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Why Helping Your Friend or Loved One Doesn’t Seem to Help At All

woman with hands over her ears.We hate to see people we care about upset or hurting in any way and we want to figure out how to make it better. This is a very caring and loving response and it is the very thing that gets us into hot water in our relationships.

I see this unfold all the time in sessions with couples and family members.  A typical scene might go something like this between a mom and her teenage daughter:

Daughter: “I just don’t know what’s wrong with me. No guys ever ask me out and I’m tired of being the only one of my friends who doesn’t have a boyfriend.”

Mom: “Well what you need to do is to start going to more football games.  The boys are not hanging out at the Starbucks ordering macchiatos like you and your friends are.”

Daughter:(Big eye roll) “Just forget it Mom you don’t understand anything.”

Mom:(looking at me completely bewildered) “I don’t know what I did that was so offensive. I’m just trying to help.”

And there it is, the combination of frustration on one side and complete non-comprehension on the other.

It’s easy to see how this may inhibit conversation from both sides. What is the point of trying to talk if it ends up with both parties just feeling frustrated?

The good news is that it doesn’t have to go this way.

What I tell my clients is that it’s wonderful they want to help and there may be a time for it but that that is step 2 and first you have to deal with step 1.

Step 1 is understanding.

No one is going to be interested in your help or advice if they feel you do not understand them first. The other good news is that if you stop and really look at your loved one you will get instant feedback as to whether or not you are succeeding with step 1. It’s amazing when someone who was engaged starts tuning out when their loved one heads into step 2.  The daughter might start to look around, roll her eyes, shake her head ‘no,’ look at the books on my bookshelf–and the mother just keeps talking!  I see this all the time with couples also and I’m amazed how a partner will just keep talking in spite of the obvious signs of tune-out. Maybe this is where my theatrical training comes in handy but, people, you have to pay attention and know when you have lost your audience.  When I have people in session I will stop this behavior and ask, ‘have you noticed your loved one is looking all around or rolling their eyes?’  People will often say ‘yes’ but they figure if they just keep talking maybe their partner will tune back in(?).  If you’re jumping to step 2–no they won’t!  I’ll then explain how we need to back up and go back to step 1.

What do we do at step 1?

We turn and look at our partner and we truly listen. We try to empathize, we nod to show we are listening and then we try to convey caring when we acknowledge what we have heard. This does not mean, “I heard you, now you can’t just sit at home if you want to meet people.” Don’t just say you heard them–reflect back to them what you think they are feeling. So Mom might say to daughter “I’m sorry daughter. You sound sad and left out that your friends all seem to be in relationships and you don’t know why you aren’t.” And watch what daughter does. I will see daughter nod, look at mom, maybe start to be more vulnerable and cry or she will add more to what she started saying. These are the golden nuggets of feedback you’re looking for and how you will know instantly that you are succeeding. And if you can have your daughter or partner feel like you understand then you may not need step 2 or you may find that step 2 can feel more collaborative and engaging. You can both work on solving the problem and your loved one will be more open to your ideas.  Try it and let me know how it goes!

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