Can You Hear Me Now?
by Deborah Maxey, Ph.D.
There truly is “more to life” when we have healthy, loving relationships. In my practice as a psychotherapist, assessing the health or issues in relationships was a huge part of my job. Extensive training allowed me to dive deep into what makes a relationship work and what creates distance. As an expert witness, I testified in court over a thousand times on those assessments.
Without question, the biggest characteristic of health or disorder in our relationships is how well we comfort one another. In a time of need, does our partner, friend or child find a safe, cushy place to land where he can share his tender needs with us?
There are key ingredients to being that safe, soft place to land when someone is hurting. The most important thing we can do to build trust as a safe person to share with is to practice getting ourselves out of the way when we listen. Most people are well meaning and think they are good listeners. But even the most compassionate people can make big errors.
To offer quality comfort, we must be open to hearing our loved one’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs without our own feelings and needs interrupting. Here are fifteen ways listening can go wrong and create distance in a relationship.
Caution: If you have been making these mistakes, just reading about them and deciding to work on them quickly brings wonderful changes in relationships.
Your loved one starts to share his or her concern, and you do the following:
Appear Distracted. You continue to look at your phone or out the window or you pet the dog, looking at the television with the sound off, instead of making eye contact and putting everything else aside to be present to the other person. We might think, “I can pet the dog and still listen,” but any other action sends a subliminal message to the speaker that we are too busy, it’s not a good time, or we don’t want to prioritize the speaker’s concerns.
Speak too soon. When the speaker approaches a subject that hurts him, it may take a little time for him to empty out. A half emptying (or less) does not get the job done. He has not felt safe. A listener may want to speed up the conversation or jump in and “fix” the problem. That is a huge error and erodes trust. People want to be heard, not fixed. When a listener speaks too soon, the message to the speaker is, “Okay that’s enough of that. Let me handle it so we can get on with life.”
Listen to speak. We’ve all had those conversations where you realize someone is waiting for you to draw a breath so that it’s her turn to talk. Instead of speaking, make a goal to create silence in the conversation. Give your speaker time to think, feel and process what she needs to tell you. Silence sends the message that you are willing to give her all the time she needs.
Shut them down. One frequent means of shutting down other speakers is patting or hugging them and saying platitudes like, “It’s going to be okay,” or “There, there.” Even a small pat or words like these send the message “Okay, okay, times up. That’s enough. Come out of it now.” After crying, allow time for a speaker to continue. You can be present to them by staying just as you are, ready to hear more. When a speaker cries, often he or she has just told you one part of a story that hurts. If you shut them down, they may not be able to complete their healing with you because they started with the easiest thing and intended to work up courage to share the worst.
Blame. Statements like, “She’d never get by with talking to me like that.” Or in question form the blame pressure is worse. “Why did you let her talk to you like that?” or “What were you doing there?” No matter what tone you use, soft, gentle or angry, questions imply that the speaker is responsible for the situation. Wait for your speaker to spill all her content. You will likely hear the answers to satisfy your curiosity. Your speaker is already burdened, and when you add blame, this proves you are not the person she should share a tender need with.
Shame. Shame is thinking you are a bad person, not that you did a bad thing. Statements to the speaker like the following are shaming: “You tend to jump in there to help before you figure out if it’s a bad idea.” What is amazing here is that jumping into help could be a great character trait, but the shame in the sentence misuses it. Much later, when the speaker has emptied out, you can do the opposite of shame. You can build her up by using the character flaw as a positive. Consider how the speaker might feel if the listener said something like, “You are such a giver. I can see how your big heart urged you to jump in and help.” Notice how I left out the part about not thinking. It was a feeling that prompted the speaker to respond. Give him or her kudos for the feeling. It is probable that person has learned that he or she needs to think or investigate further next time.
Offer solutions. Nope. Don’t do it. Wait until your speaker has emptied out and there has been a period of calm and silence. Then (I know this part is hard for many) . . . don’t offer anything. Instead ask, “What do you think you need to do?” Let them reach deep into their own psyche and explore their personal wisdom in your presence. If they say, “I have no clue what to do.” Don’t do it. Don’t jump in here either! Encourage them. Help them build their self-esteem and honor their own intuition. Reassure them instead. Many people stroke their own egos by proving they can come up with solutions that the speaker did not come up with. If you can think of examples of their wisdom, try telling them something like, “You know I saw you solve that issue with your boss last year. It was tough, but you did it. What do you think you need to do now?”
Inserting too many ideas. If your speaker has made some suggestions and asks, “What do you think I should do?” Don’t jump in with a firehose of ideas. Offer a slow trickle without pressure. Meaning, don’t act like you are positive your idea will work. Modify your suggestions. Try saying things like, “I’m not sure, but have you thought of….” Just know that if inwardly you want to come on like gangbusters, that is an example of your control. You want to manage them or the problem. And most of the time, that inner pressure for them to do it your way comes from your own fear for them or the situation.
You don’t let them decide. Let’s say the two of you produce several ideas and your speaker says, “Which one should I try?” Most of us would start with, “I think if it were me, I would…” But here’s another great chance to encourage them by saying, “I know you; I trust you; I believe you will make the right decision.” Swallow that urge to direct. Remember, it’s your own control or fear. And congratulations, you’ve just allowed them to feel a surge of self-reliance, even if they are pleading with you to make the decision.
Body language. Eighty percent of communication is body language. If we look away too often, sneak a peek at our phone that just buzzed, turn our body by crossing our legs away from the speaker, move to the edge of our seat, we are sending the message we are no longer an interested listener. Instead, we can nod our head silently with understanding. That speaks volumes!
Sharing our feelings. When a speaker begins to unravel a story, if we say well-meaning things like, “That just breaks my heart” or “That would scare me to death,” we shut our speaker down. Most of us believe that we are “joining” with our speaker and showing him our compassion with those statements, that our empathy is validating his experience. Here it’s all about timing. We can offer those things after the speaker has come to some idea of what he thinks he will do. In my work with victims of violent crimes, without exception, the victims would tell me they could not talk to family or friends because they didn’t want to upset them. But given a safe family member or counselor, who knows how to listen without shutting them down, they can empty out.
Hijack. Many listeners hear a little bit of the story then hijack the conversation by making it about themselves. “That happened to me. My own mother did that.” That’s like slamming a door on the speaker. Now the conversation has made a U-turn. Instead of our speaker having the floor, it’s about the listener.
One ups. Sometimes listeners respond with their own issues. “Me too! Only when it happened to me it was five times worse than what you are saying.” When we cross that line (even if it’s true), we just invalidated our speaker, minimized his pain, and shamed him for being concerned about himself, since our situation was even worse. We are setting up emotional competition. And if our situation was worse, the speaker is likely to cave inwardly and cry “uncle.” The speaker feels shame for sharing. Even if you can relate, save that for another conversation on a different day.
Using the wrong pronoun. Often the right statements are fouled by using the wrong pronoun. There is no “I” in being a soft place to land. So, a statement like, “I would have been so frightened” or “I would be so angry,” is not valuable feedback. Consider this instead, “You must have been so frightened” or “You must be so angry.” We did not switch to a personal position, and we left our speaker knowing that we were totally in tune and listening. Our concern is 100% on him or her.
Closing too fast. When you think your speaker is done, probe one more time. Ask, “Is there anything else about all of that?” And go the extra step. “If anything else comes up, let me know.”
There is far more to life that is good and fulfilling when we know how to respond to someone in need. Relationships are like a dance. It takes effort at first, and we step on each other’s toes. But with practice, all of us can be a soft place to land for our loved one’s tender needs.
James 1:19 ESV Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.
Proverbs 18:13 ESV If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.
Deborah Maxey PhD “re-tired” as a therapist when she felt called to be “re-purposed,” and spend her time writing Christian articles, devotions and fiction. Her novel, The Endling, incorporates her deep insight into characters, dilemmas and avenues to connect to God. Monthly she blogs about personal miracles that reinforce her close relationship with the Lord at https://deborahmaxey.com