As I reflect on my 2nd week of doctoral studies, I have begun to contemplate the idea of responsiveness and how it has the power to build or break relationships. As many of you know, my ultimate goal is to become a clinical psychologist. As I commence my training, I have not only heard how important responding is in a therapeutic relationship, but I have also realized how important it is with the people in your life.
How we respond to other people's expressions of vulnerability and openness creates trust and builds a safe space to share and grow. Have you ever been in a situation where you open your heart to someone and they respond in a completely inappropriate, hurtful, apathetic or insensitive way? It's not fun. In fact it can be damaging to a person's sense of self, especially if the person who responds is an important attachment figure in that other person's life. I know it is impossible to avoid saying insensitive things sometimes. We are going to make mistakes, and sometimes our responses reflect more of our own issues than our real feelings. Keeping this in mind, the purpose of this post is to focus on skills to be aware of when responding to other people's stress, anger or any other emotion possible to human existence.
Let's start with a basic tool...
DO actively listen to what the other person is saying. I've told this to my psych educational classes over and over again and I'll never stop. Listening is not just hearing the words. It is understanding and being able to reflect the content of a person's story or feelings. How do you become a better listener? Pay attention, make eye contact and stop thinking about the next thing you are going to say while another person is talking.
Now that we got covered, what happens when you are listening and someone tells you something that you don't know how to respond to?
DON'T try to minimize the person's experience. Examples of this?
"Oh everything's going to be alright in the end. Just stop worrying."
"You need to get over it. It's not as big of a deal as you think it is."
"There are bigger problems than what you are going through in the world."
There are many variations of this that may not be as straightforward as these statements. It's important to realize that a person's feelings are reality to them. Therefore by minimizing a situation or feeling you aren't getting through to them, you are shutting them off from trusting you! Even if you do feel that there is something you would like to confront them with, its not the right time when the person is in distress and is confiding in you.
DON'T make the problem about you. Listen to this e-card people! I know it may be appropriate sometimes to tell someone your own personal story of struggle and triumph in order to inspire them, but you have to find the right times for this. One extremely frustrating example of this is when you're going through some type of medical issue or sickness and a person tries to tell you about how their 2nd cousin twice removed also had this illness and then ended up having to be in the hospital for 7 days and lost their job. Everyone ALWAYS has a story about someone else's experience or their own experience that is similar to yours. Quite frankly, I don't want to hear it because its always some horror story that ends up making me anxious, which leads to me being on Web MD for 6 hours.
DON'T O.T.O. - i.e. overstate the obvious. I first heard this expression when I was 22, standing outside of a bar while a loud, intoxicated young woman passed by yelling "OTO" because she heard someone state, "Oh It's Raining!" as it started to rain. Apparently, stating the obvious was just not going to cut it for her that night. Since then, I've used it to describe a situation where someone tells me something I already know. Sometimes, when people are explaining a feeling they do not want a response like, "Oh well, you really have no choice." or "Oh, this situation sucks, I wouldn't want to be you." or "Oh well that's life, its not easy." These are obvious observations that are assumed, they don't need to be stated and do not provide a source of comfort.
DON'T give unnecessary advice. Usually, people aren't asking you to fix their problems. If you find yourself saying, "Well you should...." STOP YOURSELF! RIGHT AWAY!!!! Because most of the time, people know what they SHOULD be doing.
So what DO people want to hear? I have two magical words for you...
You may or may not understand or know what it feels like to be in someone's shoes, but by showing someone you understand them validates their feelings. I believe that all people really want when they are feeling uncomfortable feelings is to be validated and understood. It doesn't matter whether the emotions they are experiencing are rational, all that matters is that they are able to express them without shame.
Shame and fear of vulnerability is the source of many people's pain. We aren't perfect and by communicating this to others by understanding, instead of judging, their situations we can achieve stronger and long-lasting relationships.
Those are my two cents for today y'all. Have a wonderful day! I'd love to hear your thoughts.