Written by LW user benkuhn.

This is part of LessWrong for EA, a LessWrong repost & low-commitment discussion group (inspired by this comment). Each week I will revive a highly upvoted, EA-relevant post from the LessWrong Archives, more or less at random

Excerpt from the post:

A common piece of interacting-with-people advice goes: “often when people complain, they don’t want help, they just want you to listen!”

For instance, Nonviolent Communication:✻✻ Nonviolent Communication, ch. 7.

It is often frustrating for someone needing empathy to have us assume that they want reassurance or “fix-it” advice.

Active Listening:†† Active Listening, p. 2

Similarly, advice and information are almost always seen as efforts to change a person and thus serve as barriers to his self-expression and the development of a creative relationship.

You can find similar advice in most books on relationships, people management, etc.

This always used to seem silly to me. If I complain at my partner and she “just listens,” I’ve accomplished nothing except maybe made her empathetically sad. When I complain at people, I want results, not to grouse into the void!‡‡ Empirically, I did notice that I usually got better results from listening than from giving advice. So I inferred that this advice was true for other people, but not me, because other people didn’t actually want to fix their problems.

Frequently the “just listen” advice comes with tactical tips, like “reflect what people said back to you to prove that you’re listening.” For instance, consider these example dialogues from Nonviolent Communication:§§ Nonviolent Communication, Chapter 7, Exercise 5.5, 5.6 and solutions.

Person A: How could you say a thing like that to me?

Person B: Are you feeling hurt because you would have liked me to agree to do what you requested?

Or:

Person A: I’m furious with my husband. He’s never around when I need him.

Person B: So you’re feeling furious because you would like him to be around more than he is?

I say this with great respect for Nonviolent Communication, but these sound like a 1970s-era chatbot. If I were Person A in either of these dialogues my next line would be “yes, you dingbat—can you turn the nonviolence down a couple notches?” I’d feel alienated knowing that someone is going through their NVC checklist on me.


Recently, I realized why people keep giving this weird-seeming advice. Good listeners do often reflect words back—but not because they read it in a book somewhere. Rather, it’s cargo cult advice: it teaches you to imitate the surface appearance of good listening, but misses what’s actually important, the thing that’s generating that surface appearance.

The generator is curiosity. (Full Post on LW)

Please feel free to,

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