Tuesday, November 10, 2015

How not to fix a problem

Lately I've become a bit of a podcast nerd. Spending hours in the car driving to and from work, I find few things as entertaining and miraculously distracting as episodes of The Nerdist Podcast, Gilmore Guys, Lore, and many many other terrific programs.

Today, during my commute travails, I spent half an hour listening to the newest episode of Dear Hank and John, a somewhat inaccurately labeled "comedy podcast" from YouTube's very own VlogBrothers.

In the natural flow of their conversation and in answering a listener's question, John mentioned something that struck a chord with me which -- upon reflection -- I believe to be one of the most important aspects to maintaining healthy and loving relationships. So I thought I'd share it here on The Songs of Spring.

The question read:
"Dear Hank and John,  
There must be a better way to express empathy than saying 'I'm sorry.' Saying 'I'm sorry' places blame on the person expressing empathy and normally causes the person receiving empathy to reply with something along the lines of ‘It's not your fault’ or even worse misplacing negative feelings towards someone who is genuinely trying to voice compassion to their situation. I've taken to saying 'Yo bro, I know that feel,' but in some situations it seems improper. What do you guys think? Is there better vocabulary that can be used to express empathy?"
To which John began explaining the concept of "empathic listening," which he learned about while working as a student chaplain at a children's hospital.
"So an example of empathic listening might be that someone tells you that they’re feeling very sad and you say 'I'm hearing that you're feeling very sad right now'...Obviously, in a perfect world you want to phrase it a little more subtly than that so that it doesn't feel awkward in conversation. But it is, at least in my experience, astonishingly effective. Just to acknowledge what someone else is feeling and to acknowledge that you hear what they’re feeling is really powerful."
This brought the brothers into a discussion on the inherent problem of offering solutions to problems when a solution is not requested.
Hank: "And don't do the thing that I do which is, 'Well here's how you can fix your problem.'"
John: "No, do not go to problem-fixing. Because A) it does not work B) when it is time for problem-fixing, people will start to bring up solutions instead of bringing up problems. And also, in most cases of pain there is no easy solution. The job is not to find a solution, the job is to find less aloneness within it."
This is an issue I've observed hundreds of times in my own life and in the lives of those around me. I've been on both sides of the situation, and I feel I can see the reality with some clarity.

Often in our relationships we offer our shoulders to cry on, but only for so long. We patiently listen, but after a while we resort to trying to fix the perceived problem. It always seems like the right thing to do at the time. We're satisfying the most beautiful human desire: to help.

But the most beneficial choice we can make as confidantes is to offer ourselves with no strings attached, to listen compassionately and without agenda. The very act of offering a solution can seem in itself dismissive. We risk alienating those we love the most by not hearing them out, but instead talking over them with what we believe is wisdom.

This all comes down to the root of all positive relationships, which is understanding and respect. When we love someone, whether it be as a friend, a romantic partner, a family member, or what have you -- we owe it to them to treat them with patience and consider their needs before acting. Often, just having someone to listen to a problem is enough to make the problem go away — or at least make it easier to contend with.

It's such an easy choice we can make, to listen. It's really the simplest solution of all.

If you're interested in listening to the entire podcast episode I'm referencing, find it below. The question quoted above is read at 20:15.

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