Have you ever looked at someone and just thought, “Will you PLEASE shut the fuck up?!” Chances are good that at some point in your life you’ve dealt with someone who consistently frustrated you. Maybe you start avoiding them. And if that’s not possible, you try to keep any conversation or interaction with them to a minimum. You resign yourself to the thought that this person is never going to change their behavior. But it’s not about changing or fixing them. They are not broken machines in need of repair. They are human beings-your family, friends, neighbors, or coworkers.
I have always been a problem solver. Throughout the years I have offered advice and suggestions that I thought would help people. Unfortunately, it’s an approach that has backfired at times. People can get very defensive and lash out when given unsolicited advice. Myself included. After umpteen thirty-leven unpleasant interactions, I decided I had to take a step back in order to preserve my own sanity and well-being. I avoided getting into anything but the most mundane conversations with many people. I refused to talk about politics, religion, or other sensitive topics. Just ask G. I was adamant that politics was a topic that I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.
I realized that a lot of the issue came down to the way I had been listening to others. Or, more accurately, the fact I that I wasn’t truly listening. I needed to learn that sound listening skills can give someone the room to change the behaviors that negatively impact their lives and those around them.
Do you think of yourself as a good listener? I thought I was. Odds are that most people overestimate how much listening they actually do during a conversation. When someone is speaking, are you really paying attention? Or are you formulating your response before they’ve even finished their sentence?
I would often be preoccupied with thinking of solutions for other people’s problems while they’re speaking. Sometimes I’d even interrupt them in order to not forget my own train of thought. It’s natural to want to share our experiences and suggestions that we believe will help others when they’re upset. We want our loved ones to be happy and to feel better soon, but soon is a relative term and is different for everyone. We all want and need to feel supported and accepted, regardless of our mood. Unfortunately, the way we express our concern to others isn’t always well received. I failed to understand that people weren’t asking for my advice. They simply wanted me to listen. Sometimes they just want to vent. And they ABSOLUTELY do not want to be told how they should feel.
I’ve learned to remind myself that in many cases, the less said, the better. Listening is about being present and being mindful. Sometimes a simple nod of the head or eye contact can be a powerful acknowledgement and validating signal of support for others. These seemingly small acts show that you’re focusing on what they are saying. They also indicate that you are prioritizing their feelings over your own. And they are subtle enough expressions to avoid interrupting their train of thought. I’ve found it helpful to remember that validation does not equal approval. You don’t have to agree with others or approve of their behavior to effectively acknowledge their feelings.
Sometimes the best advice is none at all. It’s not easy to resist the temptation to dispense advice to someone who we think needs help. But the danger of offering unsolicited advice to someone is that it can show a lack of faith in them. My well intended but untimely suggestions came across as condescending and judgmental. People interpreted them as challenges to their competency and doubts in their ability to manage their own life. I was indirectly telling them that I didn’t believe in their ability to change.
The next time someone is about to drive you nuts, give them some space to speak and express their emotions freely. Being around people who are unhappy can be unsettling, but we should try to understand that people don’t need us to fix them or even cheer them up. They just want someone to hold their hand now and then. Trust them to do the best they can at that moment. Listen and silent are spelled with the same letters. Think about it.