There’s a good chance that at some point in your life you have dealt with a loved one who consistently frustrated you with their behavior or lack luster approach to their problems. They were caught in a destructive pattern of behavior that made life difficult for everyone around them. 

It is incredibly tough to stay strong and not get overly involved when someone close to us is in trouble or hurting. We are a very caring species and prefer an environment when others are OK and settled. We even prioritize others before ourselves, which is a risky decision but shows the true caring nature of human beings. The problem though, is that when we care too much, we tend to try to help and try again when that is not the best action to take. 

In fact, the best approach is often stepping back and allowing them the space to experience life without you there. 

Often, we think we understand what is bothering someone when really, we have no clue. So, our attempts to help them are most likely misguided and we are tackling the wrong problem – and in fact, creating a new one. Because our futile attempts leave your loved one feeling more frustrated and saying things like “You just don’t get it” or “You don’t understand”. One of the downsides of being human, is thinking that we are always right, which is obviously incorrect! They get mad at you and you then get mad back at them, leaving everyone frustrated. 

So, what is the solution then? Well – it’s not them that should be listening, it’s you! 

Larry King once said, “I already know everything I know – so the only way I will learn something will be to listen to people today”. 

Remember: the problem is their responsibility & so is the solution. 

The best thing you can do is let them discover what is bothering them, through questions. By asking questions – you are showing them compassion, but also showing them that you are not trying to fix them, change them or prove something to them. You are merely curious and that’s all. They will then start to answer and give you information about where there are at. They will start to realize things they didn’t before, and you might even hear something like “I guess…I have been a bit…” which is an ah-ha moment for them. 

Here’s a test. The next time you find yourself in a difficult conversation with a loved one, approach it mindfully. When they are speaking, are you really paying attention? Or are you formulating your response before they’ve even finished their sentence?

This is human nature; we want to be problem solvers – heroes! Just let them speak and don’t interrupt. 

The idea is not to use these answers to help them. It is for them to realize what will help. It is not easy to just stand back and resist the urge to turn their answers on them – but don’t! This will make them regret opening up at all. Just say things like “Oh ok, I didn’t see it like that” or “that’s really interesting, I like the way you look at that”. Be supportive, but not a crutch.

Most people in a tricky situation are not looking for someone to solve it for them. They are just looking for someone to understand.  They want someone who will listen and not judge them or tell them what they have been doing is wrong, because let’s face it, deep down they already know that. They don’t want to hear “I told you so”. And you can avoid all of this by just listening to them. 

Here are just a few ways to improve your ability to listen to a loved one:

1. Acknowledge and validate.

Sometimes a simple nod of the head can be a powerful and validating signal of support for your loved one. The same goes for a well-placed “Mm-hmm.” These seemingly small acts show that you’re focusing on what they are saying. They also indicate that, at least for the moment, you are prioritizing their feelings over your own. And they are subtle enough expressions to avoid interrupting their train of thought. (this doesn’t mean you APPROVE their behavior – but rather you ‘get it’)

2. Take a breath.

Notice your breath as you interact with your loved one. Are you holding it in as you anxiously await your turn to speak? If you’re out of breath when you respond, it can change your tone and perceived meaning. There’s a good chance you’ll sound harsher or more impatient than you intend to be.

3. Sometimes the best advice is none at all.

It’s not easy to resist the temptation to dispense advice to a loved one who we perceive as needing the benefit of our counsel. But the danger of offering unsolicited advice to a loved one is this: it shows a lack of faith in them. And the more advice you dispense, the more you are suggesting that your ideas and solutions are better than any they can come up with themselves. You also risk condescension, no matter how noble your intentions may be. So just avoid that by simply asking – “so what do you think you’re going to do?” – and see what they say. If they don’t know yet, that’s OK. Just go with the flow. 

So, next time someone has an issue – don’t act, just react!