Our family is in the process of moving from one house to another. I’ve counted, and we have moved 13 times in the last 38 years, the last move was from Hawaii.
As we laid in bed the other morning my husband said with some real sorrow that he was tired of worrying. He hadn’t slept the last few nights worrying about all kinds of things, real or imagined, about this move. He was tired of not getting sleep, tired of having aches all over his body from stress, and just tired of not being able to let go of worrying.
I knew enough to listen, and to try to identify his feelings and needs. But I just couldn’t help myself; I had to suggest some breathing techniques that might help his anxiety. I could tell that didn’t go over well.
This happens to us all the time; people “complain” and we try to fix them. A friend of mine has the same thing with her husband. He has a job that requires him to work long hours and he comes home very tired and talks about the things that have gone wrong for him that day. Someone didn’t do the job they were supposed to do and this made his job much more difficult, or someone called in sick and he had to do more work than usual.
My friend makes suggestions that she thinks will help him at his job. He becomes angry and defensive and argues with her about why those suggestions won’t help. The conversation goes downhill from there.
In Being Me, Loving You: A Practical Guide to Extraordinary Relationships Dr. Marshall Rosenberg tells us that we are all just saying either “please” or “thank you” to each other with everything we say. We are either celebrating life (thank you) or asking you to help us make our lives more wonderful (please). It really makes communication so much easier when we understand this. We can either celebrate with people, or contribute to them in ways they will enjoy.
But instead of hearing this, we end up hearing what people are saying through our own needs. In other words, particularly with close relationships, when our loved ones are “complaining” (sharing their needs) we hear them say “fix me.” And we either jump in trying to make suggestions, or we feel frustrated and make light of it, that “buck up” kind of attitude. Maybe we even share how bad we have it, and you don’t hear us complaining (We do that because we hear a demand, not a request, but that’s another post).
What we haven’t done with any of this is figure out what they are asking. What do they want? Often if we were to ask just that, they would tell us. They just want to be heard, or maybe there is a specific thing you could do to help. But sometimes, they can’t tell us, for whatever reasons. We have to guess. We start by guessing at what they are feeling and then guess what we think they might need.
Often they just want us to hear them, to be present with them. That is really hard, because we want to fix them so they are happy again. Because when they are happy, we are happy. And that takes me back to my story with my husband. It is very hard to be with your loved one when they are feeling sad and frustrated. I was able to be in that space for a short amount of time, just listening and helping myself understand what was going on for him by guessing occasionally at his feelings and needs.
But I just couldn’t stay there, I had to try and fix it. And the reason that didn’t work for him was because it was about me. I was trying to fix it so I could get comfortable again. And if I had just asked him if he wanted me to listen, to be there with him while he explained this to me, he would have said yes. And I would have been able to give him what he wanted. But I forgot to ask.
It’s the same with my friend and her husband. If she would say, “you sound really frustrated and I wonder if you would like some suggestions on ways to help this”, he could tell her no. And then she could guess again, “I’m wondering if you would just like me to hear how frustrating your day was”, and to that he would say yes. It’s just getting clear on what the “please” means for the other person.
Photo by Jong Soo Lee — Flickr
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.