Limits to Listening


I saw your August 2010 Ed Week presentation on BYU TV (dealing with hurt and anger).  It was excellent!  My question is a side topic related to a point you mentioned in the presentation.

I am the “trusted listener” for a woman with a lot of deep-rooted issues.  The problem is that all she does is “unload” – rehashing the exact same ground over and over and over. This has been her paradigm for years involving the exact same problems.  Frankly, I don’t think she wants to “release and resolve.”  It seems that she just wants to keep reliving the same perceived events, keeping them alive to validate and justify her hurt, anger, and resentment.  What is the “trusted listener” to do when the angry person is stuck in the “release” phase and is not using it to move forward to resolution and healing?  I have tried everything I can think of:  validating comments; asking, “What do you think you should do?”; calling her on it by kindly pointing out that rehashing won’t resolve the problem, etc., etc., etc.  I am asking this not only to help this friend, but for my sanity!  I don’t want to be rude or unkind.


This is an important question and, had more time been available for the Ed Wk presentation, this issue (and a few others) would have been discussed.

In many situations, listening with empathy and acceptance makes it possible for us to help distressed individuals release and reduce hurt and anger. Often, when the see-saw of emotion and reason gets into better balance, with the intensity of emotion reduced and reason able to reassert, the individual naturally moves on to problem-solving, considering ways to move forward. HOWEVER, occasionally someone gets stuck in the negativity of their hurt and angry feelings. Just as you said, some individuals don’t seem interested in addressing problems, considering available alternatives, and moving on ink rational ways.

THEREFORE, we definitely need to have appropriate boundaries as listeners. If we continue to offer sympathy and acceptance to those who are frankly wallowing in their negative feelings, we may inadvertently end up subsidizing the wallowing. And, as you so accurately note, we can go a little nuts.

First, let me clarify that–where we have a stewardship–we have the right and responsibility to kindly and firmly invite someone stuck in negativity to get UNstuck and make a choice to find solutions and move forward, leaving the hurt, anger, bitterness, and resentment behind and opening the way for resolution, healing, and growth to occur. We have stewardships as marriage partners, as parents, in our Church callings, and even, occasionally, as friends. Always best, of course, to be prayerful and seek guidance about when and how to issue that invitation.

Where there is no clear stewardship and our efforts to accept feelings as good listeners seem ineffective, we need to draw a boundary. When I taught for a while at BYU, the occasional co-ed asked me what to do about a roommate who constantly complained about a bad boyfriend but then went right on dating him or chose another boyfriend just as bad. My suggestion: next time your roommate starts venting, quickly and politely excuse yourself. “I’m afraid I need to study for a test (call my mom, walk the dog, wash my hair, etc.).”

In otter words, when it’s clear that our sympathetic listening and validation of feelings isn’t working, we need to do something else, not least of all, protect ourselves from getting emotionally drained.  Change the subject or excuse yourself but, in any event, as you have already figured out, it doesn’t really help to enable someone who chooses to remain stuck in negativity.