Learning to Listen With Empathy, Not Engage In Problem-Solving

by Joshua Hoe

So, I want to tell you about a problem I used to have in relationships that I had no idea was a problem (until now).

Responding to the emotions my partner’s shared with me with nothing but problem-solving.

It would almost always go something like this:

One of my romantic partners would break down.

I would ask “What is Wrong?”

They would tell me what was bothering them.

And I would respond by saying something like, “Oh, that’s not so bad, you could just do X, or y, or z and everything would be all fixed.

So where was I going wrong?

Who Is Problem-Solving Really About?

Okay, now here is the part that really surprised and shocked me.

I was problem-solving NOT because I wanted to help, although I wanted to help. There was an element of what I was doing that was about trying to help one person I cared about (my partner) and an element of what I was doing that was about trying to help another person that I cared about.



Yup, I was problem-solving because seeing someone else upset was causing me discomfort.

The problem, I was being confronted by something that truly terrified me, seeing emotional honesty.

I was mostly trying to solve MY problem coping with displays of emotion. As much as I was in a rush to solve someone else’s problems, I was doing it so that I never had to confront a problem of my own.

But, even if it was selfish to react this way, why was it a mistake?

Validation, Not Minimization

Most likely, although I have not been able to ask this in retrospect, my partners were wanting to have their feelings validated not minimized or fixed.

In my hurry to fix their problems, so that we could return to a normal state of emotional equilibrium, I was telling my partners that what they were feeling was illegitimate or at least that I cared more about resolution than being present for pain.

As much as I wanted to believe that I was being a kind hero, I was actually providing little of the kind of support that they were craving.

I was taking their genuine feelings and instead of supporting and validating those feelings was just giving them something new to feel bad about.

The Roots of My Manism

At the root of all of this was decades of being told that men are never supposed to show emotion.

Of being told that men are always supposed to be tough, that we shouldn’t ever wallow in feelings, that showing emotion was a weakness.

Being confronted by genuine emotion was like staring into the face of a black hole, the sun, or an abyss, it was something that made no sense to me.

Staring into an openly sad or crying face was simply a bridge too far.

Healing Together

So what do I do now to avoid this problem?

No matter how uncomfortable I get, I refuse to do anything but listen and support romantic partners unless they ask for my ideas for how to fix a problem.

My goal is not to try to mansplain or problem-solve. Instead, I just try to listen, see the problem through their eyes, and empathize.

It is often challenging for me, I am still not very good at accepting and validating feelings because my natural tendency is to repress, ignore, or run from openly displayed emotion.

Progress, not perfection.

One day at a time.

What do you think about problem-solving other people’s emotional sharing? Let me know, leave a comment!


Writing Your Own Best Story: Addiction & Living Hope is available on Amazon.com as an eBook for only $2.99

5 Stars “an excellent writer with an insightful and practical approach to recovery.”


2 thoughts on “Learning to Listen With Empathy, Not Engage In Problem-Solving

  1. Holy crap I just had this problem with my wife. Or, it seems I continue to have it. It turns out, for the most part, when she tells me of her problems, she just wants me to listen, not solve them! I have trouble not wanting to solve everything.


    1. Mark,

      I think it is a pretty common problem with us Men :). I believe we are mostly socialized this way, but pretty good to become aware of bad socialization IMHO 🙂 As always, great to hear from you, congrats on being a top 20 recovery blog….Either my message isn’t that good, or I am not very good at marketing myself lol.




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