How Do You Want Me To Listen?

 

 

Millions of people have watched this video over the last few months and many of my friends (and, admittedly, I myself) said, “That’s so true! It’s not about the nail! He’s not listening!”. And, we have all made comments from the other side’s perspective as well, “I was listening. It’s so obvious; why can’t they see it?!”

Personally, if I saw someone with a nail stuck in their forehead, my instinctual response would be to reach out and just yank it out. My philosophy is to rip the bandage off in one fast motion, instead of putting yourself through slow and extended torture. Yeah, a little direct and probably the most helpful and needed thing in my mind. Isn’t this, after all, what the mouse did to the lion with a thorn in his foot? And, look, they became the best of friends. (But, in my case, the person’s head would most likely fall off because the nail was actually holding their head in place. That’s a whole other blog post.)

Someone asks you to listen to them. You think you’re doing a great job. The next thing you know, they walk away in exasperation saying, “You’re not listening!” 

How frustrating! And, what just happened?!

You were just doing what they asked you to do…or were you?

The following is my take on this commonly occurring scenario.

Ultimately, it really isn’t about the nail. Really. Even though it’s the most obvious thing and the solution might be really clear, the nail is a distraction from what is really needed.

So, again, it’s not about the nail. It’s really about relational connection and needing to be understood and empathized with.

My recommendation is, if someone asks you to listen, if they haven’t told you already, ask them specifically how they want you to listen. I know. I know. Does communication have to be so complicated? No, communication is that simple and makes conversational expectations clear.

There are four potential responses the person who has asked for a listening ear can give you to your question, “How would you like me to listen?”:

1. “Listen but, I don’t want you to solve the problem for me.”

Many people, most of the time, just need to talk to someone and have someone empathize with their struggle or problem. They’re not looking for answers, because they feel on some level that they will find the answer if they just talk it through. You are not expected to do anything except understand. Do NOT stare or be distracted by the nail and stay focused on them. They can tell, my friend, that you are staring. (My only caution, when they lean in for a hug, make sure they don’t take out your eye.)

2. “Listen and give suggestions when I am done.”

Here, people are generally looking to have the opportunity to say everything they feel they need to say. They don’t want to be interrupted. But, “um-hm”s and nodding your head in understanding is all that is required as they get through all the information they want to convey. Try and see their perspective and, eventually, they will stop and ask, “What do you think?” This is when you begin with clarifying anything you still don’t understand. Then you can make suggestions about what could be done. (Resist the strong and almost overpowering urge to reach over and just pull the damn thing out of their forehead.)

3. “Listen ’til I’m done and give me a few possible solutions while I also share the solutions I came up with. Then, leave me free to make my own decision which I would like you to support.”

This is just another way of saying, “I need to find a solution and two heads are better than one.” (And, hopefully, only one head has a nail in it.) They want to make their own decision regarding the challenge at hand so, leave them free to come to their own conclusions about what they would like to do. And, anyway, if you are insistent about a particular solution, they follow through, and it bombs, guess who they will make responsible? Yup. So, don’t do it.

4. “Listen and comment, add suggestions and ask questions along the way.”

This is the sign of someone who is looking for a dialogue and ongoing conversation. They’re willing for you to point out the nail and have you look at it. (Gross, by the way!) They are looking for you to ask questions and make comments that are clarifying or help them consider possibilities and points of view they have not yet considered.

Some general tips:

1. Never (and I really mean never), offer only one or two options if you are asked to provide a suggestion. One suggestion is not really a choice and you risk being heard as saying, “this is the right way”. Giving two suggestions is a forced choice and an either/or proposition which isn’t really a choice. Always give three or more options and let them choose.

2. If you can, support the decision but, do not take responsibility for it. Just because you are supporting it, does not mean you have to agree with it. One option they may choose is to leave the nail exactly where it is until further notice. Worse yet, they may feel they need to substitute the nail with a screw. (Okay, stretching the analogy a little but, you know exactly what I’m talking about.) Your only job is to make sure the nail doesn’t snag your favorite sweater knit for you by your great-great grandmother. In other words, protect yourself from the impact of their struggle and speak up if the nail gets in your way – accidentally or otherwise.

3. Your goal is for the speaker to feel understood and empathized with. This is always necessary for someone to be open to and able to receive suggestions and consider difficult feedback. You want to influence this person to change? Then don’t just listen to what they have to say, hear them.

So, when someone asks you to listen, seriously consider asking in return…

(…all together now…)

“How do you want me to listen?”

See. It’s really not about the nail…unless you are installing new baseboards.

Now, if you will excuse me. I’m off to find my pneumatic nail gun and air compressor.

A Genuine Apology Requires Empathy

Fotolia_16345577_Subscription_XLHere’s a frequent conversation couples have in my office:

“Why do you always have to bring that up?! I have apologized for that so many times. I don’t understand what you want from me.”

“No, you don’t understand. It still bothers me.”

“You need to let it go. Why are you hanging on to it? There is something so wrong with you.”

This is usually where the offended partner ends up crying or emotionally shutting down. I can literally see the shutters fall over their eyes; they have left the conversation and everything comes to a standstill.

I think one of the most basic human needs is the need to be known as we are. This need to be understood and validated is what causes a partner to continually bring up an offence. I see this happen often in my office. The injured party repeatedly brings it up in an effort to resolve something that does not feel closed to them. It is not an effort to punish, but to bridge the continued disconnection they feel with their partner because of an unresolved issue.

Human beings come to conclusions about another’s sincerity and authenticity in very complex ways. They take into account a number of sources of information: content of the message, how the content is delivered (tone, volume, speed, and language), emotion, and body language. People can feel a disingenuous apology and will reject it because of its insincerity. The result is that the offense keeps being brought up because the offended person feels neither understood nor empathized with.

It’s frustrating when someone does not acknowledge your apology and tells you they do not believe that it is genuine. The truth of the matter is…

…they are probably right.

Repairing a relationship after a rift is a skill that most couples struggle with and, if not mastered, can cause the relationship to flounder. Repair helps you to draw closer to one another instead of drifting apart; rebuild connection as opposed to causing greater disconnection. Ultimately, it cannot happen if empathy and understanding are not present.

The foundation of an effective apology rests on two key words: “understand” and “empathy”.

To understand means to grasp the significance, implications, or importance of something. And to have empathy for someone is to directly identify with and understand the vicarious experience of another person’s situation, feelings, and motives. There’s a subtle difference between the two – understanding is about acknowledging the importance of and its impact on someone else. In other words, it might not be important to you, but to them it is more serious. Empathizing is literally feeling what they feel; seeing things the way they see it.

Steps to identifying with someone else’s experiences:

1. Initiate the conversation.

Someone has to go first and your apology can’t be a condition of your partner doing something first. Take the first step because this is the kind of person you want to be. There’s nothing more unconvincing than someone who apologizes while in the middle of a fight or as a response to, “You never apologized.” You know how that goes. “I asked for an apology so, I doubt that it’s sincere.”

2. Put your feelings aside.

In other words, momentarily put aside your personal feelings, needs, wants, and complaints. Note that I said momentarily. You are not negating, diminishing or ignoring yourself in any way. You are simply putting them aside for the time being.

True empathy demands you put your own feelings aside to understand and validate someone else’s. When you have behaved badly and made poor word choices, it is particularly difficult because it requires that you push aside the need to defend yourself. It also requires you to be vulnerable and consider the impact you have had on someone else.

An apology is negated when it is followed by:

  • Countering with your own accusations – “Yesterday, you did this….”
  • Keeping score – “Well you did this to me so,….”
  • Judging – “I would never have come to that conclusion” or “I don’t know anyone who thinks like that….”
  • Defending – “I am not really like that, but….” or “I didn’t do that, but since you’re feeling bad about it….”
  • Minimizing – “Aw, c’mon. It wasn’t that bad.”
  • Not taking responsibility – “Well, if you hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have…. If you just changed….” or “You brought this on yourself.”
  • Justifying – “Well, I was really upset at work. You just have to accept that I was in a bad mood and wait for me to get out of it.”
  • Diminishing – “You’re overreacting”, “You’re being silly”, “That’s the stupidest thing that I’ve ever heard”, or “Get over it.”
  • Define your partner’s experience – “Oh, you don’t really feel like that. You feel….”
  • Compare – “Bob’s wife would never do that to him.”

3. Get behind your partner’s eyeballs.

See the events from their perspective.

Here are some questions to help you move to greater understanding and empathy towards your partner:

  • How would you feel if a stranger on the street had done the same to you? Name a few feelings that would be probable for you.
  • How would you respond? What would you do?
  • Would you do the same to one of your parents? To your child? To your best friend? To your boss?
  • What would be the consequences if you had done the same to a stranger on the street? To your boss? To your child? To your best friend? To your parent(s)?
  • If someone treats you poorly, how would you relate differently to this person? Would it draw you closer or farther away? Would you avoid them? Would you walk on eggshells when you were around them? If you feel fear, how would you protect yourself? Would you question your value to them?
  • What could a stranger conclude about you as a person if they had witnessed what you did and/or said?

You can’t fake understanding and empathy with someone who sees you regularly, if not on a daily basis.

Once you get past your own defenses and into your partner’s experience, here’s the formula for an apology:

“I’m sorry that I….” (Describe briefly what you did or didn’t do.)

“It must have felt….” (Describe your guess about their feelings about what you did.)

“If I was in your place and someone had done that to me, I would feel….” (Insert your “behind the eyeballs” insight.)

“It makes sense to me that you feel this way….” (Again, get into their experience and understand in what ways it makes sense for them to respond the way they did. No judging.)

“Please forgive me.” (Yes, you have to be open to the possibility that your partner may not offer forgiveness and you will need to accept that.)

“What can I do to make this better for you? I was thinking maybe we could….”

This is what it might sound like:

“Honey, I’m sorry that I haven’t spent much time with you lately. I can only imagine how I would feel if I were you – neglected, frustrated, overlooked and maybe even like you are not the most important thing in my life. It makes sense to me that you have been feeling frustrated and disappointed. I want you to know nothing in my life is as important as you. I’ve been selfish and have allowed myself to be distracted from our relationship by other things. Starting tomorrow, I promise that I’ll commit to working fewer hours, and I’ll make every effort to come home in time to have dinner with you every night. I’d also like to make it up to you, so please, let’s go out sometime next weekend and do something nice, just the two of us. You mean the world to me, and the last thing I ever want to do is make you feel lonely. Please, I hope you can forgive me for the way I’ve been acting lately.”

Okay. That was a bit of a speech. But, you get the picture.

So, how do you know you have understood your partner’s experience? They will let you know. It doesn’t matter if you feel you understand. What matters is whether your partner feels you have understood.

Remember, what I have outlined is only the bare bones of an apology. However, a simple formula will not result in the connection you want unless you add understanding and empathy. Only then can sincerity come through naturally.

The more you apologize, the better you get at it….

…and, funny enough, the less you need to do it.