Surprise is the reward for listening with curiosity.
Why witnessing emotions can be challenging
When our children or partners express difficult emotions, we can quickly default to the “fix things” mode. We pepper them with questions. We grab the box of bandaids and move in with the answers leaving them little time to explore what they are feeling. Often, we do this because difficult emotions are uncomfortable or even annoying for us to witness. The sooner we fix things, the sooner we can all get back to having a nice day.
But when our loved ones are expressing difficult emotions like hurt, anger, or jealousy, we can instead choose not to try and fix things. We can choose instead to engage and to listen with curiosity. In choosing to listen in this specific way, we model a particular kind of emotional courage.
Many of us can collapse into a mirroring response when witnessing the challenging emotions of our children or partners. Tears, frustration, sadness, or anger can trigger automatic downward spiraling emotions in us. Our need to avoid discomfort can result in a response that shuts others down. For example, by quickly saying to our children, “okay, I see the problem”, and then jumping immediately to the step of fixing it, the message they take from it might be, in effect, “it’s fixed, now don’t show me that emotion any more.” (Note: We may also tend to do this with our spouses and partners.) Never mind the very real possibility that in our rush to “fix” the problem we didn’t actually address the problem at all, because our child or partner never got a chance to tell us what it was.
We, as parents and partners, can learn to witness strong emotions, giving our loved ones a chance to share what’s emerging for them without our spiraling down, but it takes time to learn this capacity, especially if no one modeled it for us when we were young. This is often the primary hurdle to more effectively holding the challenging emotional displays of those we love.
But when we choose to listen in a specific way, what we’re calling listening with curiosity, instead of trying to fix things, we discover something remarkable can happen. This is what therapist Dr. Harlene Anderson calls “withness”; the powerful process by which we bear witness to the challenging emotions of others by simply being with them.
Sometimes, all our loved ones need is for us to simply witness their challenging emotions. Nothing more. That alone can solve the problem. In fact, it can sometimes be the only way to solve the problem.
Once they share their feelings, people are often able to move through. When we listen with curiosity, avoiding the urge to suggest solutions or define what we think is happening, our loved ones have the space to find their own solutions. Often as not, it is when we immediately react, define, or seek to fix things that problems can arise.
Why is this the case? Not only does this preempt their opportunity to process with they are feeling, we can actually step right into a fight at this crucial moment. This is because our response to challenging displays of emotion from our family members is often rooted in the stories we carry about them; stories that can quickly get in the way.
When we hold on tightly to the stories we have about our loved ones, we may be quick to decide we know why someone is feeling what they are feeling based on past events and interactions. Its the stories we have created from these interactions that we rely on to predict behavior, explain actions and define what we believe to be others strengths and weaknesses. So, we listen to them in ways that seek to confirm our stories and theories of what is happening. We may even listen in ways that seek to validate something we have already had a disagreement about. “I told you this would happen…”
When being right is a liability
In the moment we are focused on confirming our stories, our attention is not on the broader more varied nuances of what our children or partner might be seeking to communicate. When we take the knowing position about what is happening, we are likely to miss signs of anything different that is emerging, thereby quashing new shoots of potential growth in order to focus on how our stories of past challenges can be applied.
Instead, listening with curiosity invites us to be surprised; to see new sides of others, children or adults, that might be emerging, to spot the positive emergent threads in what they are saying. In our curiosity, we can intentionally seek to be surprised, saying, “I don’t know what you are going to say and I’m expecting to be pleasantly surprised.” We can become participant observers, asking questions, experiencing the moment, not trying to shift things.
When we do this as parents, our children get space and support by which to explore their emotions. They learn to talk about and engage what they are feeling because we are not flooding the zone with our answers or explanations. We are not naming their emotions. We are not bringing a story that will override their own. They learn how to hang in and more calmly practice exploring their own emotional voice. This is the result of the relational space we are intentionally creating with them. Our calmness becomes their calmness. Our patience, theirs.
It is in these relational spaces that our children’s capacities blossom.
As parents, we can model for our children that they don’t have to heighten their response to big emotions occuring for themselves or others. Instead, big emotions can be seen as beauty, as the “wowness” of being human. Later in their lives, they can learn to say “Wow, what was that? That was strange what I felt. I wonder what that was?” At some point, they will be creating calm relational spaces in their relationships with others. A space in which they are intentionally “not collapsing.”
I have seen an eight year old do this.
Once, after years of sharing and talking about emotions in what is arguably an emotional family, my son, my wife Saliha and I stood on a street corner here in Manhattan. My son was eight at the time. I was having a terrible, very bad day and I just declared then and there that I was in a cranky mood.
“I’m in a rotten mood,” I said. “And I don’t even know why!” My delivery was not dark, but I was clearly declaring my mood.
Judging the level of my emotions, my son said, quite cheerfully, “Dad, that’s okay if you feel that way. But Saliha and I? We’re not getting on that train.”
“Yeah, we’re not getting on that train,” Saliha chimed in. “Whoo hooo!,” she shouted. They were tracking my tone, being playful and at the same time kind while clearly seeking to tie back to conversations we had all had about not collapsing into other’s emotions.
Both smiling broadly at me, they did a little “not getting on that train” dance on the street corner. The light changed and we started walking.
“Well, alright then. Good for you,” I declared. “Have a nice day. See if I care!”
I strode off ahead of them as the two went right on enjoying their day. Already my mood was shifting, and for good reason. Not only was my son able to clearly and comfortably differentiate between his emotional world and mine, but I was free to declare my challenging state of mind without feeling like I would wreck his or Saliha’s afternoon. What’s more, in expressing my feelings, I found they passed through pretty quickly. In part, because no one took on my mood, engaged to try and declare the source of my problem, or tried get me to shift.
Listening without jumping in to fix things is not inaction. It is a powerfully active state.
It is a process of centering yourself in order to allow an experience to play out for you and your child (or you and your dad). It is a capacity building moment, in which others are allowed to share their emotions without fearing reactive responses. This grows relational intelligence for all parties. It is felt and lived knowledge. It feels right, empowering and liberating for all.
My son’s capacity to not collapse into my mood was the result of years of successes and failures on all our parts. Of the conversations that resulted when we did collapse, sometimes spectacularly. Our growing capacities are the result of the daily conversations of life and living.
Its about making space for others
As parents, our choice to listen with curiosity gives our children ongoing opportunities to get acclimated to their own emotions while still having the calming comfort of our presence. We can acknowledge what they are feeling by asking open hearted questions instead of seeking to explain their experience for them.
Our goal is two-fold. By allowing our children to explain for themselves how they feel, we grow their and our emotional stamina, the amount of time we can attune ourselves to explore and share our emotional voices. Even emotions like anger, which at first might appear to be challenging can become less challenging and more familiar over time; eventually even shifting into new forms of empowering expression.
Secondly, making space for our children (or partners) to find their own frames for what they are feeling, results in unexpected new levels of awareness. For example, our children might choose to not name their feelings right away. When a child is free to say, “I don’t know what I feel right now but I may know later” they are essentially allowing time for what they feel to emerge. Humans are complex animals, sometimes what happens between us can’t be named or understood immediately. Children are perfectly capable of arriving at these kinds of complex layered views of human emotions when we make space for them to explore their relational ideas over time through ongoing conversations.
In this process, our task is keep them company while they find their way.
When we model for our children how to listen with curiosity, and how not to collapse into someone else’s strong emotions, we are modeling capacities that are life changing; core capacities for creating emotional connection and relational growth.
The process of practicing and growing relational intelligence takes years. We grow it in partnership with our children and partners in the little daily conversations of life. On the playground. Walking to school. In the last conversations at bedtime. The great joy here? These are rich conversations about life and living, utterly distinctive and different for every family. These conversations create the closeness and connection we long for as parents and partners. Witnessing our children use these capacities to master life’s challenges is richly rewarding. The stronger relationships we ultimately are able to create are grounded in the joy of being human.
But the most surprising part of this journey we take with our children? How much we as parents grow relational intelligence in our own lives.
Photo by: Loren Kerns
This article contains excerpts from Mark Greene and Dr. Saliah Bava’s upcoming book on growing children’s relational intelligence titled The Forever Book. To learn more, click here to join Mark’s Remaking Manhood Facebook Group or visit RemakingManhood.com.
More by Mark Greene and Dr. Saliha Bava:
Helping Our Children Create a Lifetime of Vibrant Relationships
Play the Idiot, Horrible, Stupid Game
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