Earn their trust and become truly helpful by learning to listen rather than trying to fix.
October 30, 2022
Your child, who you love more than anything else, is experiencing painful feelings. Of course, you want to protect them — make the bad feelings disappear.
So you tell them you’ll buy them a puppy. Or you tell them it’s not that bad and give them all the reasons why they should get over it.
But what if taking that path puts your child’s mental and emotional health in peril?
“What?? Am I supposed to let my loved one suffer? It’s my job to make the bad feelings go away!”
But is it? Is it your job to save your children, or anybody, from experiencing the full array of human emotions, especially the tough ones?
Or is it your responsibility to help them learn to experience and manage uncomfortable emotions so they move through life productively, navigating the inevitable ups and downs?
Since the world won’t stop handing us tough stuff any time soon, we need to figure out how to manage our less-than-happy feelings — anxiety, sadness, rage, grief, loneliness, and disappointment — so we can help those we care about manage theirs.
The danger of trying to control/dismiss/talk someone out of their feelings.
We need to shift from trying to control feelings to managing them. Because controlling them is impossible.
We may be able to repress and stuff our feelings for the short term and help someone else to do the same, or use distraction to get quick relief, but eventually, the feelings will come out our ears like a teakettle that flips its lid.
The danger is that at that point, we will have little choice in how we react, so we’ll overreact by yelling, blaming, throwing, or walking away in frustration.
Did your parents buy you a new puppy immediately after you lost your first four-legged best friend? That may have helped for a moment, but sadly, it didn’t teach you how to grieve.
The importance of validating feelings.
If someone’s ready to jump off a ledge and you say, “Don’t jump!” you’re going to get someone digging their heels in to make sure you understand that they will jump if you don’t get away and shut up. That’s not validating.
Instead, say, “I bet you’re feeling like no one understands the hell you’ve been going through, and you feel like no one ever could.”
Often, with that first validation, you can watch someone’s body relax and then almost see them breathe a sigh of relief. It’s like they can stop fighting to make someone understand. Somebody ‘gets’ them.
The most effective way to make someone feel ‘felt’ is to hone and refine three unique listening skills.
Three keys to really listening
Most of us come into conversations with three strikes against us:
- We bring what we already think we know (believe) about the person.
- We get uncomfortable with their discomfort (anger, sadness, loneliness) and try to make ourselves feel better by fixing them rather than feeling with them.
- We’re more interested in what we think than what the other person feels.
So no surprise, if we’re going to make someone feel ‘felt,’ we need to do the opposite of what comes naturally because what comes naturally doesn’t work.
Critical listening skill #1 — drop preconceptions.
Whether you’re a therapist, a friend, or a parent, how often do you meet someone who’s struggling, and believe you already have their number — you think you know who they are and what makes them tick?
Instead, consider adopting a mindset that you’re meeting them for the first time. Because the truth is, they might not be the same person you interacted with yesterday or last week, or last month.
Preconceptions — the idea that we know someone better than they know themself — may be one of the cornerstones of why marriages fail after couples have spent thirty years together.
Partners know each other’s favorite TV shows, bathroom habits, and favorite dinners, but they have no idea how their partner feels.
Once you’ve decided that you’ve plumbed the depths of someone and learned all there is to know about them, and you’ve stopped asking questions, where’s the mystery or the excitement?
With no preconceived notions, if your partner seems upset about something, you’d likely give them the benefit of the doubt. You’d ask how they were feeling, what was upsetting them, how you could help, and what they think needs to happen for them to feel better.
A critical part of listening is dropping what we think we know. People behave poorly for many reasons, most of which would make their behavior seem reasonable if we only knew what those reasons were.
Sure some people are just jerks. But in my experience, they’re few and far between. Most of us have way more going on inside than anyone would ever guess from our outer behavior.
Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt.
Critical listening skill #2 — mirror to validate.
My client Beth (not her real name) was embarrassed about not being able to change an unwanted behavior, and I blew it.
Here’s what happened. I’d seen Beth for about six months, and she struggled with changing behaviors that she knew weren’t serving her. She stayed up late every night after the kids went to bed, binging on comfort food in front of the TV and waking up feeling awful every morning.
Here’s where I blew it. I knew Beth blamed her unhelpful behaviors on ADHD, reasoning that her TV time was the only way she could relax and unwind from her stressful day.
Instead of listening to what she was feeling behind what she was saying, I moved into fixing, wondering aloud if ADHD was the entire problem or if she might also be dealing with a pretty entrenched habit.
Her reaction shocked me. She was hugely offended, believing that I was suggesting she didn’t have ADHD, which was my last thought.
If I had been really listening, I’d have said, “Beth, when you don’t lose the weight you want to lose, I bet you wonder if I think you’re irresponsible and have no willpower. You think nobody understands how much you want to change but just can’t seem to do it.”
Sadly, I didn’t do that. She didn’t come back. It was a lesson I’d have preferred to learn differently.
But it taught me that validation and mirroring are about listening for the feelings behind the words and behaviors. Before we can change our behaviors, most of us need to have our feelings validated; we need to feel ‘felt.’
Because I didn’t acknowledge Beth’s feelings, I reinforced her discomfort. She needed to prove to me how impossible it was to change her behavior.
Philippa Perry, the author of The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read, says our kids need to be ‘felt’ with, not ‘dealt’ with.
When someone feels ‘felt,’ they’re more likely to cooperate, collaborate, and communicate.
Validation is a marriage of listening and feelings — listening to the feelings driving the behavior. Listening so well that you can describe what the upset person struggles to articulate.
Critical listening skill #3 — be more interested in what they’re thinking and feeling than what you’re thinking and feeling.
Often clients come to sessions wanting advice.
Years ago I read a Buddhist teacher who put advice-giving into perspective. The teacher said, “If someone asks you for advice, don’t give it until they’ve asked you three times. And the fourth time they ask, consider not giving it anyway.”
As I explain to my clients, whatever advice I offer would be what would work for me, not them. Over the years, I’ve seen clients develop unique solutions that would never have occurred to me.
One of the most respectful responses you can offer someone when they’re struggling is, “I have every confidence you will figure this out. You may not know exactly how right at this moment, but you are the best expert on you. I will be here to support you in what you decide.”
Listening means not jumping in with a fix; it means just listening.
Remember these three critical listening skills:
- Drop preconceptions — meet people as though it’s the first time.
- Mirror and validate feelings instead of fixing them.
- Be more interested in what others are thinking and feeling than what you’re thinking and feeling.
I’d love to hear what you think about the idea of listening rather than fixing. Are the three critical skills something you’re willing to try or you’re already good at? Do you have other unique listening tips that make people feel ‘felt?’
P.S. I’m always thrilled to hear from you, and I appreciate every time my email is forwarded to someone new.
Thank you for your support.