By Valerie Rice | November 27, 2020
Picture this: Thirteen year old daughter is screaming at the top of her lungs that I never LISTEN! And I am too dumb to UNDERSTAND! Because all I ever do is ask her how I can help, or tell her the same answer over and over and she hates me SO MUCH!! Why don’t I just yell at her or get pissed off or ground her or something? I totally SUCK! And then I smile, and say “Sweetheart, I know you are upset, I can hear that, but the problem is not going to get better by yelling at it, and I don’t agree with you. If you have teenagers you probably have had this exact same conversation numerous times. In my case, we are arguing about her psych meds. She hates them, but without them she ends up hospitalized or arrested. So yes, I understand her point of view, but I am not going to agree with it. This type of scenario is very common, and the differences between listening, understanding, and agreement are the origin of a whole lot of fighting and miscommunication.
Listening is a very important skill, and one that is incredibly difficult to master. I’m sure you may find this difficult to believe, having heard a ton of stuff throughout your lifetime, but that’s the point. Just because you hear something doesn’t mean you were listening. Listening requires attention and the intent to understand. Most people in conversation hear what the other person says just enough to formulate their response. How often do you do this? I do it all the time when talking to someone I really don’t care about, like the neighbor, wondering how soon I can escape and return to my cozy living room. We all do it, and more often than we would admit, because not every conversation is terribly important to us. Unfortunately that means that it becomes a habit, and the skill of listening ends up requiring practice, focus, and dedication. For more about active listening, click here. I encourage you to read it, as listening is the main way we can gain understanding.
In order to truly understand another person, you need empathy or experience. Even if you have experienced a situation identical to theirs, you went through it a different way, and need empathy to be able to imagine how they feel. Hence the old adage “put yourself in their shoes.” This is incredibly important because it allows you to take yourself away from your viewpoint and see things differently. Another, though less impactful method, is to use logic to follow the natural course of events and emotions they describe. Even better, try using a combination of these. Once you believe you have a solid grasp on what they are trying to express, repeat it back, in your own words, to clarify. Not only will this make sure you aren’t off on the wrong track, but it let’s the other person know that you are trying to grasp their point of view. So yeah, I may “totally suck,” but I see where my kid is coming from. This is no guarantee that the other person is able or willing to understand your view but it does soften the situation. If they DO see your view, you are one step closer to agreement.
I love agreement, but this will never happen when it comes to teenagers and medication. At last not for me. For YOU, on the other hand, once you have managed to understand where another person is coming from, might actually agree with them. Or not. They might agree with you. Or, and this is a thing, you just disagree. As long as you understand each other, there is very little harm in disagreement. That is, assuming, that you have reached an actual understanding. My daughter insists that I am trying to control her with drugs (yeah, duh, her psychosis requires medication) and thinks I don’t understand how bad the side effects are (I do. I really REALLY do). Our miscommunication is that she struggles to see how much worse her life is without the medication, and therefore I had to weigh the benefits with the risks, and cannot agree with her belief that the meds are worse than life without. It is a fight we will have forever. Most people do not have these types of arguments, however, and with enough practice can start to open up to the views of others while still holding their own. Or , even better, changing their minds when presented with evidence to the contrary.
BEFORE I GO….
I just want to remind you that this is your life, and your universe. You don’t get to control what comes your way but you DO get to control how you respond. Not only that, but being able to see life through the eyes of others, and communicate effectively, will make it a whole lot easier. And there is nothing quite so refreshing as hearing someone speak to you from a place of understanding. So practice your skills, master your universe, and be well!