Less Words. Just Listen
My husband works with a woman who has a set of business cards printed with simply the words Stop Talking. She discreetly slides them to coworkers who are talking too much in business meetings when they are supposed to be listening. I don’t know how often she actually uses them, but it’s very amusing. I love the idea. I could use a set of those myself.
This is something I talk often with parents about in therapy. Our discussions about how they are interacting or engaging with their children, and teenagers especially, usually includes some variation of: less talking. To be sure, this is challenging. As a mom, if I am trying to impart advice or illuminate something important, I can find a dozen (or 100) ways to say something. If I’m honest, I should admit that I have heard more than a few times: Mary Beth, less words. The struggle is real.
Being quiet and listening is such a gift though. When we are still and give others the time and space to find their voice, sort out their thoughts, and talk about whatever they are struggling with, we encourage them to find their own way, clarify, resolve or reconcile. In the gentlest way, we are inviting them to see their competencies. It is a quiet affirmation that their thoughts and feelings are valid and it is a vote of confidence that we believe in their capacity to manage them. Despite our good intentions, when we jump in too quickly with too much noise, we can undermine the very skills, strengths or insights we want to support.
Lori Gottlieb, Psychotherapist and best-selling author, puts it like this:
"We often aren't actually listening, or we don't know how to listen. Sometimes when someone is telling us something, we feel like we have to problem-solve for them and we don't know how to sit with them and not fix it. When we truly listen to someone without fixing, we're helping them to hear themselves more clearly. And if we talk for them or over them, they can't hear themselves. We're talking over their internal voice."
There is a lot of hardship right now. Many people are struggling with things that cannot be easily fixed or talked through. Pandemics, and the enduring stressors that come with them, have a way of making problem-solving impotent. But as we strive to take care of those we care about, both within and outside of our families, let’s not underestimate the power of listening. Just being in the moment – engaged, compassionate and still - and hearing someone out. Helping someone to feel heard and understood is such a generous form of connection right now.
There’s so much more I want to say (many more words), but I’m going to stop. In this quiet space, with your good wisdom, discern what you will. You got this.