If you want to know one of the gold standard phrases for effective communication with another human being, say this outloud. NOW.
“Do you want me to listen, or do you want me to comment?”
Did you exhale right then as you heard it in your own mind? Were you hit with a wave of peace at the thought? Did you think of a list of people you would like to hear this from in your real world? Family members? Friends? Spouses? Co-workers? Parents? Keep going, the list is long. The idea that we could decide how people respond to our sharings is powerful. The idea that we can request listening only as an option is unheard of. Too often someone gives their own commentary on our sharings when we aren’t looking for that.
Denny McLoughlin coined the phrase “Do you want me to listen or do you want me to comment?” and I’ve eaten it whole. It also works great with teenagers if you curious. Teenagers love it. The teens I’ve taught this to plead with me, “Will you teach that to my parents?”
There have been a number of times, at the camp I worked at, when a teen shared something personal and heartfelt with me. I responded with “Do you want me to listen or comment?”
The teen would say, “Listen.”
And I would listen. I would usually have things to say, but I would bite my tongue and try to enjoy the fact that the only thing I had to do right then was Listen. Not come up with something brilliant, I only had to hear them.
Then, after listening, nodding and soaking up what they said, they almost always said, “Ok, you can comment now.”
It is empowering to control who gets to comment on your life. And when they do comment, it is because we invited them in, rather than finding out they had broken down the door.
This line tends to go hand in hand with another one of Denny’s teachings.
“Any unasked for advice is criticism.”
Sit with that for a second—Any unasked for advice is criticism—and think of the number of times someone has suggested what you should do, or how you should feel, or how you need to react to some situation. Did you want to punch them? Did you find yourself suddenly annoyed? Was it maybe because their comments felt like they were saying, “You aren’t doing this right.”?
This happens a lot in the health world. If you have a disease, people have opinions.
Some of my personal favorites are “Have you ever thought of seeing a specialist about this?”
I also remember repeatedly being told, “Have you talked to a naturopath?”
Other times their opinions came in the form of how to handle what was happening, “You know you just need to stay positive.”
All of these types of comments, these comments that were not requested, are intended to help. They are intended to show me how much they care and want to be supportive. But the reality is they often have the opposite effect.
Of course I have thought of seeing a specialist. I AM seeing a specialist. I am seeing multiple specialists. I’ve got a whole team of special people. I’m up to my neck in specialists. (If you worry a disease will affect your ability to be sarcastic, I am here to reassure you, it will not.)
No, I have not seen a naturopath. I have nothing against them, but I’m already pretty overwhelmed by all the other stuff this disease entails.
And lastly, I’m don’t always feel positive. Maybe I’m not supposed to always feel positive. When you suggest that I should be positive, and I don’t feel like it—when I am sick and tired of being sick and tired—you indirectly suggest that I am not handling this the “right” way.
Unasked for advice is criticism. Even unintended. It is why we bristle when we hear it. It is why our eyebrows knit together, why we take a deep breath, why we bite our tongue.
Instead, here are some comments I find immensely more helpful. Feel free to steal them.
“Sounds like a lot to manage. Can I bring you chocolate?”
“Any awesomely weird side-effects from the drugs you want to talk about?”
“If you ever want to bitch about this, feel free to call. I’m all ears.”
Now that’s the kind of comment I want to hear.