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The One Small Question That Just Might Save Your Relationship

On the brilliance of supportive listening — and helping your partner feel heard before you try to fix their problems

In the second episode of Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, Lisa Barlow vents about her frenemy Whitney Rose, who talked shit about her tequila company. (She’s not like other Mormons, she’s a cool Mormon.) Her husband John listens, nods and gasses up his wife, telling her she’s “too generous, as always.” Then, the show’s breakout simp popped a question every frustrated hubby around the world should take note of: “Do you want listening or any feedback?”

I was both taken aback and soothed by his question. Reflecting on all the times I’ve been particularly pissed, I realized, that it was exactly what I needed to hear. After all, it’s a very effective communication technique that therapists compare to active listening — a counseling strategy where the therapist person lets their clients lead the conversation, but doesn’t just sit there. Rather, they engage and build trust by checking in, paraphrasing to show understanding, making eye contact and saying simple, empathetic things like, “I see.”

Marriage and family therapist Lambers Fisher refers to Barlow’s question as indicative of “supportive listening,” where the person puts “an emphasis on helping the other feel heard rather than offering advice, solutions or correction.” Although letting someone just go off can seem like the most helpful response, that’s only half of what they need. “They don’t get the emotional relief that comes from empathetic validation of the legitimacy of their feelings,” Fisher warns.

Clinical psychologist Jennifer B. Rhodes agrees that active and supportive listening helps the person who is stressed — as well as the relationship — whereas prolonged venting without any intervention is bad for both parties. “Venting isn’t always healthy. If it goes on for more than a few minutes, you could be bringing negative energy into your relationship that isn’t necessary.” This reinforces negative thought patterns by creating neural pathways in the brain that make pessimism more automatic, and sometimes, only adds to the anger — a rage that’s very easy to take out on the listener and other innocent bystanders. “Venting doesn’t actually relieve the emotions. Emotions need to be channeled into physical activity or into something that transforms the negativity into something else,” like art, Rhodes tells me.

While jumping right to problem-solving without checking in first runs the risk of making someone defensive and testy, asking questions such as, “How can I support you?” redirects their attention. “Any question that clarifies how you can be useful works better than trying to offer advice,” Rhodes says.

When Barlow asks his wife if she wants “listening or any feedback,” she unsurprisingly responds that she just wants to “talk.” But in that moment, she pauses, almost taken aback by the question. In fact, it’s disorienting enough to snap her out of her venting and make her laugh; you can almost see her brain switch gears in real time. Suddenly, she’s more solution-oriented and devises a plan to shut down the conflict if it comes up at an upcoming “ski day.”

To that end, checking in about feedback before the conversation starts “increases the likelihood of it being received in a productive way because having clear and mutually agreed upon expectations is essential to healthy communication,” Fisher says. Also, more often than not, expressing the willingness to listen and support someone in times of stress builds the kind of trust they need to welcome such advice. It ultimately strengthens the relationship by demonstrating that the listener cares more about hearing the person’s feelings than being right.

If you absolutely must offer feedback — or it seems vital to the other person’s immediate well-being — Fisher suggests it’s best to put it in writing, so you can be as careful with the wording as possible. Outside of this, it’s almost always better to err on the side of listening. Or as Fisher says, “If someone conveys directly or indirectly that they aren’t interested in feedback, the best gift one can give would be to keep one’s comments to themselves.”