Palo Alto psychologist Anna Ranieri recalled the dinner party when she decided to write a book. She was talking to a man about a problem. The man, an accomplished consultant, jumped in and gave her advice in no uncertain terms. He told her exactly what to do.
When Ranieri protested, the man became more forceful. The advice, although well meant, was not well taken, she said.
"I felt that not only had it not helped, but I felt disparaged and disheartened," she said.
The encounter sparked her first book, "How Can I Help? What You Can (And Can't) Do To Counsel A Friend, Colleague or Family Member With A Problem," which is co-authored by Joe Gurkoff, an author, consultant and educator.
The book helps the average person do in a simplified way what therapists do: listen, help clarify the problem, set a goal for solving the problem, make a plan, stay on track, and if necessary, confront the person or help find professional help.
"Not everyone has taken Psychotherapy 101. The mistakes we tend to make are feeling that we haven't helped unless we've fixed the problem. In reality, we may be helping by listening," she said.
But there is a special way of listening for problem-solving that is different from everyday life. One of the first tenets of listening to help is to try keeping one's mouth shut.
What a friend says matters, and what one thinks about it does not, she said.
"Some people think of helping as taking over, giving advice or lending money. But the odds of these strategies actually working are low," Ranieri said.
But listening to help means slowing things down and allowing silence to be part of the process. As opposed to conversational listening, helpful listening involves "trying to live with silence as somebody tells their story; to take in what they are saying and get comfortable with those quiet times," Ranieri said.
Listening to help involves asking gentle questions — to learn as much about the problem and the person's thinking as possible. It is more like an interview than a dialogue, she said.
Ranieri has a doctorate in counseling from Stanford University, a master's degree in marketing from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor's degree from Yale University. She and Gurkoff met years ago at the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Center in Burlingame while both were exploring becoming therapists. Often they encountered the same people who called time after time, and as budding therapists, they felt frustrated by not being able to solve callers' problems. But that is where they also learned about listening, Ranieri said.
"Take a moment to think of someone you've enjoyed talking to and think of someone who didn't listen. Remember how bad you felt when you realized that they hadn't cared to listen when you wanted to talk about something that meant a great deal to you?" Ranieri said.
"When you're listening to help, you put your personal comments and questions on hold," she said.
The book offers examples of how to ask questions and how that leads to the next steps, such as helping the person to clarify the issues and define the problem, setting a goal for resolving the dilemma, and, if necessary, how to confront the person so that they can see their role in the problem or what might be impeding their goal.
Ranieri and Gurkoff first ask the reader to check off three key factors: the desire to be helped or to offer help; defining what the helper's relationship is to the person in need; and providing adequate time to offer help. Those factors will determine how deeply one will go in helping, if at all.
The nature of relationships, such as helping an old friend or a colleague at work, might define the extent to which one will help. Ranieri and Gurkoff discuss the boundaries of some relationships, such as between a manager and an employee.
Sitting next to a guy on an airplane with a relationship problem?
Probably one won't get in too deep.
But the anonymity of the situation and the available hours in flight might make helping attractive anyway, they said.
One important chapter involves confrontation, which most people fear, Ranieri said. Honesty is essential to trying to help. But when the person in need does not appear to be honest, it might be time for a reality check, she added.
There are ways to do that without being argumentative. In an argument, one is telling a friend he or she is wrong. That is likely to make the person defensive, the authors note.
But a confrontation helps show there is another way to interpret the problem. It's not about proving a point, but it's about moving past a barrier, Ranieri said.
"You may be the one who says to a friend: 'Maybe your problem is coming from the drinking. Let's look at things you could do,'" she said.
Sometimes confrontation might mean the end of a friendship; sometimes the person might never be ready to hear what a helper has said. Rather than feeling frustrated that one hasn't "solved the problem," Ranieri said it's important to recognize when it's time to exit from helping. That could mean helping a friend find professional help or just recognizing one did the best he or she could.
"It's important to say: 'I think I've done my best here, but I don't think I can go any farther.' It's important to say to yourself: 'I've listened. I made observations. I can rest easy that I did what I could to help.'"