Sometimes It’s Best Just to Listen

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by Kate Delany |

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I guess I would say I am a problem solver by nature. When it comes to my loved ones, I am more so. I am protective, perhaps overly so! When I hear loved ones complain about a problem in their lives, a little voice inside my head says, “You need to fix this.”

It’s taken me awhile to learn that reacting that way is not particularly helpful for me or the person confiding in me. Maybe I can assist — and maybe not. Maybe the assistance I give is by simply listening. As the Alice in Wonderland/Buddhist mindfulness quote goes, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Don’t just advise, listen.

As a parent, of course, the people I feel most compelled to solve problems for are my kids. One is in middle school; one is in elementary school. And they both come home with problems. The kid who shoved in the lunch line. The teacher who gave work that was hard and confusing. The playground aide who didn’t let them play kickball.

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I wouldn’t say that I’m a helicopter parent, but when my kids confide in me or vent to me about problems in their lives, my natural goal is to strategize how we solve these issues. Though I’m many years into mothering, I’ve just now learned that before I launch into a plan to fix problems, I should ask, “Do you want my help with that?”

The first time I checked myself and asked my elder child that, I was surprised by how quickly and confidently they told me no. Just the feeling of being heard seemed to have brought them some peace and resolution. They didn’t want me to solve the issue. They wanted their feelings validated and to share the weight of their intense emotions.

Having grown up in a house where health crises were the norm, I think it is hard-wired in me to hear of a problem and want to leap to action. As the older and well sibling of a cystic fibrosis patient, parentification was part of my upbringing as I took on challenges beyond my maturity and bandwidth. Perhaps the ultimate sign of maturity is knowing your limits.

However, the need to solve problems for others has always been more about control and a way of managing my own anxiety. Offering empathy and support can be more helpful than offering advice, which might come across as judgment.

Two concepts help me bite my tongue and stop giving unsolicited advice to my kids and others dealing with stressful situations. First, I’ve started taking even more care to differentiate between what linguist Deborah Tannen describes as report talk versus rapport talk.

Report talk involves relaying the facts in the interest of analysis and reaching a constructive solution to a problem. Certainly we all use language this way. However, we also use rapport talk when we just want to connect, to express ourselves. Rapport talk is less about answers and more about intimacy and solidarity.

Second, I am also more mindful about setting and observing boundaries. It is not my job to take on other people’s problems. They deserve to be treated as autonomous beings, and so do I. Seeing one another as separate means seeing one another as individuals who are complex and worth fully knowing and hearing.

Though it’s natural to want to show caring for loved ones when they are facing difficult times, trying to solve their problems is not the real fix. Empathy, listening, and respecting their autonomous personhood is.

Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.


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