Listening to a Crazy Person

It feels like we are all living in cycles right now. For a long time, we do okay, we hold it together, keep calm, carry on. Then some little thing sets us off – maybe a birthday that we miss, or something at work that would have been avoided in simpler times. Maybe the weather. Possibly the news.

And then suddenly it all becomes too much to bear.

A friend called last night to say that she had just hung up on her sister. She had called her sister because she knew sis was struggling with all the cares of a working mom who is balancing her full-time, stress-laden profession, two teenagers wrestling with part-time school/part-time zoom school, all the responsibilities of running a home – with all the extra safety precautions introduced by Covid – and caring for her elderly parents in the in-law apartment. Since my friend lives several states away and their parents are not vaccinated yet, she wanted to do what she could by being supportive by phone.

And she got an earful.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about how I was faced with a similar situation. My sister was suffering. And I fell into the trap of big-sistering her by problem-solving — offering solutions — instead of being a compassionate listener. It was kind of a relief to hear that my friend had done the same thing because it makes me have more compassion for myself: I’m not a monster – many humans make this mistake. It’s a human mistake. It’s human nature to make this mistake.

What is ironic is that my friend, who is parenting a special-needs child, often has the same complaint about her sister. When my friend needs a safe place to share her fears, to set her burden down, get support, feel reassured that she’s not a monster mommy because she’s exhausted and doesn’t have all the answers, she calls her sister. And then calls and yells at me because her sister goes into problem-solving mode.

There are enough problems out there to go around. We all have our own problems that we are struggling with. We don’t need to solve other people’s problems.

A phrase I read somewhere that has stuck with me is:

What that person needs is a good listening to.

What does a good listening to mean?

  • Listening more than you speak. You can’t listen when your mouth is moving. What do you do while listening? You could try silently repeating their words in your head in a neutral tone – this is a good way of staying focused. Or, if the content becomes too overwhelming, put your hand on your heart – the way you would put your hand on the back of a toddler who is crying, or a young animal who is sleeping – and focus on breathing.
  • Use body language or sounds to show you’re listening. If they can see you – you’re in person or on zoom – nod your head or make sympathetic faces to show you’re following along. If you’re on the phone, an uh-huh or mm-hmm every now and then works.
  • Give them time. As you know, when you’re hot, there’s nothing that makes you angrier than someone rushing you along.
  • When they pause or run down, reflect back to them the emotions you heard. Wow, it sounds like you’ve really had it! If you can, use their own words. You can also do this as a question: I’m sensing that you’ve really had it – is that right? Or, it worries you when you put systems in place to protect your parents from Covid, and then they ignore them. It’s helpful, if possible, to say these things with some level of empathy: not in a neutral tone of voice but with a slight tinge of the emotion that they are feeling. You don’t have to – and it’s not healthy for you to – feel the emotion at the level they do. But if your tone and/or body language can reflect the emotion at a less extreme level, they will hear that you understand their emotion.
  • If it makes sense, ask questions about the sequence of events. I got a little lost there – what exactly happened when you came home tonight? Oh, and then they… Ohhh… that really made you mad! Here you are, trying to keep them safe and they just ignore your precautions!
  • Find something to apologize compassionately for. I’m sorry that you’re suffering. I’m sorry that your parents make you crazy. You’re letting them know that you hear them, that you have compassion for their suffering as a human being. It’s important not to make this about you – I’m sorry – I feel terrible that I can’t be there – because this isn’t about you: it’s about them. Nothing made me angrier than when I opened up to my mother about a really bad problem I had with a relative and she made it about her failures as a mother. In that moment, I didn’t care about her failures as a parent, I was talking about me and I needed her response to be about me. (I would have been happy to discuss her failures as a parent – but not right then.)
  • And finally, ask what feels like help to them right then. You have to wait until this point to ask this question. It may not happen on that call. If you ask too early, they may jump in with something extreme – leave your job and come take care of the parents right away so I can get a break! but if you wait until they’ve simmered down, their request may become more reasonable. They may even say, Nothing, I just needed to vent. Thank you.

But, you object, you can see what they need to do – it all seems so clear, so simple and easy, if they could only see it. When do I get to share that with them?

When they ask. Or – at the very end, after you’ve asked what feels like help – you could ask, Are you open to suggestions? If they give you permission, you can share. If they don’t, bite your tongue.

And if it becomes too much, if they are going on like a broken record and you just can’t handle all the emotions, leap up out of your chair – that part is important because your voice needs to reflect that sense of urgency – shout Oh no! and then say something along the lines of, So sorry – got to go! The important thing is your tone of voice: it has to sound urgent enough but not like an armed gunman just entered the room; your tone should convey the level of urgency of the cat just knocked my glass of red wine into my laptop. If you do this right – and it may require some practice – you can use it at any time during the call, even if your loved one is going full spate, and hang up without waiting for a response…. without them realizing that you had hung up on them. (Make sure you text them later to reassure them that the house wasn’t on fire.)

Give it a shot and let me know how it works out.

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