My mother is one of those people who asks you a question so she can get you to talk about your experience for a second or two before she cuts in to blab about her take on it. She doesn’t actually care what you are doing for the holiday or how you spent your summer. She’s not fishing about symptoms of a sickness or your feelings on politics because she wants to know. It’s a gateway for her to be able to talk about herself. She’s asking so she can interrupt you and inject her thoughts and opinions.
While she was over here a few weeks ago for a short visit, she probably interrupted me 10 times (I stopped counting after 7) and my son became so frustrated with her, he left the room. She was asking him what was going on in his life lately and since there wasn’t much to report, he was telling her about some truck trouble he was having. Newsflash: my mother knows nothing about vehicles, but suddenly she turned into the author of “Auto Repair For Dummies.”
Even my teenage son simply wanted to vent his frustrations without getting advice.
While I’ve dealt with her my whole life and am used to her soul sucking ways, it got me thinking about how we all have someone in our life who feels the need to give and give and give. By that I mean unwanted advice — without really listening.
It wasn’t until my thirties that I really started to treasure my friendships who practiced the art of listening. I was venting about my then mother-in-law one day on my neighbor’s front porch. She didn’t interrupt. She didn’t try and give me advice. She didn’t even pull an “I know what you mean because my mother-in-law does the same thing.”
She said (when I was done telling her how glad I was she was finally out of my house), “Your mother-in-law. Tell me about her.”
That was it. After that sentence she was done. For the rest of our visit, she listened without judgment or opinion, and I felt so much better.
I swore from that day on I would be a better listener because I’d never felt so validated or heard in my life.
I’m all for chiming in and relating to each other; it’s how we connect. There’s nothing like knowing you aren’t going through something alone. However, there’s a time and a place for that kind of talking and feeding off of each other.
There’s also (an even bigger) space to just sit and listen. There’s no need to tell a story that happened to you that’s similar. There’s no need to cast an opinion about the situation or person someone is dealing with. And there’s especially no need to give out advice unless it’s specifically asked for, or if you ask if you can give it and permission is granted.
I’ve learned through the years that most people do what they want to do, regardless of the efforts you put in to try and change their mind.
But you know what’s rare? For someone to sit in silence and let you do the talking. Someone who can be still and let you know they are present while you get it all out. Someone who doesn’t break eye contact, look at their phone, or seem distracted while you are telling them a story and trying to verbally talk something out.
I think it’s become our natural response to think someone is looking for us to fix their problem if they come to us when they are struggling or stuck. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but most of the time they are just looking for you to listen. To give a bit of yourself with no strings attached.
Because when you do that, you are saying, “You matter, you don’t need fixing, and I’m here to listen to you because I believe in you and know you can figure this out for yourself.”
In today’s world, we are all dealing with so much and yes, we all have limited time. But when someone is trying to talk with you and you feel the need to finish their sentences to hurry them along, give them your opinion on how they should handle it if they didn’t ask you, or tell them about a time when something similar happened to you but it was ten times worse, it takes up a lot more time and energy than it would to just sit and listen.
My friend gave me a gift that afternoon I never received before — simply by inviting me to talk while letting me know the only thing she was going to do was listen.
I didn’t leave her house feeling like I had to take her advice, or keep it from her if I didn’t, because she didn’t give me any.
I didn’t feel judged or like she thought I was awful for having secret fantasies for yelling at my mother-in-law.
I also didn’t feel ashamed because she told me a few stories that put my situation to shame.
I felt heard and loved.
Listening to someone is free. Saying, “What can I do to help you right now?” is a hell of a lot more effective than trying to turn into Dear Abby. And I’ve also found it’s a better way to really get to know someone when you sit back and let them talk freely without jumping in.
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