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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

Hear, Hold, Help


When in graduate school for social work, I took a class entitled Couples Counseling during the 2013 fall semester. At the time, I was dating a fellow student who I’ll refer to as “Marisela.”


Marisela and I had a number of discussions about observed differences regarding how males (boys and men) approached problem-solving in relation to what females (girls and women) apparently expected. Though we used subjective generalizations, material addressed in I our coursework supported our observational anecdotes.


One complaint Marisela voiced about my approach to her relational frustration was that I tried to “fix” the problems she presented. Apparently, I failed to understand that women – generally speaking – didn’t want men to find solutions to expressed problems.


Sitting in our couples course one day, the instructor inquired about how many students noticed a similar trend among heterosexual couples. I was the only man in the room, as a number of my female peers smirked and laughed when raising their hands and looking at me.


Marisela’s hand was high in the air, as well. The instructor then asked how many students thought that typical male behavior related to fixing problems was helpful. Along with only a couple of my female colleagues, I raised my hand while Marisela kept her hand down and smiled widely.


As many of the women with whom I attended the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work (now Steve Hicks School of Social Work) were self-identified feminists, I expected the instructor to set in on me about how poorly men behaved in this regard. After all, that was the resounding theme for most of my classes – males are bad, mkay?


To my surprise, the instructor informed the class that although women on average reported a desire to “feel” (be) heard, the overall process of conflict resolution was focused on helping. Therefore, the normative response by men to problem-solve was more conducive to fostering stable relationships than to merely listen to a venting intimate partner.


Given this revelation, I glanced at Marisela and observed what I interpreted as annoyance expressed by her facial features. Some of my female peers balked at the instructor’s notion and a couple of them provided personal anecdotes in protest to the information.


Interestingly, each of the four PowerPoint presentations used for the course was riddled with words related to “help,” “helps,” or “helping” couples. Although hearing a client’s presenting issue was considered an important part of the resolution process, action towards addressing the problem (helping) was the driver for change.


Not long after having taken Couples Counseling, a video began to circulate on YouTube, entitled “It’s not about the nail.” A summary of the content is as follows:


A woman sits on a sofa and discusses her frustration about a problem with a man, presumably her intimate partner (husband). As only a portion of her face is shown initially, she expresses pressure that she can feel in her head and talks about fear resulting from her belief about the issue.


When the man acknowledges the matter and points out that there’s literally a nail protruding from the woman’s forehead, she responds, “It’s not about the nail. Stop trying to fix it! You always do this. You always try to fix things when what I really need is just for you to listen!”


The man counters the claim made against him and proposes a solution, though the woman responds with the continued description of her problem. The man eventually replies, “That sounds really hard,” to which the woman expresses, “It is. Thank you.”


As the man didn’t help though instead heard the woman’s complaint, the couple begins to kiss. However, the nail apparently presses further into the woman’s skull, as it inadvertently strikes the man’s head, and the core problem is left unresolved.


While working towards independent licensure for counseling and social work, I briefly conducted couples therapy. Gratefully, I no longer practice in that realm of mental, emotional, and behavioral health care. (More power to those of you who do.)


Nevertheless, along my journey of education and training, I learned about a helpful technique I now invite clients to use when encountering problems within an intimate partner relationship. This tool relates to hearing, holding, or helping.


According to one source, when people about whom you care are upset, rather than immediately attempting to resolve their issues, you can ask, “Do you want to be helped, heard or hugged?” Although the order of remedies is inconsequential, I’ve found that clients express significant improvement in their lives when using this technique.


A separate source that describes this tool in the context of an employment setting, using “hear, help or handle,” expands upon this concept (summarized) thusly:


Hear – Sometimes, all we are looking for is to be able to talk an issue through with someone and aren’t necessarily looking for advice or solutions.


Help – You can be an adviser, sounding board or even take a more active role in finding a resolution, but it is done with your teammate not for them.


Handle – There will be times when you do need to take on ownership of an issue for a variety of reasons, especially if you are a manager or leader. This is the “nuclear option” so exercise caution when you go down this path. There are certainly times when it is necessary but, of the three H’s, this is probably the one that you want to invoke the least. However, if you find yourself to be more of a passive listener/leader with a “they’ll figure it out” attitude, you may want to challenge yourself to look for times when you need to be more actively engaged.


I include the occupational context, because over the past decade and a half, the term “partner” for one’s husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, or relation of similar interest has become popular. As it was explained to me, the shift to the term “partner” focuses interest on approaching romantic relationships as a partnership.


For instance, man X and woman Y may join bank accounts, share a home, divide tasks and responsibilities, and conduct the business of an intimate partnership much in the way one would operate from a single account, share a facility, divvy up obligations, etc. in an occupational partnership.


Of course, use of the three H’s tool is understood in the context of its setting. As such, I’m not inviting people to practice holding or hugging (or even humping) their work colleagues. Therefore, it may be useful to provide a brief illustration of how I encourage clients to use this tool.


Client X’s romantic partner comes home from a day of frustrating events – and more importantly, beliefs about those events – and is self-disturbed to tears. During her partner’s venting about the matter, client X asks him, “Do you want me to hear you, hold [hug] you, or help you?”


Alternatively, client Y is in the workplace and is presented with a challenging circumstance by an intern he supervises. As the intern expresses distress related to her beliefs about the issue, client Y asks her, “Do you want me to hear you, help you, or handle this situation?”


Of course, a combination of the three H’s may be used in either scenario. Perhaps client X’s partner wants to be heard while being held and then helped – maybe even humped thereafter.


It could also be that client Y’s intern requests to be heard, then helped, and if unable to resolve the matter on her own, the intern would like client Y to handle the matter. Flexibility is key when using this tool – and regarding life in general.


Now that you have access to this potentially helpful tool, will you use it? Keep in mind that the tools you use less are useless (it’s a self-evident expression). If you’d like to know more about how I help people – while also hearing them, as described herein, I’m here to assist (though not to “fix”).


If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life—helping you to sharpen your critical thinking skills, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.


As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.


At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!



Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW




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