Have you ever had a conversation where you just needed to vent? You just needed to get out all the pent-up frustration, anger, disappointment (whatever emotion that you were feeling at the time out), and the person that you were talking to immediately started telling you how to “fix” the problem? How were you feeling in that moment? Heard? Validated? Or the opposite?
Recently, my 17-year-old came in grumbling and lamenting about the struggles of high school existence. I listened for a bit, commiserated on how terrible small-town living is (sarcasm), and offered really “helpful” suggestions. Cue the eye-roll! Yep, I fell into the “fix-it” pattern; it’s ingrained. We are a society of “fixers.” We want to listen to an issue, come up with a few reasonable alternatives and fix the issue. But what happens if there isn’t a solution? Or, really a problem to be fixed?
The “fix it” trap is a very common style of miscommunication within couples and families. Wait…miscommunication? They’re talking about an issue and the other person is trying to help them with it, how is that miscommunication? The miscommunication happens when the intent of the speaker and the intent of the listener don’t match up. You might be asking yourself, “How am I supposed to know what my spouse/child/friend wants or needs out of a conversation? I’m not a mind reader!” My response is simple, yet really difficult for many of us because it’s something completely different from our typical pattern…ask. You read that right, just ask the person what they want or need from the conversation.
During the exchange with my child, after seeing the eye-roll and hearing the frustrated huffing and puffing, I knew that I had not given them what they needed from me. However, I didn’t want to make an incorrect assumption, again, so I simply apologized and asked, “I’m sorry, how can I help you right now? Is this something you need to talk about or something that you need help figuring out?” Now, I know that people are going to read this and say to themselves, “I try asking my child/spouse/ friend what they need and they just get mad!” Yep! The pattern is ingrained in the other direction as well. Sometimes the speaker may not even realize that they aren’t seeking a solution, but an opportunity to talk. What are you supposed to do then? Listen.
Take the time to really listen to what the person is saying, validating his/ her experience (even if you don’t agree), ask some questions to clarify to make sure that you are truly understanding, and empathize with what’s happening. Giving the person your undivided attention will give you (and the other person) the opportunity the truly ascertain what’s needed from the conversation. Go talk!