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Have you ever had someone come to you, wanting to talk when he was highly emotional? After a few minutes, as you sat frozen in silence, he thanked you then left. He felt better, and you were left by yourself wondering what had just happened. When this has happened to me, I've often wondered what the person was thanking me for, because I clearly didn't know when he came in, nor when he left, what he was talking about.
When it comes to the use of your time in lifting members of your family, one of the most important skills in building relationships is the ability to listen when the emotions are high. It's much more difficult with a family member than with others, because we are emotionally invested. We bring into the conversation years of experience from the past, and years of concern for the future. Generally speaking, women are much better at this skill. I have seen many who have an almost unconscious competence when it comes to listening with empathy. So for some of you, this may be a good review. For others, it will bring consciousness to your unconscious competence. For others still, it will be your means to help someone else develop listening skills.
Think of a scenario—let's say a highly-emotional teenager. Is he logical or illogical? Is he rational or irrational? More than likely he is both illogical and irrational. He will come to you, and because you have a desire to help, and because you love this teenager, you truly want to understand what is troubling him. The tendency is to want to ask questions. Why do we do that? Because our intent is to want to first understand, and then we can help. After all, how can we help, when we don't even understand the problem? We may think that if we can just get some key information—it doesn't even have to be complete—but enough so that we can process it from experience or others we have known, then we can make some progress. We just need a few helpful hints to help get started. If he can answer your questions, if his comments make logical sense, and if he doesn't become even more emotional, then you're fine, and this strategy will work. If not, change your strategy—immediately.
The problem with this scenario is, the more questions we ask, the more emotional teenager tends to become. The more emotional he becomes, the more illogical the answers. The more we ask questions to clarify, the more irrational he becomes. The more emotional and illogical and irrational he becomes, the more irritated we become. Sound vaguely familiar? Let's keep going. The more irritated we become, we can sense that we are getting more emotional.
Let's review. The conversation started with an emotional and irrational teenager and a cool, calm, collected parent with no other agenda than to help this child. After a few questions, the teenager's emotional level has escalated, and the parent is headed in the same direction. When the emotion of the parent matches that of the child—folks, that's called a fight! We may have started with intentions to help, and we may end up with name calling. What happened to the listening for splendor, honor, and glory? It gradually disappeared somewhere in the conversation.
Rewind. When the emotions were high with the teenager, and he was irrational and illogical, we were doomed to fail when our intent was to try and understand him. We didn't stand a chance of understanding him, because he didn't understand himself. The situation calls for a different skill-set and mind-set. The mind-set should change from trying to understand him to helping him feel understood. This is worth repeating. Don't try to understand someone who doesn't understand himself. Instead help him feel understood. This requires a few ground rules.
Don't ask too many questions. He doesn't have the answers.
Don't give answers. He doesn't know the question.
Don't tell him whether he is right or wrong. He doesn't know what's up from down, much less what's right or wrong at the moment.
When we listen to someone when emotions are low, usually the active use of the ears and mind is enough. We use the ears to get incoming data, and we use our minds to process the data. When emotions are high, we need to use two more organs above and beyond the mind and the ears. We also need to use the eyes and the heart. We both see and feel what someone is going through. Use your ears, minds, eyes, and heart, and then use your own words to reflect back what is happening.
The skill itself is quite simple, actually. You have used it many times and may not even have realized it. Think back to when you were watching a particular movie at home for the first time, and there was a part of the movie that was sad or tragic. As you were watching these scenes, let's say a friend came into the room and asked you what just happened in the last scene of the movie. I would imagine as you would try to tell your friend what had just happened, that you would intend to be as accurate as possible. You would use words to convey the context, the content, and the feeling. You would translate what had just happened without any judgement. What happened is what happened. And you are just trying to be accurate in your story telling. Listening with empathy is trying to be accurate without any judgement. In trying to convey what is happening in the movie, I can't imagine that you would begin by giving advice or asking questions.
Listening to someone who is emotional is listening with the ears, mind, eyes, and heart. You simply want to reflect back what is happening. Your intent is to help him feel understood. He is not interested in your advice or questions. He is not even interested in having you understand him. He is interested in feeling understood. When you have listened and feel the need to say something, simply convey back to him primarily what your eyes see, and what your heart feels as you would convey to someone else what had just happened in a movie. The more he feels understood, eventually the less emotional he will be. In time, when he is ready and asks for it, you can give advice and ask questions. In the meantime, help him feel understood.
Allow me to give a word of caution here, however. If this skill is used with the wrong intent, the other person will sense it, and you can be in big trouble. The wrong intent is to come in as the problem solver, making the other person feels as if she is getting fixed. The right intent is to truly want to help the person feel understood and have no other agenda.
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