According to Marshall Rosenberg the quickest way to become unhappy is to hear what a person thinks, particularly what they think about you. All the things people say to you are really about themselves, but we’ve been trained to hear them at face value and believe it is about us. The holiday season is a particularly stressful time, and you will hear people expressing this stress in the disguise of talking about you or others.
There is a holiday story going around Facebook right now about a woman, her daughter and the phrase “Happy Holidays.” As the story goes a mother was doing some shopping with her daughter when a stranger in the store complimented the 4 year-old little girl on her Frozen t-shirt. As the little girl thanked her for the compliment the mom leaned down and whispered to the little girl to wish the woman “Happy Holidays”, which she did. The stranger then told the little girl her daddy should “teach you to say Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays”. The little girl sheepishly responded “Ok”, and that was the end of the interaction.
The mom was very angry, and going by the comments so were a lot of people. How dare that stranger tell the mom how to parent? Good grief, doesn’t she just know how to take a holiday wish and just say “thank you”?! The thing is, what that woman said was entirely about her own feelings and needs, just as our responses are entirely about our own.
Let’s start with the stranger’s response. When she said “Your daddy should be teaching you to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”, what she was probably feeling was anger and wanted some understanding that the Christmas part of the holidays is very important to her. She might even have some fear that her treasured holiday is disappearing. After all, she has been told there is a war on Christmas.
What the mom could have responded with once she realized the comment wasn’t about her daughter or her parenting was, “It sounds like Christmas is very important to you, is that so?” Her daughter could see her model how this isn’t about them, and how to help another person connect with their feelings and needs. This one question might not be enough, and the stranger might need more listening about this. Of course, the mom could also choose not to make the attempt at understanding in that moment, and then later explain to her daughter all of this.
Let’s look at the mom’s reaction now, and the reactions of many people who commented about this. At the core of all of these reactions, is the fact that we were listening to what the stranger was saying, and believing it was about us. When you can realize that isn’t so, you have more room to really hear what they are saying. I struggled for a while with the fact the 4 year-old was involved with all of this. Although the mom prompted her, I’m guessing the 4 year-old just wanted to share the joy of the holiday season with this person.
We have no control over what people will say to our children, so I believe the best thing we can do is to teach them early how to hear what people are saying, past their words. It would be so much easier if everyone realized this, but they don’t. So we have to practice, and teach our children to practice, listening beyond the words. Listening to the other person’s heart. When you listen for that, what you hear is always beautiful. And as Dr. Rosenberg said, you will feel much less stress this season if you don’t get caught up spending time thinking about what other people think about you.
“Once you’ve learned to hear the heart behind any message, you discover that there’s nothing to fear in anything another person says.” — Marshall Rosenberg
All photos via YouTube
Heather Schlessman, PhD is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner who has spent her career either working with or teaching about families. She is also a mother who, like so many other parents, spent years muddling her way raising 3 wonderfully different children, one who happens to be experiencing a disability. Fortunately she has a life partner who muddled along with her. Spending most of her time trying to be perfect, as that would be the safest way to live, she became aware of a desire to be able to see people in a more compassionate way. Little did she know that the person she needed the most compassion for was herself. There is a saying that when you are ready to learn a teacher will appear, and so it was for Dr. Schlessman. She was introduced to the work of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, the developer of Nonviolent Communication, and her world completely changed. She learned a way to have an intimate connection with herself and others, a way to truly contribute. Her passion now is to help others find their way to a more compassionate life. You can find more of Dr. Schlessman’s empathic expressions along with her husband’s, Rev. Mark Schlessman on their website.