When You Can't Listen Another Minute
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When You Can't Listen Another Minute

An excerpt from The Dance of Connection, by Harriet Lerner, PhD.

When You Can't Listen Another Minute

We all have our limits on how available we are to listen, just as we all have our limits on how much we can do or give.

We may feel weighed down by the other person's grousing, which can take up too much space in the relationship and feel like a tape automatically going round and round. If that other person happens to be a family member, our own mood may spiral downward in response to these chronic expressions of worry or negativity. If the other person rejects our best efforts to help, and takes no positive action on his or her own behalf, the challenge of compassionate listening is especially great. It may be difficult for the listener to get past the need to be helpful and to accept the reality that the complaining party is not able or willing to take steps to solve a problem or to move out of a negative space.

Indeed, when our capacity to listen has been exceeded, we need to find a way to end the conversation or move it in a different direction. The goal is to protect the self without acting at the expense of the other.

"On and On, Anon"

No how-to tip captures the quality of pure attention that occurs when we listen best, when we are fully emotionally present without judgment or distraction, when we are fully open and receptive to what the other person is saying without having to change, fix, correct, or advise.

We all are capable of much deeper levels of listening than we may ever tap into and it's well worth the effort -- listening well is at the heart of intimacy and connection. When we are able to truly listen, the other person feels validated and enhanced -- and we do too. Surely human consciousness would take a big leap forward if our wish to hear and understand were as great as our wish to be heard and understood.

But in everyday life, we can't always do that. Countless factors can make us want to stuff a sock in the other person's mouth or stick our fingers in our own ears. Adult daughters are especially sensitive to complaining mothers or mother's in law, and understandably so. The relationship between mother and daughter is never simple, and a daughter often has trouble sorting out where responsibility to her mother ends and responsibility to herself begins. Whether we believe that our mother gave us too much or not enough, it's painful to be confronted with her unhappiness and to feel that nothing we do makes any difference.

The trouble is, intensity breeds more intensity. Reactivity breeds more of the same, and lightening up can seem like a Herculean task. In mature moments, you feel empathic, non-judgmental and centered. You wouldn't think of turning away from someone in pain. But relentless focusing on an issue that only gets worse feels less like a real sharing of feelings and more like a primitive flow of anxiety going from one person to the other.

Sometimes, the other person may actually be at a loss about how to stay connected except through automatic complaints (or, in some cases, criticism and advice-giving). When we steer the conversation away from the habitual, we need to offer other avenues of connection. To do that, you need some coaching on how to approach an old conversation in a new way. Here are five key steps to moving on back without moving out.

Rule #1: Speak From a Loving Place

Of course, entrenched family patterns don't change after just one or two conversations. In fact, a deeply grooved pattern is unlikely to disappear entirely, but may instead reinstate itself at times of stress. Humor can help. I learned to laugh and tease my mother whenever she complained endlessly about my Dad, who was terminally ill, and her great fear that the nursing home staff was overcharging her: "Mommy, I do believe you're getting a little obsessed here. If you mention Daddy one more time, I'm going to come right over and give you a poke!"

I also spoke to the differences between us, taking care not to criticize, blame, or try to change her. "You know, Mommy," I said to her more than a couple of times, "I think we're in very different places when it comes to Daddy's bill from the nursing home. I'm so relieved that other people are taking care of him, and that you or I don't have to do it! You wish that I'd be more concerned about money, and I wish that you'd put it out of your mind!"

If I was light and loving -- and could laugh about how differently we responded to the same situation, without trying to change or convince her -- my mother lightened up, too.

She also responded well when I took her complaints to their own extreme, rather than trying to reason them away. Once I gravely suggested that she park herself with pen and paper in Dad's room twenty-four hours a day in order to keep tabs on the nurses. Although my mother opted not to devote her entire waking hours to this effort, she saw the humor in the suggestion.

Rule #2: Don't Rule a Subject Off Limits Forever

I never meant to forbid my mother to voice her pain or to mute her on any subject. To entirely forbid conversation about a hot issue drives it underground, which inevitably causes the other person's feelings about it to intensify. It leaves the proverbial elephant sitting in the middle of the room. And it leaves an already anxious person feeling more desperate because of being totally forbidden to voice compelling worries or complaints. While I used bantering and humor to de-intensify her anxiety-driven focus on my Dad's care, I also made it a point to move toward the very issues that brought her pain-but in a productive rather than a reactive way.

At calm times, I'd ask my mother questions to learn more about her experience. 'What was the hardest part about having Archie in the nursing home? Did you ever, feel guilty that you aren't able to care for him at home by herself?" I also made it a point to share my own problems with her, and to elicit her advice and perspective. Conversations such as these brought my mother and me closer together, rooted me deeper in my own history and identity, and allowed me to give my mother the attention and empathy she deserved.

Rule #3: Define Your Limits

It's far more useful to use humor, lightness, and imagination to deflect complaining and negativity. The tone of our voice is every bit as important as the content of our words. The challenge is to pass along less anxiety than we receive. The key is to define our limits ("Mom, I just can't listen to this now. I'm feeling too tense and preoccupied").

Say, for example, your mother is riveted on your dad in a negative way. No sooner is she off the plane than she corners you to exclaim, "Let me tell you what your irresponsible father did now!" It won't help to cross your arms in front of your chest and proclaim, "Mom, don't complain to me about Dad. Your problems with Dad are not my business. Leave me out of this! You are putting me in the middle of a triangle!" Nor will it help to try to "reason" with your mother, join in her criticism, defend your father, or try to make her see the other person's point of view. It will be far more helpful to say something playful like, "Gosh, Mom, you've been married to that man for almost thirty years, and you still don't have him shaped up?" Then shift the topic to something else that will engage her.

If we're reactive to the level of repetition and negativity that a person brings to the conversation, we will tend to respond narrowly and habitually ourselves. Instead, we need to do the opposite and draw on our most creative self to help the conversation take a new and unexpected turn.

Step #4: Circle Back

In addition to deflecting a conversation that's overloading us, we also need to return to it. Paradoxically, we can best defuse an anxiety-driven subject by moving toward that same subject, curiously and uncritically. Timing is an important factor, too. We're likely to get reactive if we're in the middle of preparing dinner and we pick up the phone, only to be immediately confronted with a family member's repetitive laments. It makes sense to get off the phone and then to reopen the discussion later when we feel solid and more centered.

Say, for example, that your dad is, a serious hypochondriac. You may feel like the top of your head will fly off if you hear him complain one more time about his symptoms and his doctors, especially since he doesn't take your advice, anyway. You can joke with him about his worries or shift the focus, because intensity on your; part will only breed more intensity.

You can also be inventive about approaching your father at a calm moment to learn more about the loaded issue of illness and doctors in the family. Over time, you might ask any number of questions that will give you a broader perspective. For example, you might ask, "Are there any other folks in our family tree who worried a lot about their health?" "Can you tell me more about Grandpa's stroke and how he coped with it?" "Do you think that your parents took good care of themselves, health wise?"

It may seem counter-productive to formulate a plan to open up a conversation on the very topic you want the other person to shut up about. If you can't stand your mother's anxious jabs at your single status, for example, why would you approach her and say, "Mom, you seem worried about my future as a single woman. Can you tell me about your specific fears and concerns?" And, "Who are the single women in our family and how have they fared?" Yet if we can ask questions that inspire thinking (rather than reactivity), we will elicit more empathic responses and respond more empathically ourselves. When we do voice our limits ("Mom, it's not helpful to me when you keep suggesting ways I can meet men"), the other person is more likely to hear us. But this higher level of conversation occurs best when we first make sure that others feel really heard and understood themselves.

Step #5: Draw the Lines

Sometimes we have to draw a clear boundary to protect ourselves, especially if we are living under the same roof with the complaining or negative party. We need to say, "I can't live with this, and you need to get help." A client of mine, Gloria, took such a position with Ben, her husband of three years.

Ben had a long-standing bent toward obsessive worry and self-doubt, and his ruminations intensified when work and family pressures combined to produce an especially stressful year. Gloria felt sympathetic but got tired of listening to Ben's self-loathing comments about how his life was going nowhere. At first Gloria felt she had to keep listening, but as time passed, she refused to indulge her spouse any longer. She used humor to encourage Ben to lighten up, or she'd tell him directly she didn't want to listen. "Look, Ben," she'd say, "your brain is stuck in a negative groove, and it's driving me nuts. The more you keep thinking and talking this way, the deeper the groove gets. I think you need to kick your brain out of this groove and work on overcoming your negative thinking. I'm exhausted listening to you put yourself down."

Gloria learned to close her bedroom door and tell Ben when she couldn't listen or be interrupted. If Ben sulked, Gloria learned to let him be. No one has died from sulking, and a person can only sulk for so long. Gloria also spoke clearly and directly about the toll that his negativity took on their relationship and about the reality that she might not stay in the relationship if nothing changed. She set limits in an overall climate of love and respect.

Finally, Gloria insisted that Ben get professional help for his problem, which he eventually did. Ben loved her, valued her advice, and took her frustration seriously. In therapy, he began to feel much more confident about his decisions.

Whatever the relationship, we need to know the limits of our capacity for compassionate listening, and figure out how to protect ourselves when necessary. We also need to distinguish between a conversation in which the other person shares real pain, and a non conversation in which chronic reactivity and negativity keep spilling over in our direction. Connections are strengthened when we can both set limits and find a productive way back into the very conversation we're most allergic to.

From the book The Dance of Connection by Harriet Lerner. Copyright (c) 2001 by Harriet Lerner. Reprinted here by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.