Written By – Nian Wan
Picture this: You were scrolling through Instagram until your friend spoke.
“Hey, there’s something that I need to tell you,” she said. Eyes still glued to your phone screen, you asked, “Yeah ok. What is it?”
“Yesterday I fought with my dad. I told him that I don’t want to go to the family dinner this week. Then he started to argue with me and said that I absolutely must be there. But I don’t want to!” She said, throwing her hands in the air exasperatedly.
You were about to double-tap when you realized that she was looking at you.
In that split second you knew that it was your social obligation to say something in response to your friend’s situation. So you asked: “Why can’t you go to the family dinner in the first place? Why did you guys fight?”
Her: “I’m having EOS soon so I really want to study for it instead.”
You: “Okay, but there’s still 1 month before EOS. Why do you need to sacrifice this family dinner for study?”
Her: “Because I think that I really need to study hard this semester. I didn’t do that well last semester. But anyway, I’m just so mad that he didn’t even try to listen to my explanation. Ugh! Why is he like this?”
Little did you know, you’ve already made a conversational faux pas, one included in the list of “7 ways to respond to people that deny connection, make the other person feel unheard, and are ultimately just bad ways to respond”, as explained by famous Youtuber Anna Akana. While the source of this information – How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & How to Listen so Kids Will Talk, is a parenting self-help book, its curriculum applies to any interpersonal relationship (the title might as well be How to Talk so People Will Listen & How to Listen so People Will Talk).
What you’ve done just now was “Questioning”. You were questioning the validity of your friend’s response to the situation. Then you tried to help your friend to think from her father’s perspective (Mistake #2: Defense of the other person). Who knows, maybe she’ll understand and feel better.
You: “Maybe he just wanted you to be there because he thinks that a family gathering isn’t wholesome without you. Also, I feel like tradition is very important to him, and it’s painful for him to see the tradition broken.”
Her: “Um, ok? But even so, I just want him to listen to me for once.”
Here comes mistake #3: philosophical response.
You: “Look, life is like that. We don’t always get what we want. Sometimes we just have to suck it up. Actually, we all have struggles of our own but somehow these problems will make us better people in the end. I remember there’s a saying that God only gives his hardest battles to his strongest soldiers, something like that.”
Final blow: Advice.
You: “You know what, I think you should totally try to talk to your father about this. I know it might be difficult, but nothing good is ever easy. In fact, I feel like you should apologize to him, no matter whether you’re right or wrong-”
Her: “Yeah ok. I’m tired of talking about this. Let’s not talk about this anymore.”
You shrugged and went back to scrolling through Instagram.
Why is it that these responses are conversation killers? Questions aimed at challenging your friend’s reaction towards a situation can make her feel as if she did something wrong, and this puts her on defensive mode. The atmosphere of the conversation can easily switch from casual to interrogative if you ask too many “why” questions. Similarly, defending the other party involved in the situation may also make your friend feel as if she’s the one at fault. Although you may feel that helping your friend to look from the other person’s perspective can diffuse her negative emotions, chances are, she feels even more misunderstood. Thirdly, a philosophical response like “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” which is your life motto (also your WhatsApp Status) may have a certain degree of truth to it. But you don’t need to explain how her suffering is a blessing in disguise – she will be much more able to see it for herself if she feels understood. And lastly, giving advice, a mistake that almost all of us are guilty of just isn’t a really good way to support someone emotionally. Even if the advice works, it denies her the experience of tackling the problem and finding her way out.
A key aspect of having a good conversation is empathy. The concept is simple – but not easy. Faber and Mazlish, authors of the above-mentioned book, said that practising empathy doesn’t come naturally to us, as most of us grew up with our feelings denied. But fortunately one can master the language of empathy through deliberate practice. If empathy is involved, the conversation can be very different.
Her: “Hey, there’s something that I need to tell you.”
You: (puts away your phone and looks at her attentively) “Sure. What is it?”
Her: “Yesterday I fought with my dad. I told him that I don’t want to go to a family dinner this week. Then he started to argue with me and said that I absolutely must be there. But I don’t want to!”
You paid very close attention to what she had said this time. While she was talking, you nodded your head and leaned towards her to listen to her better.
You: “I see. Looks like you felt angry that your dad doesn’t listen to you, am I right?”
That simple sentence that you’ve just said, is an example of ‘reflection’. You named the feeling that you deducted from her story and sought for her clarification.
Her: “Yes! I’m so angry! I hate it when he did that.”
And now, instead of questioning her response, you ask questions in an attempt to understand her situation and allow her to express freely.
You: “Hey, can you like, tell me more so that I understand your situation better?”
Her: “Ok. Actually I don’t want to go to the family dinner because I want to study for EOS. My results were pretty bad last time so I really don’t want to mess up again. I tried to tell him that, but he didn’t even give me a chance to explain.”
This time you stuck to her point of view and did not defend her dad.
You: “Mmhmm. You really cared about your results and hoped that your dad can understand your situation also right?”
Her: “Yeah… I just really hope that he’ll let me miss this gathering. Though I do know that he wants me to be there because my grandparents would like to see me. And I want to see them too actually. I don’t know, maybe I can work something out.”
By actively listening to her, you’ve allowed her to process her feelings and she became more able to cope with her problem. It even seemed that she’s finding solutions on her own, without your advice! Active listening can build trust as the other person realizes that we are listening attentively. This invites people to open up as they can sense that we are not jumping to conclusions based on superficial details. That’s why this empathetic way of communication can help people to gain a clearer perspective of their problem and realize what they needed to do all along.
An important thing to note is that it can be almost impossible to follow the guidelines outlined above when trying to practise empathy. So, no need to beat yourself up if you accidentally advised someone in need. Also, some people might really need outside help to solve their problems though it may be more empathetic to not suggest solutions. Thus, it’s absolutely necessary to exercise good judgement when trying to help someone emotionally.
- Click, L. (2017). Want to be More Empathetic? Avoid These 7 Responses. Retrieved 27 July 2020, from https://medium.com/@lauraclick/want-to-be-more-empathetic-avoid-these-7-responses-21bb52d5d2ad
- Eden, W. (2016). Summary of How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Can Talk. Retrieved 27 July 2020, from http://becomingeden.com/summary-of-how-to-talk-so-kids-will-listen-listen-so-kids-can-talk/
- Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (2012). How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. Scribner. https://books.google.com.my/books?id=2KFcJln1ozIC