"Let me give you some advice" is the beginning of a conversation that will likely end badly. Advice is most often not understood, not accepted, or ignored, leading to passive or active conflict. Most family members need more understanding, not advice. Most families need more listeners.
Most of us think we are good listeners; but we are not. We might give someone a "turn," but while they are speaking we are already formulating our own comments. Then we pounce into the conversation understanding the "facts," but not the feelings, of the other person.
If you want to show your love to someone, try the following exercise. It is safe, simple, and over my years of teaching has brought me the undeserved credit for "saving our marriage," "helping us get engaged," or "reminding us why we love each other."
Step 1: Create a listening space
Go to a place where you are free from distractions (including cell phones) and where you will not be interrupted. Sit face-to-face across a table where you can see the non-verbal reactions that you cannot see when sitting side-by-side in a car or while walking in the park.
Step 2: Suspend
Do not make recommendations at any time. Do not inject your opinion. Do not contrast their perspective with yours or "parrot" what they have said. Suspend judgment, your role and your history. Suspending doesn't mean you are letting go of your beliefs or values; it just means that you are keeping them out of the conversation so that others can bring all that they have into a safe conversational space.
If you are a parent talking to a teenage child, you might ask, "Can we talk as friends?" If you are talking to your spouse you might say, "I just want to understand your feelings about …" Most of us assume that others are judging our words. If someone begins a conversation by saying, "You are probably not going to like this but … ," then you know they anticipate your judgment.
Step 3: Start with a safe, positive topic
Sex, religion and politics are usually not good starting points for a safe conversation. These are topics that emphasize difference. Questions that ask for safe reflection are best, even if they are not the significant issue that you want to discuss. Examples are:
What is the best lesson your mother ever taught you?
Why do you think you love (sports, hunting, scrapbooking,) so much?
Who was your best teacher or mentor growing up?
Be sure and keep them talking. Do not jump in and answer your own question with your own story. This is about them, not you.
Step 4: Ask neutral questions
Imbedded in most of our questions are implied solutions. "Have you thought about adding more sugar?" is not a neutral question. You might as well be saying, "If you want me to eat these they need to be sweeter." Worse yet are questions like, "Have you seen a therapist about that? Considered a divorce? Thought about a career change?" These are life-changing recommendations disguised as inquiry that are not backed up with information.
Most people do not know what they think until they hear what they say. It is better to keep people talking until you know what they know, and they know what they think. Try:
"Say more about … "
"How did that make you feel?"
"Why do you think you feel that way?"
Step 5: Continue for as long as you can
Five minutes is a good first effort. Beyond ten minutes, the conversation has a life of its own that causes change. We find new roles, new patterns and new expectations that lead to revelation and deeper relationships.
You do not need to have the other person's permission to do this exercise. In fact, it works best if you do it without them knowing, as a gift. Do not expect or demand reciprocity. That ruins the exercise. Just begin in a safe space to suspend judgment, talk about something safe, keep the conversation going with neutral questions, and listen. You will be amazed by the social intimacy you can create.
One student told me, "We began talking about his love for the outdoors and ended with the revelation that he had been abused as a child. He told me he had never planned to tell me because he was ashamed. I told him I was so proud of his courage. It was our best moment in seven years of marriage."
Another student said, "We were going on dates and hanging out, but she wanted to take the relationship further. I didn't know what to do. Now we are both further down the road than we expected."
My grandmother has been dead for 30 years, yet I think of her every day. Just like all of her grandchildren, I am sure I was her favorite. While we appreciate the wisdom and the wonderful stories she told about our pioneer heritage, the way she made us all feel like we are her favorite was by listening. Listening, not speaking, is the language of love. We knew that she loved us because she listened.
Scott C. Hammond, PhD, is a professor at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. He is the author of "Lessons of the Lost: Finding Hope and Resilience in Work, Life, and the Wilderness." He can be reached at scott.hammond