Two types of listening
Problem-solving listening is aimed at figuring out what’s wrong and giving advice that will prompt the speaker towards action. When using this type of listening, the person will listen just long enough to assess the situation, and then will start offering solutions. The assumption a problem-solving listener makes is thinking that when their partner complains about an issue, it’s because they want some advice in order to fix it.
This type of listening is often utilized by action-oriented people who, in general, feel that problems or issues need to be resolved quickly. Additionally, if one partner identifies strongly with the role of protector in the relationship, they may feel a strong urge to reduce their partner’s distress and discomfort by solving the problem. It also may be more comfortable for this listener to act in the face of distress rather than keep listening – it’s not easy to just sit with discomfort. So action-orientation is a tool to get rid of the distress both for the listener’s partner and for the listener.
Empathy is about listening to the emotions the other person is describing and striving to understand their perspective. A typical question you might use when listening with empathy is, “How do you feel about this?” rather than, “What do we do about this?”
In addition to being with your partner’s feelings and sharing their reality, empathic listening involves reflecting back what you understand about those feelings to your partner. As a result, your partner feels supported by you. A phrase such as, “Wow, that’s awful. If I was you, I would feel the same way” demonstrates that you understand and empathize with your partner, and that you are with them in this moment of distress. When practicing empathic listening, you show that you understand the emotion through your tone of voice and your presence, not by trying to fix the problem. For more information about empathic listening see the two most important relationship skills.
In summary, when you’re coming from a problem-solving orientation, you usually respond very quickly to the conversation. The action is more important than the words, and resolving an issue has to do with not doing the same behavior again. With empathic listening, tone of voice and body language are more important. You listen longer and assist your partner in expressing their feelings before you respond, so that your partner knows you understand how they feel and, perhaps most importantly, why they feel that way.
Once Douglas and Sarah understood these two different types of listening, they had better tools for understanding each other. Douglas realized that what Sarah wanted was for him to just listen to her, understand how she was feeling and support her in those feelings. Sarah, in turn, learned that Douglas’ effort to solve the problem was his way of supporting her.