Swap lecturing for listening for better relationships

Tracey Folly

Why listening is always better than offering this harmful advice: "This is what you should have done."

There's always someone with a problem.

Maybe it’s your son or your daughter, or maybe it’s your spouse or partner. It could be your next-door neighbor or your best friend. He/she/they come to you with a problem. School is stressful. Work is frustrating. Life is hard. Fortunately, you’ve got this. You know exactly what they should have done — in every situation.

“This is what you should have done,” you say. You take a deep breath in preparation for describing, in great detail, exactly what your loved one should have done. There’s only one problem: Your job isn’t to lecture; it’s to listen.

If you want to frustrate someone while dispensing advice that can only be taken by using a time machine, then, by all means, keep offering heartfelt and longwinded instructions on what they should have done.

Otherwise, learn to listen twice as much as you speak — maybe three times as much — and whatever else you do, don’t tell people what they should have done. Why? Because what they should have done is irrelevant.

What you should have done was buy the winning lottery ticket. What you should have done was marry your soulmate when you had the chance. You should have lost twenty pounds ten years ago. You should have learned to drive a stick shift, bake cookies from scratch, play the ukulele, and solve for X in algebra class — just in case.

What you should have done was listen to your son when he didn’t make the honor roll instead of telling him he should have studied harder.

What you should have done was listen to your daughter when she told you she got the promotion at work, but she didn’t get the raise she expected, instead of telling her how she should have handled it.

When your partner says they scratched the car pulling into the garage, they don’t need to be reminded that it’s the same car they have been pulling into the same garage for years. They don’t need a lesson on how they should have driven two inches farther to the right, or slower, or parked on the street instead.

So, the next time you have the desire to tell someone what they should have done, put yourself in their shoes right now — not their shoes from five minutes, five hours, or five days ago. Is there something you can do to show your support while staying in the moment? There sure is! It’s called listening.

What would you want to hear if you were in their position? Would you be looking for comfort or advice? It’s doubtful that you would want advice about what you could have done, but didn’t do.

Since going back in time to fix a bad experience at work, school, or your relationships isn’t an option, hearing about what you could have done differently won’t typically bring comfort. On the other hand, paying rapt attention and listening while the other person vents their frustrations can really help them calm down and put things into perspective.

When you get the urge to tell someone — anyone — what they should have done instead of listening and lending support while they tell you what they did, stop, drop everything, and listen. You might be surprised at the difference it makes in your relationships.

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Writing about relationships online since 2009.

Boston, MA

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