I've always thought I was a good communicator. I have a great command of the English language, I’m intelligent, and I want to make things better for people. So, when family members come to me with a problem or issue, I figure out solutions to their problems, and I unselfishly offer up said solutions.
I couldn’t figure out why those closest to me (David and my children) would get so upset when I did this. I mean, I thought they’d be thankful that I helped them solve a problem. Instead, I got comments like, “You’re not even listening to me” (if I’m not listening, how did I solve your problem?) and, “Quit trying to fix everything” (if you don’t want me to solve your problem, why are you telling me about it?). The conversation would end with both of us feeling frustrated.
A couple of months ago, I was on a work trip. I went to a thrift store during the evening (I love shopping second-hand), and I was looking in the book section (I also love to read). I was looking in the self-improvement section (I don’t like to call those types of books self-help), and I came across a book title that stopped me in my tracks. The book was called I Don’t Have to Make Everything All Better by Gary B. Lundberg and Joy Saunders Lundberg.
To summarize the book (which I highly recommend), it goes into people’s tendency to listen to others in attempt to fix the problem, rather than listening for the purpose of empathizing with them and allowing them to fix their own problems. The book goes into why it’s not a good idea for people to immediately launch into problem-solving mode when someone is telling them about an issue they’ve encountered during the day. Basically, when you go into problem-solving mode, you tend to miss part of what the other person is saying to you because you are already trying to solve the problem. Also, this has the unintended consequence of telling the other person that they are “wrong” for feeling the way they do, and that if they would just listen to your superior advice, their lives would be so much better.
The book suggests ways to respond to someone when they come to you with a problem (it’s certainly not suggesting that you don’t respond at all). The last part of the book gives examples of having conversations with various people in your life (spouse/romantic partner, adult children, teenagers, young children, parents, friends, co-workers, etc.).
It was like a light bulb turned on in my head. THIS is why my family is always so frustrated with me! My family members are perfectly capable of solving their own problems; they want me to listen to show empathy, not to fix everything for them.
Since reading the book and working hard to implement the suggestions contained in it, I really am finding that the relationships between me and David, and between me and my children, have vastly improved. I’m obviously not perfect, and there are times when I start to offer up a solution, but I try to catch myself. David has certainly noticed the difference and he’s told me so. Additionally, it feels so good to have the pressure of needing to fix everything taken off my shoulders. I didn’t realize how stressed out I was by other people’s problems!
A few weeks ago, I was in my 12-year-old’s room. She was showing me something painful that she’d written about a year ago, when she was feeling particularly down. My usual response would have been to offer up suggestions on how to not feel that way again. Instead, I stopped myself. I asked her, “How did it make you feel when you read this?” and then asked her, “What are some things you think you can do if you ever feel like this again?” She sort of laughed, looked at me, and said, “Are you trying to do therapy on me?” I told her to hold on a minute, and I went to the other room to get the book. I showed her what I was reading, and she was really impressed that I, an adult she looks up to, was trying to improve myself. I showed my daughter that no matter how old you are, you can still make improvements to yourself.
Here’s to a lifetime of always trying to be a better person!