loneliness. Conversely, when people reported receiving more nondirective support, they also reported greater feelings of hope and self-efficacy.

These results are not conclusive, since it's possible that people received more directive support because they seemed so sad and lonely, and their supporters interpreted the situation as an emergency. Nevertheless, these results make a strong initial case for the dangers of directive support and the benefit of nondirective support.

Giving emotional support is always helpful... for the person providing the support

In a number of studies, psychologists have found that [continued...]

Supportive Listening Forums

Our free forums have a great Q&A section with a lot of information about Supportive Listening. You're welcome to browse what's there already and post questions, and answers, of your own.

A Workshop for your Group

Do you know a group or community that could benefit from Supportive Listening? If so, let us know.

We can come work with you to tailor a workshop for your group's unique needs.

Questions? Email Paul or see the FAQ for organizers.

Presenting "The Magic of Supportive Listening"

Interested in helping to spread the word about listening? Paul is available to give his presentation, "The Magic of Supportive Listening", which includes stories, research, and a fun hands-on listening exercise. Here's a 5-minute sample of the presentation.

If your club or organization is looking for speakers, contact Paul.
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