My three-year-old is like most three-year-olds. When he falls he wants to be comforted. When he speaks he wants to be heard. If these two things do not happen, an eruption of sobbing will occur. But when he is comforted, his tears quickly dry and he is back to playing as if nothing ever happened. Many times, I don’t even need to say anything about the incident. I just open my arms, offering him cuddles. If he speaks and gets no response, he speaks louder and louder until he is given the necessary acknowledgment. That acknowledgment is rarely an expressed agreement, instead, it is a simple confirmation that I heard him. If I add an inflection in my voice as I repeat what he said, a special level of excitement begins.
And you know what? I have come to realize that we adults are really no different than three-year-olds.
When we fail at something or have a problem, we simply want to be comforted. When we speak, we want to be heard. It’s not a necessity that we are agreed with, just allowed to share our innermost feelings-good or bad. But even though our intention in sharing ourselves in these vulnerable moments doesn’t change, the reaction from those we confide in does as we grow older.
Somewhere along the way, we forget how quickly a hug and listening heals a person. Instead, we rush to share our advice and opinions, which rarely leaves the other person feeling better than when they first approached us. For one, most of us know what we need to do. We are just searching for someone to confide in and even give us a hug-literally or figuratively. Nothing else. Other times we are excited and anxious about a step we are about to take. We aren’t asking for permission or what you would do, but simply sharing.
But giving advice and trying to solve the problem, as many of us are conditioned to do, often takes intimate moments in another direction than we intend. Without realizing it, our advice may have cut the sharing short. It also may have caused the one confiding in us to feel that we are not a safe space for sharing and they can’t again. We truly don’t want that. Additionally, when we give advice, it takes the spotlight off the person sharing and moves it to ourselves selfishly, even if that is not what we intend. The sharer then has to stop their feelings to assure us of how valuable our advice was, even if it wasn’t. And this rarely leaves anyone feeling good. We all want to be included and a part of the lives of those we care about.
So what should we do before giving advice?
First, listen. Truly listen. If you aren’t in a space where you can do this, let the person know that you really want to be able to listen to them, but currently you can’t do that. Ask if you can give them a call back or have the conversation in a different space when you we will be available. Because you are the one who is unavailable in this vulnerable moment, try to make the time and space convenient for the sharer. Also, the sooner the better. Don’t be ambiguous.
Next, consider if you are really in a space to listen without pouring yourself and circumstance over the person’s experience. We are all guilty of thinking we know best. But keep in mind that even though a lot of detail may be shared, you will never know the full picture.
Then, ask yourself why the person might be telling you this. And if you don’t know, ask. Most people will tell you, by either asking for advice or saying something like “let me tell you what happened.” The latter usually is all about informing you and doesn’t require one ounce of advice, just your confirmation that you hear them. If you are asked for advice, be as objective as possible or simply use language that confirms you heard the sharer such as asking related questions for further understanding. Remember, listening does not require you to agree.
If you want to earn some brownie points, follow up with the sharer on what you discussed. This is very affirming and provides another layer of support. It shows that you not only listened but truly care. It showcases that you have thought about what the sharer said substantially enough to retain the details.
Finally, reflect on the way you interact with those who come to you in hopes you will listen. Do you want to actually listen or do you just want to prove how good you are at coming up with a solution? Or do you just like to hear gossip? If you only want to provide a solution, ask yourself why. If you just want to know other peoples’ business, this is a cause for pause as well. In either case, you may not be in a healthy space yourself, may truly not be the greatest listener or may not have experienced truly being listened to yourself.
It’s ok, many of us are not great listeners or have worked very hard to learn how to be.
If you want to become a great listener, try putting yourself in the vulnerable position of being the sharer. You can also listen more for cues, that tell you how to respond when asked to listen. And if all else fails, revert back to your 3-year-old self or look at the children around you. Observe the comfort that being listened to, comforted and truly heard provides. This will be all the motivation you need to began using listening to transform your relationships for the better.