How to make a love connection with almost anyone (through empathetic listening).
Wanna be the one reserved adults, small children, grumpy teens, or quiet youth open up to? And while you are magnetizing this open sharing of feelings what if you naturally empowered them to solve their own problems? If that sounds too good to be true, consider what this new way of connecting does for you…, namely frees you of any burden to create change in your significant relationships and actually strengthens and enriches your connection with them? Hooked yet? It’s how to make a love connection with almost anyone. It’s empathetic listening… never you’ve never done before. Perhaps like me, you didn’t know how.
On Thanksgiving our young adult son ran along the rushing Deschutes River with me and opened up about his recent breakup with a girlfriend. Being the dialed in Mom, I listened carefully to his story and as we rounded the halfway mark offered these comforting words. “It just seems to be the nature of dating son. Either she’s more serious about you or the other way around. And then, you find someone that shares your feelings mutually…and it just works out.” Tanner stopped running. “Mom, you’re not listening to me.”
I thought I was. I heard the details of how it happened and asked leading questions. I was just waiting for the right break in the conversation to offer my reassurance that he was still within the range of normal,…that everything would be okay. Taken aback, I apologized, zipped my lip and said, “tell me more.” I would prove to both of us that I actually was a very good listener.
He continued pouring out his heart for another 10 minutes until our river loop was complete. As we began slogging up the river canyon wall to our home I offered him one more soothing assurance. “Jamie doesn’t know what she’s given up. And I know there is someone out there even better for you.” He cut me short, “Mom, you still aren’t LISTENING to me!”
I told him I was trying to listen, but I didn’t know how to do what he was asking me to do. I fought back tears…and lost. And he struggled for words to convey his feelings. He hugged me and apologized for making me cry. And we both walked away from it feeling a little raw and still wondering what it was all about.
Fast forward a week. I’m devouring a new concept I hope will help me set boundaries on my time without feeling guilty about it, which it totally does, but oh…it is so much more.
Have you ever been listening to someone talk and thought, “if you could just see your problem the way I see it, your problem is solved babe” or “hurry up and finish what you’re saying because I’ve got something to say that is just what you need”? If so, this principle will be a complete revelation to you. And you will know the truth of it by how it feels.
There are many helpful books written about it, and the shortest, sweetest I’ve found is “I Don’t Have To Make Everything All Better” by Gary and Joy Lundberg.
Here’s a brief summary:
1) Be an effective validator (which is not at all what happened that day on the river run with our son.) It requires a new goal as you listen and a new vocabulary of validating phrases and questions.
2) Leave the responsibility where it belongs, while still offering help. (I did NOT see that coming. I mean, who knew that was possible?)
3) Acknowledge Emotions, beginning with your own and then others.
4) Develop the Art of Listening (ah, goals!)
5) Find the right time to teach (almost never in the moment you think of it and often hours later. Teaching even with nine kids, is needed far less than I realized.)
I read just one short chapter a week and then practiced implementing it with my infant understanding, but it still works. I’ve gone back and read it again with my guy Brett. So easy, just 15 mins every week or two. The main idea is that EVERYONE on the planet shares a universal need including YOU, which is to believe:
I am of worth.
My feelings matter.
Someone really cares about me.
Write it on a PostIt note and plant it where you’ll read it often. Savor how nice it feels each time you do. That my friend, is the hot commodity that every soul craves, both to give and to receive. Thought it was the iPhone 6?…. It’s Compassion.
Simply by listening to another person in this new way, I bolster their worth, they feel loved by the gesture AND are empowered to solve their own problem. And it even works with people with whom I’ve been bungling it for decades. Reduced to it’s meanest terms, it is the act of climbing inside another persons head and looking out through their eyes. This is more than empathy; it’s seeing what they see and telling them so.
It is a tender place really, so you don’t want to tromp around wearing boots in there. Well meaning advice, nudging persuasion, or even trying to cheer them up by shining away the problem will all squash the magic seed you’ve planted. Once you’ve nailed it (or even come close) and skipped entirely over telling them what they should, need or ought to do, a loving connection has been made between you. And the power is incomprehensible.
My trial run with this tool was with one of our teens who had talked to me less and less over the last few years and which I’ve felt completely powerless to change. I went into each of my interactions with our son with this new goal in mind, “get inside his head, inside the head baby, you can DO this!”
It still feels strange and new. A few days after our first meeting inside his mind, he called me and said “Ugh, I hate my life, I am never going back to that class ever! It is the BIGGEST waste of my time”… “Oh,” I said, “tell me what happened.” I whipped out my toolbox of validating questions and phrases and went to work, treading lightly and making my way to the goal, that little tiny chair inside his head right behind his eyes where I can really see what he’s talking about. Once there I let him know I got him and… mission accomplished. That’s all.
The interaction was brief and clean, then he said, “gotta go.” And inside my head I was doing a rambunctious victory dance. My boy CALLED me to tell me about his feelings! What a milestone. The yawning age of silence was broken and I could not contain my joy.
One morning our youngest, Ethan flopped down on the couch with his little violin in hand. “I’m not practicing and I’m not doing the garbages EITHER!” Instead of my usual patronizing “eyebrows up my boy, you’re almost finished” or threats “well, I guess we can’t have free time then” or bribing “let’s hurry and finish and then we’ll have a special treat!” I ventured into the unknown.
“Hmm” I said. “Does it feel like…like there’s just so much to do and you don’t want to do it? (lame attempt, but watch) Then I flopped down on the other couch. “I think I might know how you feel…. Like this morning I woke up and I was just about to get out of bed, but then I remembered all the things I gotta do today and I just PULLED the covers over my head and said no, no, no! I don’t wanna get outa bed!”
Wrestling with my invisible covers, across the room he lay there watching me. I looked up at the ceiling thinking of how comfortable I was, just laying there being still. An instant later my reverie was interrupted, “Mom, come on! Get your violin. Are you gonna get it or not?!” He was standing there, ready to go. Inexplicable…it must be magic. When we feel understood, an elevating force bubbles up inside of us and we rise to our own challenges.
If we do not appreciate or empathize with a child’s feelings, they grow up not appreciating other people’s feelings. It’s true. As parents we unintentionally teach children that it is not safe to express what they feel.
“I don’t care how you feel about it, you’ll do it anyway” (ouch). Not far from that sentiment is the confusion and distrust created when an adult says, “You can’t be hungry, we just ate” and yet that growling, knawing feeling inside really does feel alot like hunger. Or “You don’t hate anybody, you’re just upset”, when what you really feel is hate welling up inside. Once I and my child acknowledge their negative feeling, it honestly evaporates, at record speed. But if the feeling’s denied, suppressed or buried alive, you’re sure to see it resurface again, and again in less appropriate places. Irrational fears; un-provoked anger and low tolerance for frustration all morph out of the child’s buried feelings.
Soon kids figure that it doesn’t matter what they feel, they’ll just be told they are wrong to feel that way. They do what any smart kid does, they numb up, withdraw and consider feelings confusing, unreliable or just plain bad. Numbed kids grow up to be numbed adults who unwittingly model the same communication style to their children. Emotionally and spiritually you cannot lead a child to a place you’ve never been.
Which is why changing up the way we listen can have phenomenal cosmic power to heal ourselves and our families… and to give a leg up to generations to come. As I understand how huge this new objective for listening is, I had to know where the Son of God modeled it. It’s just too powerful to be made up by man. Did He really climb inside a person’s head and look out through their eyes?
The answer is Yes.
The town is Bethany. The day is three days after the death of Lazarus, “whom Jesus loved.” The sisters, Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus days earlier, that Lazarus was very ill. Instead of immediately traveling to Bethany, Jesus intentionally remains where he is for two more days before beginning the journey, which took another two days.
When Jesus arrives in Bethany, he finds that Lazarus has been dead and entombed for four days. He meets Martha and Mary in turn and Martha laments that Jesus did not arrive soon enough to heal her brother. The women understood the Son of God had power to heal the sick, they’d seen it many times before. He’d even raised up people who’d just died or were thought to be dead, but now it seemed all was lost. I mean, 4 days dead? It had never been done.
And how did Christ, the Son of God respond? “Jesus wept.” Not because he was powerless to help make everything all better. Before showing forth his power as the Life of the World, perhaps He wept because he’d just sat down in that tiny seat behind Mary’s and Martha’s eyes and fully felt what they were feeling.
He stands as the indisputable model for life; of how to listen and really get what is going on inside another. He teaches only Love, for that is what He is. And this kind of listening is a piece of the love He is. His compassion is complete.
But lo, a caution to this tale. If I cling to all my former ways of communicating, I will FAIL. Some things I simply must let go:
No Buts About It
The word “but” as in, “I’m sorry you’re frustrated, but you’ve gotta do it anyway” or “I love you but I can’t let you do this,” have GOT. TO. GO. When encouraging or admonishing another, BUT cancels out whatever came before it in the sentence, usually the loving part. So, drop your buts right here and you’re halfway there.
Good questions allow people to communicate with mutual understanding. Poor questions are offensive, create a defensive attitude, and shut down understanding. So, once you’re really seeking to understand the other person, or to get information you don’t have, steer clear of “Why” questions. They indirectly say, “Defend yourself” as in “Why did you come home so late”. And they’re often pointless as well. “Why did you spill your milk?” or “Why did you back out before the garage door was up?” Pretty irrelevant questions if you’re really seeking to understand.
Questions that are easier to answer usually start with: How, What, When, Where, Do and Is. For example, “What happened that made you so late?” or “How did it happen…splinters of our garage door across the street in the neighbors bushes?”
Get much better performance and greater understanding from non-“Why” questions. The best proof of the negative effect of “Why’d you do that?” questions are the typical answers you get. “Cuz,” “I Don’t know,” or a shrug of the shoulders.
One Sided Conversation
Let go of Questions that answer themselves. “You want to be on time, don’t you?” “Jesus wants us to be happy, doesn’t he?” “So we want to be nice to others, huh.” Answering your own question in the same sentence tells people there’s no point in participating in this conversation. You are telling them what to think or do and giving them a mini guilt trip if they feel differently.
It’s super hard to observe and change the words we use. But the alternative is, our words use us! What a trade I say, So worth it to open up to new and better ways of communicating.
Advice is Cheap
The biggest let go for me has been telling my people what they should, need or ought to do..on a regular daily basis. “You should’ve been ready 5 minutes ago” or “You should try to see the problem from their side.” “You need to be on time” or “Don’t you think you ought to get up now?”
Instead, now I might ask, “Which task do you want to do first?” “What else needs doing before you’re ready to go?” or “Would you like some help with _____?” “I’m so sorry that happened. What do you think you’ll do?”
I am learning that the vast majority of my advice, the “should’s, need’s and oughts” have been filling up airspace with heavy energy that settles down onto my shoulders and makes my people feel less and less free, even more grumpy, whiny and resistant.
When my husband test drove this new way of listening last week…wow. Nailed it. He created a soft place in my heart that has longed for this very flavor of connection. Everyone does. It will take a little practice, but it’s a tool that wants to be shared, especially between spouses and lovers. I am all for giving the most meaningful gifts of love, gifts St. Valentines may never have known and Hallmark can’t put in a card.
You may be wondering how a book titled, I Don’t Have to Make Everything All Better could possibly be about Compassion. Check it, I cannot really make anything all better for anyone. I cannot unbreak the breakup for Tanner and his girl, or shine away the chaos in our teenagers high school classroom, or keep away the factors that will cause my people difficulty or pain. They must be allowed to feel what they feel.
When I fear what they feel, or deny it or fight it, I’m living in fear, denial and compulsion… and everyone’s peace and power fly out the window.
Yet, when I walk with and invite them to share (with my validating questions and phrases) with my eye single to reaching that tiny seat behind the eyes, there is tender love, hope floats faster and they heal from within. My compassion connects them not just to me, but also to their compassionate Creator…merely by the way I listen.
No matter what we’ve been through in life so far, our potential for deep emotional connection still remains – we just need to be shown how to grab onto it.
Your #WholeHealthChallenge this month (if you choose in) is to open your heart to this new way of listening. Give it a go.
When another feels that you really “get them”, you’ve made a love connection. Do that often and the connection will be long lasting. Your heart will thank you and so will theirs.