When I was in grad school, my professor had me do this exercise. And I thought he was completely bonkers. But, it ended up teaching me a lot about how to validate and connect with others. Hear the simple tip and how it can transform your relationships today.
Being a psychologist is honestly the best job ever. I love what I do. In fact, it’s the only thing I’ve really ever wanted to do. And while I think I certainly have some natural gifts that make me a good psychologist, it’s taken a lot of work and training (and student loans) to get to where I am.
I started my doctoral program 12 years ago, and when I first started doing therapy with people, it was so overwhelming. I felt this enormous pressure to do and say the right thing, to help my clients feel better. Because I felt so passionate about helping others, I was anxious about doing everything right.
I’d get hung up on making big statements and asking super powerful questions. I had this belief that for people to grow and learn and heal, I had to make these great, grand statements.
And one semester, I had a supervisor who picked up on this. He could see me struggling and putting all this pressure on myself to come up with this “grand question” to help people move forward.
So one week, he gave me a really simple challenge. He instructed me to go an entire session without asking a single question. He said, “Allison, I don’t want you to ask a thing. Just make reflections, paraphrase what people are saying, and repeat back the emotions people I sharing.”
So if someone said, “I feel afraid and like no one cares,” he wanted me to say, “You feel alone.” That’s it. No “What makes you feel that way?” No convoluted questions about feeling alone. Just, “You feel alone.”
I thought this sounded like the stupidest thing ever. Just using one or two words or a simple sentence after someone has shared something so deep and meaningful? I thought his idea was ridiculous and that clients would look at me like I was nuts. But he was a really gifted psychologist, and I knew he knew his stuff. So I gave it a try.
For almost a week straight, I did exactly what he asked me to. When people shared difficult things, I didn’t try to “fix” it. When people shared painful emotions, I repeated key phrases and put words to what they were feeling. I didn’t ask “great grand questions.” I listened. Intently. And I kept it simple.
And here is what I noticed.
It worked. People felt heard. They felt listened to. They felt validated. They felt like their stuff mattered and that it didn’t need immediate fixing. I noticed that when I kept it simple, people started to open up more. The trust between us increased. The vibe changed.
I wasn’t in my head, trying to think of profound things to say. I was sitting with them. Truly listening. Really seeing them, hearing them.
And honestly, y’all, as humans, isn’t that what we desire most? To be seen and heard. To know that our stuff matters. To know that we matter?
This seemingly silly exercise from my supervisor taught me this lesson in a way I never expected. It changed to way I relate to others. It changed how I listen to people, how I support them, how I help them. (Now of course, there’s much more to being a psychologist than making reflections, and I’ve obviously evolved a ton as a psychologist, but this lesson has always stuck with me.)
People don’t always need solutions or quick fixes. They don’t necessarily want advice. That isn’t how you deepen relationships. You deepen relationships by listening and validating and sitting with people in their stuff.
So when people come to you with painful stuff, I want you to remember this prompt from my professor. Think twice before you offer advice or ask deep questions. Keep it simple.
Listen, reflect, and validate.
PS: Did you find this post helpful? Check out this post: What NOT to say to a friend going through a hard time.