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.