On Fixing and Listening

Preface: this post is not about any particular person.  It’s a general statement, that’s all.

When I post here about things in my life that are screwed up, it’s not because I expect or want you to fix it.  Let’s be honest: you probably can’t fix it, but that’s okay.  It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.  It doesn’t mean you don’t care.  It just means that my problems are not the kind that other people can fix.

I know when I try to fix things for people, it’s motivated by genuine care for them.  If I don’t give half a shit about a person, I’m not going to bother investing thought, time, or energy in improving their situation.  I believe it’s human nature to want to ease the suffering of people we care about, and that’s a good part of human nature.  Perhaps the best part.

But easing someone’s suffering doesn’t always mean fixing (or attempting to fix) the situation that’s causing them pain.  Sometimes, fixing the situation removes the immediate pain but prolongs the long-term suffering.  Sometimes fixing the situation deprives the person of learning to fix the problem themselves.  Sometimes fixing the problem makes the person feel like they’ve lost control of their own life.  Sometimes fixing makes the person feel like they are the problem because people would rather fix them than listen to them.

A year and a half ago, I took an intro course in nonviolent communication.  I didn’t buy the premise at first–I remember explaining to someone, “Look, sometimes FUCK YOU is the only reasonable answer,” which is something I still believe.  (I have unresolved issues around being trained never to get angry and always forgive people who hurt you; i.e., allow them to keep hurting you.)  I went mostly because a friend of mine was one of the facilitators, and she was worried that nobody was going to show up.  I still think a lot of NVC is pop psychology meets pseudo-Buddhism, but I did find some of it useful.  One session early one, we were partnered up.  One partner was supposed to describe a recent event that provoked mild but difficult feelings–only they had to describe only the event, with no feelings.  The other person was supposed to listen, summarize their understanding of the event, and then guess at the other person’s feelings and the emotional needs related to that event.  Along the lines of, “So, when that happened, did you feel angry and need understanding?”  My partner described a situation where some neighborhood kids were throwing rocks at passing cars.  The first words out of my mouth were, “I hope you called the cops on them!”

My first instinct was to fix, to prescribe, but that wasn’t the point of the exercise.  The point was to listen and reflect, and then to guess at the need without assuming you knew what the need was or how the other person should fulfill that need.  But my natural inclination was to feel angry at the kids on behalf of my partner and tell him how I thought he should’ve solved the problem.  But when I did that, it cut off the meaningful dialogue in which my partner could’ve found understanding and empathy from me.  I imagine if I’d been him, I might’ve felt defensive then if I hadn’t called the police.  “Well, they were just kids.  They were making bad choices, but they didn’t deserve to be arrested.”  “But they could’ve seriously injured a driver or caused a wreck!”  “But they didn’t.”  In a conversation like that, there’s no real listening or understanding.  Now we’re both defensive and hurt, and that makes it nearly impossible to listen.

That’s not how the conversation played out with my partner during this exercise.  I quickly realized what I was doing and apologized.  My partner wasn’t hurt and didn’t get defensive.  I imagine that’s why the exercise specified using a scenario that evoked only mildly difficult feelings–when you’re dealing with strong difficult feelings, it’s much easier to get hurt and get defensive because your feelings are already so raw.

Another thing we talked about in this NVC class was how to tell people that their actions hurt you without blaming them.    The popular “I statement” formula is supposed to do that, but my experience is that it often fails.  It’s very easy to make an I statement blame-y: “When you slam the door all the time, it triggers my PTSD.”  It’s almost impossible not to feel blamed, at least for me.  (This may be my baggage; my emotionally abusive mother misused I statements against me frequently, intentionally making them blame-y and hurtful.  But other people in this class, who probably didn’t have that same experience, also said similar things.)  My tendency in conversations that might require I statements or similar formulae is to shift all the blame onto myself, but that’s not useful either.  The formula that NVC uses is “When X happens between us, I feel Y.  I need Z; can you do ZZ thing to meet that need?”  For instance, “When we’re in the house together and you close the door loudly, I feel scared.  I need safety, so could you try to remember to close the doors gently?”  And the other thing NVC teaches you is that you have to understand that the other person may say no, or you may have to negotiate more so that everybody involved gets their needs met as much as possible.

So here’s my statement.

When I come to my blog and write about how much I’m struggling, it’s because it’s an outlet for me, and writing is the way I process things best.  Most of the time, getting lots of suggestions or solutions makes me feel like I’m not trying hard enough, and I get worried people will think I’m too negative if I say I’ve already tried something and it didn’t work.  I need to listening, validation, and acceptance.  If I ask for advice, great–advise away!  If I don’t ask for advice, it helps to hear that people understand what I’m going through, to hear how they relate, to have people bounce thoughts and ideas around, to know that I’m not in need of rescue because I’m not going to be swept out to sea by any of the crap I’m dealing with, to hear that people are listening and caring and valuing my thoughts and feelings and experiences.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “On Fixing and Listening

  1. I like this post Hope. Very insightful words. XXX

  2. Bourbon

    Great post. Reminded me of a conversation with Cat where she said that the reason I am never “too much” is because I don’t rely on her to fix things; short term or long. SHe can be that listener and it takes the pressure off a lot for her. I guess it’s the same for your readers. They can feel pressured into making helpful suggestions but actually you writing all this is going to take that pressure off x

  3. Owl

    I am like that too — when I talk, I very rarely want advice unless I specifically ask for it. I don’t like it when I try to express myself and my frustration about a problem, and then someone’s saying, “all you have to do is THIS!” as if I hadn’t considered that option. I think part of it is about people making my problem (whatever I’m talking about) seem easy to solve…when it isn’t.

    Anyway, I hear you!

  4. Thanks, I needed to hear this.

  5. I love NVC!!! I’m in both a weekly online course (I can send you the link if you’re interested) and in a twice-monthly in person practice group. Have you ever done a practice group?

  6. I understand this and it is clear that you are trying very hard. Although it seems like you may not be in the best place to take this in, some people can listen and care and value your experience, while also offering suggestions which are genuinely well-intended. If people offer me unhelpful advice, I kindly but firmly dismiss it. That’s what I’ve learned to do – take what’s useful, and leave the rest.
    I often offer encouragement and advice because I feel it would be remiss not to, if someone is suffering a lot. And your blog can be alarming to read, and really make a person want to help in any way possible. But, I’ll be more careful with you after reading this.

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