Whether you’re a friend, a partner, an employee, a boss, a world leader, or a parent, you will inevitably encounter communication challenges at some point in your relationships.
And there is one simple tool that will produce radical changes when you implement and practice it. It’s psych 101. It’s the first modality I learned as a graduate student in counseling psychology almost 20 years ago. It’s basic information that we all instinctually know yet easily forget because we’re not encouraged to practice it.
The tool is called active listening. In a nutshell, it’s validating emotions without offering solutions.
I’ll give you an example from my life as a parent:
My kids are screaming at each other.
“He won’t stop scratching the back of my chair! I asked him to please stop and he’s still doing it,” my nine year-old yells about his four year-old brother’s behavior.
“I DON’T WANT TO STOP!” my emotionally expressive four year-old screams in his favorite volume: extra loud.
We’re on vacation, trying to enjoy a peaceful morning in the snowy mountains, but as anyone with more than one child knows, the best-laid plans come to a screeching halt when siblings begin their rivalry.
My husband and I look at each quickly and then act. “It sounds like you’re both really angry. And it sounds like you both need to cool off.”
“I’M NOT ANGRY! I’M SAD!” my four year-old corrects me.
“Oh, you’re sad. Yes, I can see that you’re sad.”
My first impulse was to jump in and try to appeal to their logic. Except my four-year old’s prefrontal cortex has been activated and there are simply no rational neurons firing in his brain during these times. (And, by the way, you don’t have to be four years old to spiral into a non-rational state; it happens to everyone when they’re triggered into emotional reactivity.)
My next impulse was to try to offer solutions. But when you offer solutions, you rob the person who’s struggling of their ability to find their own solutions. On the other hand, when you reflect what you’re hearing you’re saying, “I trust you to find your own answers. I trust you to work this out in the way that feels best for you.”
There’s a small miracle that occurs when you say less, listen more, and allow room for a quiet space to exist. In that quiet space, the creative wheels start churning and something wise comes to meet the situation. I’m endlessly amazed at what happens when I observe, describe, and then shut my mouth. Sometimes it feels like reining in a stampede of wild horses, but when I can contain my habitual desire to fix and repair, the results are empowering for everyone.
The same is true in situation with friends, partners, and family members. You may think that your partner is asking you to solve his problem when he begins Saturday morning with, “I don’t have a enough time! I work all week and then take care of the kids on the weekend so you can take a class,” but what he’s likely wanting is a simple, “That sounds really frustrating.” There’s certainly a time and place for creative problem-solving, but the creativity flows a lot more fluidly when there’s a shared foundation of empathy.
Just listen. Reflect. Hear with your whole heart. It’s what we all deeply want, and if you start to practice this simple tool you’ll begin to see dramatic and positive changes in all of your relationships.