One night a few years ago, I was in a deep sleep when I began to feel the presence of someone else very close to my face. I opened my eyes to find my 6 year old daughter staring at me from about three inches away. Startled and a bit freaked out, I jumped up to find she had apparently been there for a while, wondering if she should wake me.
“Mommy, I had a bad dream.” I took a deep breath and asked her what it was about. “There was a monster in my closet.”
From here, I did exactly the wrong thing as you will soon see. I said,
“Erica, you know there isn’t a monster in your closet.” To this she replied, “But Mommy, he was so big.” Her voice began to shake.
Now for my even bigger mistake – I said, “Let’s go see. I’ll show you there is no monster in there.”
Erica wouldn’t budge. “But Mommy, he was so big and he had big teeth!” She began to sob. “His claws were coming at me.” She was getting more upset by the second and I knew that if I didn’t think quickly, neither one of us would be getting any more sleep that night. Then it came to me, something I had discussed in a class recently, and I gave it a try.
“Erica, that sounds so scary.” She stopped crying and looked at me. “It was.” I kept going. “It must be awful to be so frightened. Those kinds of dreams give me yucky feelings inside.” She settled a bit. “It was scary Mommy.”
We kept talking for a bit and then the miracle happened. We went back in her room, we checked the closet, I tucked her into bed, and she went right to sleep. How in the world did we go from near hysteria to a solid slumber in such a short time? I validated her feelings.
Now, I am not a fan of many listening techniques because they seem so insincere and cheesy. I mean really, if you want to irritate me, start repeating everything I say. When people do that with me, I find myself leaving the conversation both mentally and physically.
But this “technique” is different because it forces people to really listen, to really understand. At the same time it also frees the listener because there is no obligation to solve, agree, judge, or fix anything. All you need to do is show them you understand how they feel.
In the book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey, it talks about this kind of communication under the habit, Seek First to Understand. I highly recommend this book and that habit.
When someone comes to you with a problem, they want you to understand how they feel. When Erica came to tell me her problem, the first thing I did was to tell her there wasn’t a problem. “There are no monsters in the closet.” When I did this, I did the opposite of validating her feelings. I told her there was no reason to be scared, so her feelings were not valid.
Faced with this rejection, the natural response for anyone is to defend how they feel. Erica, even at six years old, did just that. “But Mommy, he was so big and he had big teeth!” She was defending her feelings. There was a reason to be scared.
The next mistake I made was to try and solve her problem. “I’ll show you there are no monsters.” This usually makes things worse. People who are sharing their problems rarely want you to solve them. They probably already know the answer. What they want you to do is understand how this problem makes them feel.
Finally, when I got it right, I did just that. “Erica, that sounds so scary.” I did not solve the problem. I also did not judge her or agree with her. I just figure out how she was feeling. The more that happened, the better she felt.
I have had numerous students tell me that when they have tried this type of communication, they have had great results. One student, we’ll call her Lori, was a substitute teacher. One day before substituting, the other teachers warned her about a certain girl who would misbehave during class.
The girl did misbehave terribly all day. Finally out of desperation, Lori started the class on an assignment and took her outside in the hall. She said the girl was ready for a fight. She knew she was going to be punished.
Instead of scolding her, Lori said something like, “It can sure be frustrating to come to school and have to do things you don’t want to do.” This caught the girl’s attention. Lori went on to identify what she thought were the young lady’s feelings. “I can see that you have been bothered by something today. You seem angry.”
The girl listened to Lori. Here was someone who actually cared about her feelings. Lori offered a listening ear and after a few moments of silence, the little girl opened up. Her parents were going through a divorce and she thought it was her fault. She had no one to talk to at home, no one to understand how guilty she felt, and no one who knew how lonely she was.
Lori didn’t tell her the divorce wasn’t her fault, (although we know it wasn’t). That would be telling her she didn’t need to feel the way she felt. She didn’t try to solve the problem by telling her what to do or how to feel. She didn’t DO anything, except listen to how she was feeling.
After about 20 minutes, this little girl was a completely different person. She had been validated. Lori didn’t have to agree, judge, or solve the problem. She just took the time to really listen to her. From that moment on, that little lady not only didn’t misbehave, she was the best student in the class.
Sometimes, it is hard for me to really understand others. It is easier to be more concerned with explaining my own position, than to take the time to figure out why someone else feels the way they do. I will tell you though, that when I remember to do this, my relationships with others are much better and I am more helpful and sincere.
The following poem sums this up nicely. I wish I knew who wrote it.
Could You Just Listen?
When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving advice,
you have not done what I asked.
When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way,
you are trampling on my feelings.
When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to do something to solve my problem,
you have failed me, strange as it may seem.
Listen! All I asked was that you listen, not talk or do – just hear me.
Advice is cheap: you can get both Dear Abby and Billy Graham
in the same newspaper.
And I can do for myself; I’m not helpless.
Maybe discouraged and faltering, but not helpless.
When you do something for me that I can and need to do for myself,
you contribute to my fear and weakness.
But, when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel,
no matter how irrational, then I can stop trying to convince you and
get about the business of understanding what’s behind this irrational feeling.
And when that’s clear, the answers are obvious and I don’t need advice.
Irrational feelings make sense when we understand what’s behind them.
Perhaps that is why prayer works for some people –
because God doesn’t interrupt you with advice or a quick fix.
God listens, and then lets you come to your own conclusion.
So, please listen and just hear me. And, if you want to talk,
wait a minute for your turn; and I’ll listen to you.