Don't just do something, sit there!

"Don't just do something, sit there!" As a starting-out counsellor, many years ago, I remember seeing this caption on a cartoon framed above a colleague's desk. For me, it captures the essence of what it takes to be an effective helper perfectly - the best help we can give someone is to be there for them, not only physically, but with all of our attention, resisting the impulse to fix the issue, change the subject etc etc. I believe that the same principle applies to our most important relationships - those with our partner and family.

Imagine this scenario - you come home from a rotten day at work, and start to tell your partner how awful it was. Does s/he say something like....

(a) "That's a shame... but you know what, I've had a pretty bad day as well, this is what I've had to put up with...."?

(b) " Well, really I thnk you should ....... (insert her/his advice about your 'problem that needs to be fixed' here!)?

(c) "Oh right.... just reminding you, it was your turn to cook dinner tonight, did you forget"?

This snapshot of possible responses characterizes what often happens in most normal, perfectly healthy relationships. Sometimes it's really helpful to be reminded that you need to listen as well as be listened to (a), to be offered advice that may jolt you to generate some possible solutions of your own (b), or to be helped to distract yourself away from distressing things by dealing with the 'here and now' (c).

However, none of these responses are about being fully present with your partner. When we manage to do this, it sounds more like...

(a) "Wow, what a horrible thing to happen!

(b) "How did you deal with it?"

(c) "What do you need from me right now?"

Being fully present with your loved one DOESN'T mean having to find the answer to their problem, or giving endless amounts of your energy to help them feel better. What it DOES mean is listening to them without judgement, and listening actively - this may mean validating their feelings about the issue (a), asking questions that encourage them to say more (b), or allowing them to let you know what they need from you (c). Of course, if the issue is raised at an inconvenient time (i.e. it's time to get cooking dinner started!) you may need to say something like "This sounds really important.... can we make some time after dinner to talk it through?"

Why be fully present? When any of us feel listened to - we become calmer, we feel valued (even loved!) by the listener - so this is a great way to invest in your most important relationships - and as a result, we are empowered to reconnect to the part of ourselves that is capable of generating our own insights and solutions about the situation that's troubling us.





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