Geeks usually don’t like to get involved in conversations that aren’t about something they feel expert in. You can talk about the new Playstation game but God forbid someone should talk about feelings or problems. Male conversations are usually contained to some well-worn arena that is easily decipherable like sports or gadgets or technology. If you know something about the topic, you can contribute or offer an opinion. But what if a buddy starts talking to you about how he thinks his girlfriend is cheating on him? Or about the economy or climate change?
Women often engage in something called “troubles talk,” sharing personal feelings through talking about sadness or negative experiences. My wife and her friends are always telling each other about their personal problems or complaining about their husbands or boyfriends. Men usually don’t tread on that ground because we’re socialized to seek position in a hierarchy. Women are often socialized to seek equality and closeness.
In the past, when someone talked to me about almost anything, I’ve always felt that I was somehow responsible for solving what I perceived as their “problem,” whether it was something as mundane as a complaint about a garden hose leaking or as profound as the death of a parent. I felt that I was required to give some sort of advice or offer a solution. Often the advice is something like “Well, that’s how it is, I guess you just have to learn to live with it.” How unsatisfying that must be for the person I was talking to!
Then I read this story from from Seven Challenges Workbook by Dennis Rivers, M.A. and my whole way of listening changed. This story is about a man and his young daughter on an airline flight but this conversation embodies all of the attributes of good listening skills. After you read this, think about how you could apply these techniques to nearly every conversation.
John Gottman describes his discovery that listening really works: “I remember the day I first discovered how Emotion Coaching [the author's approach to empathic listening] might work with my own daughter, Moriah. She was two at the time and we were on a cross-country flight home after visiting with relatives. Bored, tired, and cranky, Moriah asked me for Zebra, her favorite stuffed animal and comfort object. Unfortunately, we had absentmindedly packed the well-worn critter in a suitcase that was checked at the baggage counter.
“I’m sorry, honey, but we can’t get Zebra right now. He’s in the big suitcase in another part of the airplane,” I explained. “I want Zebra,” she whined pitifully.
“I want Zebra! I want Zebra!” she moaned again. Then she started to cry, twisting in her safety seat and reaching futilely toward a bag on the floor where she’d seen me go for snacks.
“I know you want Zebra,” I said, feeling my blood pressure rise. “But he’s not in that bag. He’s not here and I can’t do anything about it. Look, why don’t we read about Ernie,” I said, fumbling for one of her favorite picture books.
“Not Ernie!” she wailed, angry now. “I want Zebra. I want him NOW!”
By now, I was getting “do something” looks from the passengers, from the airline attendants, from my wife, seated across the aisle. I looked at Moriah’s face, red with anger, and imagined how frustrated she must feel. After all, wasn’t I the guy who could whip up a peanut butter sandwich on demand? Make huge purple dinosaurs appear with the flip of a TV switch? Why was I withholding her favorite toy from her? Didn’t I understand how much she wanted it?
I felt bad. Then it dawned on me: I couldn’t get Zebra, but I could offer her the next best thing — a father’s comfort. “You wish you had Zebra now,” I said to her. “Yeah,” she said sadly.
“And you’re angry because we can’t get him for you.”
“You wish you could have Zebra right now,” I repeated, as she stared at me, looking rather curious, almost surprised. “Yeah,” she muttered. “I want him now.”
“You’re tired now, and smelling Zebra and cuddling with him would feel real good. I wish we had Zebra here so you could hold him. Even better, I wish we could get out of these seats and find a big, soft bed full of all your animals and pillows where we could just lie down.” “Yeah,” she agreed.
“We can’t get Zebra because he’s in another part of the airplane,” I said. “That makes you feel frustrated.” “Yeah,” she said with a sigh.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, watching the tension leave her face. She rested her head against the back of her safety seat. She continued to complain softly a few more times, but she was growing calmer. Within a few minutes, she was asleep.
Although Moriah was just two years old, she clearly knew what she wanted — her Zebra. Once she began to realize that getting it wasn’t possible, she wasn’t interested in my excuses, my arguments, or my diversions. My validation, however, was another matter. Finding out that I understood how she felt seemed to make her feel better. For me, it was a memorable testament to the power of empathy.”