It’s always simpler to identify the problems in other people’s lives and even easier to give them advice. When we aren’t personally involved issues are uncomplicated with the dynamics of emotions, needs, context, expectations, and beliefs seen as nothing more than excuses, justifications, and rationalisations for the choices made by others.
Of course, when we are the ones in a crisis, our context is very real to us, and we seek to be validated otherwise we don’t feel understood. Where we are not heard and validated, we feel judged, even criticised, for the situation we find ourselves in. This usually feels unfair.
My Favourite Habit
Stephen Covey in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People lists one of those habits as ‘first seek to understand then be understood’. It’s my favourite because I privately think it each time, I listen to people tell me about how they feel when not understood in a particular relationship. The part we so often forget is that if we feel misunderstood there is every chance that the other person involved is feeling the same way. That’s why the conflict continues – both parties are seeking to be understood first.
The other reason it’s my favourite is because as a counsellor you know that if your client doesn’t feel understood they don’t resolve the issue they are there to discuss with you. In this setting the very first thing therapy must do is calm anxiety and unravel confusion. But the truth is the girlfriend or mate we love talking to the most is bound to be the one that helps calm our anxiety and unravel our confusion.
Clarity is Essential
We can’t fix a problem until we clearly know what the problem is. It’s essential to unravel the presenting dynamics and clear the confusion about what matters and what doesn’t. Where we are so distressed about the problem anxiety blocks our capacity to resolve it, we stay stuck. We feel like the hamster in its wheel spinning around, busy but going nowhere.
Making sense of our personal reality is the most important thing we can do for ourselves and those in our lives. But the most loving act we can do for others is to assist them to calm their anxieties and unravel their confusion in those times of intense emotion. Our effective communication can mean more than we may ever imagine to someone in the middle of a crisis.
How to calm anxiety is really a question of how does a person feel validated?
There are 3 steps to calming anxiety via validation:
- Listen to them
- Feedback to them the key words and emotions they are expressing as the cause of their upset
- Keep doing Step 1 and 2 until the person is calm and feels validated
What it doesn’t look like is sitting there thinking about your reply, why they are wrong, and what you would feel if it was happening to you. If someone was listening in it would sound like the person with the distress talking 80% of the time and you talking for 20%. There would be NO advice giving, only solutions coming from the person who was upset but now feels able to access their resources to resolve their problem.
To do this we must believe two things about other people:
- They are responsible for determining their life direction
- They have the ability and inner resources to determine their own destiny
The three qualities within our natures that enable us to effectively support others are:
- Respect for a person’s basic humanity and their potential to be more than they are right now
- Acknowledging the unique qualities in a person and a willingness to support them to develop their resources to express their uniqueness
- Faith, trust, and goodwill that the person wants to work at living more effectively
If we can’t believe in the best in others, we can’t honestly support them to achieve their best, because we aren’t open to the magnificence of human potential.
How to unravel confusion is really a question of how to get specific about the problem?
When a problem stays big and generalised it stays unresolved. To help a person become clear we have to get them specific about three aspects of their situation.
- Specific experiences – what happened, what others said, what they said
- Specific behaviours – what they did, what others did
- Specific feelings – how they felt about what others did, what they experienced and the actions, feelings, and words of others
You won’t be surprised to discover that to do this effectively you need to actively listen to the person and feedback the essential meaning and emotion of their discussion.
The magic that occurs when we truly listen to a person and share what we are hearing them say is that it enables them to hear themselves. Too often anxiety and confusion reign because the thoughts in their head are jumbled, overwhelming, and all-consuming. Hearing the words and emotions said back to them clearly and calmly, free of judgement or criticism, gives the ownership, responsibility, and power to change firmly with the person, where it belongs.
This is a powerful gift.
What are your experiences of helping calm someone’s anxiety and unravel their confusion? How did it feel when someone did this for you?