A friend texted me a couple of days ago and asked if she could ask me a personal question. She was wondering about specific ways Rob and I have learned to communicate with each other and with our children to encourage vulnerability, a feeling of safety, and mutual trust.
Ooooh, good question, right?!
I had to take some time to think about it before I responded with some words about practicing good listening skills and having true empathy. Since then, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about these answers and how I want to explore them further in my own mind. It just so happens that I do that best when I write it all out.
So let’s begin.
Why In the World Would We Want to Be Vulnerable?
Vulnerability. It’s a scary word! At least, it is to those people who have never felt the pure joy of exposing their own vulnerability and then being accepted and loved all the more for it.
We believe that if we show weakness (aka emotion and imperfection) then no one will like us or believe we are a strong and able individual. We can go our entire lives living within a wall…a wall that prevents others from emotionally connecting with us, just because we are afraid. Mind you, we tell you it’s because we are tough. But that’s a lie.
When we are honest to ourselves about our own fears of not being good enough, we allow others to see our humanity. Suddenly we don’t seem like a hardened pessimist or aloof optimist. Suddenly we become relatable and real. Suddenly people want to open up to us about their own insecurities. This back-and-forth sharing and accepting builds safety and trust with each other. There’s no other way to achieve those two all-important things.
That’s why we want to be vulnerable.
I’m a Good Listener! Said Everyone Ever
The fact is, if you think you are a good listener, you probably aren’t. If you come away from a conversation feeling like you were heard and got everything off your chest, doesn’t mean the conversation was great for the other person. Just because they were listening well to you when you were talking, doesn’t mean you were reciprocating.
People who are actually good listeners catch themselves in the moments when they are listening poorly (it happens even to the best) and refocus their energies back on the other person.
Just as vulnerability builds trust, so does listening. If we don’t pause our own talking while someone else is trying to tell us something, real communication is not happening. If we don’t pause our own thinking while someone else is trying to tell us something, again, no real communication is taking place. Instead, the conversation is trite. It doesn’t feel comforting, uplifting, or connecting. It feels distancing and makes the other person feel insignificant because whatever we want to say or think ourselves is more important than them.
If you want to finally admit to yourself that your listening skills could improve, read or listen to The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships by Michael P. Nicholas, PhD. This book has been life changing in our marriage and parenting.
Here are two changes we’ve made to sharpen our listening skills:
1- Give the talker as much time as they need to think about what they want to say and how to say it. Taking a few moments (or minutes) to find the right words makes a remarkable difference in being understood. Don’t interrupt for anything! Don’t put words in their mouth. Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t try to hurry the conversation along. Not everyone is a quick thinker/talker and even if you are, it doesn’t mean you should be! Taking a few moments yourself before responding will help you respond appropriately.
2- When the talker is finished (maybe verify first that they actually are finished), repeat back to them what you thought you heard them say. Let them confirm or correct. You will be shocked how often you get it wrong!
Yes, conversing in such a manner will inevitably take longer. It’s so worth it. You won’t only be communicating better, but you’ll be connecting better.
Got Empathy? Think Again
It’s interesting how many of us think we are empathetic individuals. We “feel sorry” for other people, we try to imagine how they might feel when they are sad or going through a tough time, but that’s about it. For example, instead of saying, “I feel bad for you,” change your perspective to “I’m sorry you feel bad.” Notice the shift in tone and focus?
Here’s the thing, when most people think they are feeling empathetic, what they are actually feeling is bad for themselves. When someone comes to you and says something hard to hear, feeling bad yourself for your own personal reasons doesn’t help and isn’t empathetic, it’s selfish. Sure, that sounds harsh, but it’s true. We are always fighting that natural man inside of us that says to think of ourselves first and foremost.
For another example, let’s say a friend came to me and admitted that something I said hurt their feelings. If I’m being selfish, I will immediately start feeling guilty and bad about myself for being such a mean person, perhaps even to the point where my friend will begin to comfort me saying things like, “It’s okay! Don’t feel bad, I’m fine! I’m sorry I took what you said so poorly. Pretend I never said anything.”
Do you see what happened there? Rather than me consoling my friend and helping them feel loved, my friend had to console me to ease away my self-hate. That’s not fair and it’s really bad for building a trusting relationship.
The moment we stop listening and no longer have the other person’s best interest at heart is the moment we start thinking about our own feelings and interests. Like I said, selfish.
This happens when we:
- Feel guilt over having/not having, doing/not doing, or being/not being something
- Have memories or feelings from our own past personal experiences which clouds our judgement and make us assume we know how the other person feels or should feel
- Need to quick-fix the problem in order to make everything all better immediately so we can feel like we did some good. When we do this, what we’re really doing is whatever it is that will make ourselves feel better.
What we should be doing instead is focusing our energies on what the other person actually needs from us, even (or especially) if that just means listening and helping them feel safe while they are being vulnerable.
Once you are less focused on yourself in a conversation, then true empathy can have a chance. Not only does empathy mean you are trying to understand how the other person feels, but realizing that there are many reasons why they may feel the way they do. Past experiences and fears will always color a person’s opinions and actions.
Once you remember that, you’ll stop interjecting your own biased opinions. You’ll stop jumping to conclusions. You’ll stop making unfair assumptions. You’ll stop being afraid of other points of view.
You’ll start giving the benefit of the doubt. You’ll start allowing others to feel whatever it is that they are feeling. You’ll learn how to really listen. You’ll start opening your heart to them.
Or So We Thought…
A couple of years ago Rob and I could’ve sworn we were excellent communicators with each other. After all, we talked constantly. We’ve always loved conversing and discussing whatever comes to mind. However, life proved us otherwise.
forced blessed to take a long, deep look into our own listening and empathy skills. What we found were a lot of shortcomings…shortcomings that were sabotaging our relationship with each other and with our children, even through our constant chatter. That’s because chatter isn’t communication. Chatter is one-sided, shallow. Communication is collective, cooperative, and caring.
Admittedly, we’re not always great at this, but by upping our listening and empathy game, we now let each other see our vulnerabilities, we trust each other to help us feel safe, and we can honestly say we’ve never before given, and felt, more love for one another.