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Push and pull
an anecdote on the art of good listening
The conversation looked something like this: there was a group of us in a circle, and one of us was talking about a job he wants but doesn’t feel qualified for. Let’s call him Tom. For a while I silently observed the back and forth between Tom and the rest of the group. Tom goes “I’m scared to apply”; the group goes but you want it so bad; Tom goes “my chances are so low”; group goes you’ll regret it if you don’t try. Tom wasn’t budging on his resistance to submitting an application. After several rounds of this I intervened and said, what if we stopped trying to push down Tom’s feelings and pulled them out instead.
This is a common pattern in conversations among friends: one friend expresses self-doubt, and other friends are quick to reassure and validate. This approach usually works. When your friend looks at you with sullen eyes and says “I don’t know if I can do it”, all you typically need to do is pat them on the shoulder, smile, and say “don’t worry, you can!”—at which point they’ll stand up with verve and run off to the promised land like Frodo Baggins.
But Tom was not the usual case. Tom was an especially bad case of self-doubt, and as I watched the conversation unfold, I got the sense that the default strategy of “smile and pat” was not going to work. We needed to try something else.
So I said to Tom: you seem to be minimizing yourself a lot here. Why are you doing that? “I’m not just minimizing – the odds of me getting the job are objectively very low.” Sure, the odds are objectively low. But why do you feel the need to stress this point? “Well, I don’t want to get my hopes up, because this job would be life-changing.” Okay, this job would certainly be better than what you have now, but why is it life-changing? “It would give me a sense of purpose that I don’t have.” A few more rounds of questioning led to Tom recognizing that wait, maybe I don’t want to hand over the keys to my sense of life purpose to a random hiring manager at this prestigious company.1
Tom and everyone else was already aware, perhaps implicitly, that Tom was very excited about this job and just needed to get over his fear of rejection. But this alone wasn’t enough to overcome his resistance. A few minutes of questioning helped Tom uncover beliefs he hadn’t realized he was harboring. Tom knows that it’s silly—and fundamentally degrading—to let your entire life and identity hinge on a job application, but it wasn’t until we dug deeper into his fears that he saw this is what he’s doing. Once it was out in the open, Tom found it easier to confront the possibility of failure.
When someone comes to you with self-doubt, the problem with giving them a blanket reassurance like “you can do it!” is that you’re effectively telling them, “you’re wrong.” You’re feeling uncertain about this? Stop feeling that way. Now, people generally don’t like being told that they’re wrong, but in the right circumstances, it’s exactly what they want. “My hair looks so bad today—” “Don’t worry bro, you look great.”
But sometimes, the doubts we have about ourselves curdle up into a deep tangle of self-limiting beliefs and unpleasant feelings, and it’s harder in these cases to just tell the whole bundle of feelings, “you’re wrong.” We have accumulated too much psychic baggage, forming an ugh field strong enough to ward off any well-meaning gestures at reassurance. The feeling is stubborn, and if you try to push it down, it will push back. So it’s better to try to pull on the feeling instead.
The contrast between these two approaches—pushing versus pulling—loosely corresponds to the difference between two schools of therapy: the cognitive and the emotion-focused. In therapies like CBT, the focus is on identifying distorted thought patterns (“I’m not worthy of good things”), and recognizing that actually, they’re wrong, and you should think better thoughts instead.2 We can call these approaches “corrective.” In more emotion-focused therapies (like focusing, IFS, coherence therapy, and maybe psychoanalysis) the idea is to take a more collaborative and accepting stance towards the unwanted behavior/emotion, and to uncover the underlying root of it. You give it ample space to make itself heard, with the hope that it will resolve itself with enough loving attention.
In my experience the mode of support that most people offer is the corrective kind. When people discover the “pulling” mode—truly accepting their friends’ emotions and helping them identify the feelings/thoughts underneath them—they are surprised by how effective it is. You’ll notice that just by listening nonjudgmentally, asking a lot of probing questions, and abstaining from telling your friends how to think/feel, they will often come to the exact conclusions you were hoping for (“I’m gonna do it!”), but much faster and more durably than if you had tried to push them. I don’t know why this works so well, but it does.
Now. Once you discover this, it’s possible to get a little too excited about it, and imagine that you should adopt it all the time: you are merely a blank mirror to everyone’s problems, abstaining from giving your direct opinion on what your friends should do, unless you are absolutely begged for it. I think it’s good to withhold advice until it’s solicited, but I also don’t think you should approach every interaction as the neutral therapist-like figure that you see in shows like Couples Therapy. The best friendships have a balance between the nonjudgemental, curiosity-oriented listening, and the more dismissive, perhaps even abrasive, “yoo stfu you’re wrong.”
This is the part that would have confused me some time ago. To recognize that this kind of dismissiveness—the jousting, interrupting, and even agitating that I often see in everyday conversations—has a kernel of good in it. Growing up I had a very pushy best friend whose well-meaning attempts at telling me what to do (be more confident, go to the gym, talk to girls) only ever backfired and made me more insecure; so I came to believe that any incidence of prodding or pushing on your friends’ feelings is bad for them. But this is true right up until the moment your friends develop enough resolve to say “I know better” and start pushing back. I’m reminded of another good friend who for the first few years of our friendship had a tendency to interrupt others, and for the longest time this frustrated me, until I realized I could just match the intensity and pace of his conversational style. I could shift my “willingness to interrupt”, and let the conversation become a fast-paced dance rather than a slow, alternating volley. Interjection can be fun if it’s not taken to be disrespectful, and it says something about a friendship that it can hold this versatility in conversational style.
Looking at the average of the conversations I observe and participate in with both close friends and acquaintances, I would say that most people could do with less pushing and more pulling: fewer interruptions and advice, more patience and open-ended questions. But it’s a mistake to assume that we should bring the pushing all the way down to zero, lest we make our conversations stale. Knowing when to interrupt and when to listen intently, when to say “you’re wrong” and when to say “you’re right”, when to push your friend’s emotions and when to pull on them—it all depends on the endless subtleties of the situation and your relationship. You can spend the rest of your life getting better at knowing when to do each.
I will add the caveat that in this interaction, by virtue of being pretty close friends with Tom, my line of questioning was a bit more confrontational/prescriptive than what I would consider to be the ideal of “nonjudgemental listening”.