Recently a friend and I were talking about communication. More specifically, communication breakdowns between two people. Why does that happen? Who is at fault (if anyone)? How can we make things better? When do we stop trying?
“It’s not about the nail” my friend said. “The nail?” I asked. (Hmmm, maybe there’s a communication problem here, too!). “It’s not about the nail” my friend repeated, searching his phone, then passing it to me. I clicked on the YouTube link and 1 minute and 42 seconds later I said “Ohhhhh. You’re absolutely right. It’s NOT about the nail.”
The message that I took away is that sometimes we need to step back, pause and listen. Really listen. Not just to what the person is saying, but to what they AREN’T saying. Do they want a solution? Did they ASK for a solution? Or do they want empathy and validation? Is our view of the problem the same as theirs? What need are we trying to fill for our self in our response?
Even though it seems clear as day that this poor woman’s headaches and snagged sweaters could be resolved by simply yanking that nail out of her forehead, that’s not what she’s asking for. Never once does she say to her husband “Could you help me fix this problem”. She just wants to be heard!
This video resonated with me because it could easily have been me sitting on the left hand side of the couch with any one of my daughters, repeatedly rehashing an (obvious to me) problem. The nail is metaphorically any number of issues, worries, concerns or frustrations.
Perhaps our most frequent battle was over self-care. Whenever one of my daughters melted down, felt overwhelmed or simply couldn’t cope, I zoomed right past her tearful or angry vent, barely hearing more than the first sentence, and blurted out the (incredibly obvious to me) solution. “You know, if you’d just make an effort to get a decent night’s sleep, take your meds on time, eat healthy, nutritious foods . . . you’d feel a whole lot better”. And, true to form, the response was an escalated “You’re NOT LISTENING TO ME”!!!! “It’s NOT about sleep. That has NOTHING to do with this”!!!! Followed by the classic twist of the knife “you just don’t UNDERSTAAANNDD!!!!” Basically, I was saying ‘If you’d just take that nail out of your head . . . ‘ instead of ‘life is really overwhelming for you, isn’t it? I am so, so sorry for what you are going through’.
The flaw with my approach is that I skipped right over the here and now and addressed the past (can’t change it) and the future (can’t predict it). Sure, there is a lot to be learned from past mistakes and applied to the future through proactive planning. But the problem right here, right now, is about the present. It’s about how my child is feeling, not about how they messed up or could do better in the future. They already feel bad enough, they don’t need to have their shortcomings or errors of way thrown back in their face. Particularly when they are struggling with unstable moods.
Why is that SO hard for me to do?? Because I’m a mom, a friend, a daughter and I care. Deeply. With all the joys that come from these relationships also comes the potential for great pain. I can’t bear to see the people I love so deeply struggling, suffering, giving up. I want to make everything better by using all of the skills and tools I’ve amassed in the past 55 years. I mistakenly assume that the deeper the anguish, the more urgent and difficult the solution.
I’d like to think that over the years I’ve become a bit more understanding and learned to follow the message in the video. While I’ve by no means perfected this approach, I have found that when I can stop my brain from flooring the gas pedal and shifting into 5th gear, the conversations are a lot more peaceful. Instead of blurting out a solution (which may come across as criticism), I’m learning to stay in low gear and focus on the words and emotions, verbal and non-verbal cues. If I can truly listen, put myself in my daughters’ shoes, I have a fighting chance of being able to respond in a way that is supportive and helpful.
Sure, this approach may not appear to fix things, that’s exactly the point. Fix what? And by whose standards? Setting aside our own need to control, offer a quick solution, stop the pain, allows us to be of service and usefulness. It puts us on the path of meaningful healing. Instead of escalating the emotions and frustrations, we have an opportunity to slow down the pace, catch our breath and reaffirm that we are someone who can be trusted and counted on.
Yes, but . . . what about the nail??? Are we supposed to ignore it and continue to be a sounding board for the increasingly tiresome complaints? What if she starts hemorrhaging? What if she falls and pushes the nail in deeper, doing some lasting damage? What if our loved one stays on the same path, ignoring the tools and resources that could bring an illness into remission or at least lesson the symptoms?
These are valid concerns that I’ll write about in Part 2 “It’s Not About the Nail But It’s Also Not About the Hammer’. Until then, try to leave the nail alone.