“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” ~Ernest Hemingway
The chances are good that at some point in your life you had to deal with a loved one who consistently frustrated you. They were caught in a destructive pattern of behavior that made life difficult for them and everyone around them. How do you cope when this happens?
Perhaps you start avoiding them. And when that’s not possible, you choose to check out of any difficult conversation or interaction you’re having with them. You resign yourself to the belief that your loved one cannot and will not change their behavior.
Or perhaps you attempt a more active approach to the situation. You try to analyze your loved one the way a therapist might. You develop what you believe are perfect solutions for their problems and present them in the most convincing way you know how. Then you get frustrated when they reject your sage advice out of hand.
Here’s the thing: It's not about changing or fixing them; they are your parents, siblings, or partners, after all—not broken machines in need of repair. And the best thing you can do in these situations is to give your loved one the space to expand their capacity for change.
I learned this the hard way with my mother. She’s struggled throughout her life with unchecked anxiety. She’s caught in a pattern of pessimism, which she frames as “realism.”
There’s rarely a day that goes by when she’s not consumed by one worry or another. And once she latches on to a concern, she can’t seem to let it go. It has to run its course. She’ll vent endlessly about her latest worry to any family member who happens to be available.
As a problem solver by nature, I’ve tried to offer advice and suggestions that I believe will help her to deal with her anxiety more effectively. Unfortunately, it’s an approach that has often backfired. My mother can get extremely defensive and lash out in ugly ways when confronted with the negative consequences of her behavior.
I remember a time when I suggested she’d benefit from the support of a counselor or therapist. Her memorable—and intensely hurtful—response was: “Therapy? Look at you! Ten years of talking to a shrink and you’re still a crazy bipolar!”
After a number of these unpleasant interactions, I decided enough was enough. I had to step back if only to preserve my sanity and well-being. I avoided getting into anything but the most mundane conversations with my mother. I didn’t talk about politics, religion, or other potentially divisive issues. And when she chose to rant about the way the world was conspiring against her, I'd tersely say, “Okay, Mom” or “whatever” before recusing myself from the discussion.
But this coping mechanism was only viable for a limited time and had diminishing returns. I certainly didn’t want to see my mother in a near-constant state of emotional distress, trying to swim against an overwhelming tide of anxiety.
I had to do something different than what I’d done in the past. So instead of jumping back into the fray, I paused. I used the time to examine how my behavior in our past interactions contributed to the problem. I took ownership of the part I’d been playing.
I realized that a lot of it came down to the way I’d been listening to my mother. Or, more accurately, the fact I that I wasn't listening to her. Here’s what I needed to learn: sound listening skills can give a loved one the room to change destructive behaviors that adversely impact their lives—and yours.
Are you listening?
Do you think of yourself as a good listener? I certainly did. Unfortunately, if you’re anything like me, odds are that you overestimate how much listening you do during a conversation.
Here’s a test. The next time you find yourself in a difficult conversation with a loved one, approach it mindfully. When they are speaking, are you really paying attention? Or are you formulating your response before they’ve even finished their sentence?
If you catch yourself doing this, don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s natural to want to share insights and suggestions that we believe will help loved ones in emotional distress. Unfortunately, our caring and concern can become impediments to the best, and often only, help we can offer them—our ability to listen.
When my mother would pour out a tale about her latest worry, I’d too often be preoccupied with crafting solutions for her problems.
Sometimes I’d interrupt in an attempt to keep her from dwelling on negative thoughts. I thought I could save her from getting caught in a downward spiral by offering suggestions for better managing her anxiety; for example, “Hey Mom, instead of fixating on the inevitability of worst-case scenarios, why not concentrate on what’s happening right now?”
I couldn’t understand why my advice was often met by resistance (“That will never work, I know it”) or even defiance (“That’s easy for you to say! You’re not the one dealing with this terrible situation”).
But here’s what I had failed to understand in that interaction and many others: My mother wasn’t asking for advice. She just wanted me to listen. And she absolutely did not want to be lectured about managing her emotional reactions to anxiety.
I learned some important lessons when I took the time to examine my actions, and I knew that my behavior had to change if I expected my mother to embrace change as well. And I needed to start by listening more effectively.
Message Received, Loud and Clear
When my mother is in the grip of anxiety and reaches out to me, I’ve learned to remind myself that in many cases, the less said, the better. It’s about being present, being mindful; this is what listening is all about.
Here are just a few ways to improve your ability to listen to a loved one:
1. Acknowledge and validate.
Sometimes a simple nod of the head can be a powerful and validating signal of support for your loved one. The same goes for a well-placed “Mm-hmm.” These seemingly small acts show that you’re focusing on what they are saying. They also indicate that, at least for the moment, 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. I’ve learned that I don’t have to agree with my mother or approve of her behavior to effectively acknowledge her feelings.
2. Take a breath.
Notice your breath as you interact with your loved one. Are you holding it in as you anxiously await your turn to speak? If you’re out of breath when you respond, it can change your tone and perceived meaning. There’s a good chance you’ll sound harsher or more impatient than you intend to be.
In the past, I’ve noticed myself running out of oxygen in the middle of challenging conversations with my mother. I’ve since learned to take it as a sign that I need to take a step back and bring myself into the present.
3. Sometimes the best advice is none at all.
It’s not easy to resist the temptation to dispense advice to a loved one who we perceive as needing the benefit of our counsel. But the danger of offering unsolicited advice to a loved one is this: it shows a lack of faith in them. And the more advice you dispense, the more you are suggesting that your ideas and solutions are better than any they can come up with themselves. You also risk condescension, no matter how noble your intentions may be.
My well intended but untimely suggestions for my mother came across as directives and judgments. My mother interpreted them as challenges to her competency and doubts in her ability to manage her life. I was indirectly telling her that I didn’t believe in her capacity to change.
As I learned, our faith or lack thereof in our loved ones changes our behavior, often in significant yet subtle ways. And a change in our behavior can lead to a corresponding change in our loved one. When they know we are in their corner, they begin to develop a belief in their ability to grow.
Seeing is Believing
I’ve seen some encouraging signs of growth in my mother since I decided to examine and adapt my behavior. While she still struggles with anxiety, she’s taken some big steps toward better managing it. She's taken up meditation. She has a yoga practice. And yes, she’s even been willing to talk to a therapist.
I certainly can’t claim credit for her decision to take her emotional and mental health more seriously. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence these developments have come during a period in which I’ve given her the room to change.
So pause. Take a breath. Relax. And the next time a loved one is about to drive you out the door, give them some space to speak and express their emotions. Listen and be present. Trust your loved one to do the best they can at that moment. Embrace the notion that just like anyone else, they can change and yes, they even have a right to do so. Just like you.