One morning, my wife Eleanor woke up, turned over, and said, "I am not looking forward to this day." I asked her why.
What came out is that we were at the start of the Jewish high holy day season, which means colder weather and three weeks of big social meals, long religious services, broken routines, and children out of school. Eleanor didn't grow up with these traditions, and they can be overwhelming.
Now, I run a management consulting company; problem solving is what I do. So it didn't take me long to jump in.
"Cold weather means ski season is about to start," I said. "You love skiing. And these holiday meals are fun and filled with people you love — they'll make you feel better. And I'll be with you; you won't be alone with the kids. Also, you know, Jesus was Jewish, so it's kind of your tradition too."
Even as I said it, I knew that last one was a reach. It became clear that I was making her feel worse and now she wasn't just sad, she was angry.
And when she got angry, I felt myself get angry too. And self-righteous. Here I am trying to help her and this is what I get?
But then I smartened up. Instead of giving in to my anger, which would have really blown things up, I shut up and listened. When I did, I began to hear the real stuff, the things that neither of us was actually saying.
What I discovered was that she was upset because the focus on mothers during the Jewish holidays taps into her insecurities about motherhood, not being a Jewish mom, and not having time to spend on her own work.
I also discovered that my own babbling wasn't so much to help her feel better as to help me feel better. I'm the reason she's in New York City, living through cold winters, and part of a Jewish family.
In other words, by trying to make her feel better, I was doing the opposite of making her feel better. I was arguing with her. In fact, most of the time when we try to make people feel better, we end up arguing with them because we're contradicting what they're feeling. Which, inevitably, makes them feel worse....
It turns out that sometimes, just listening is problem-solving.
This is an excellent piece on listening from Peter Bregman in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network. He goes on to describe the three sometimes difficult components of active listening: actually listen; repeat back; ask questions. Read the full article at the link.
Being listened to is incredibly validating. I commit to make my listening more active.