When You Can't Listen Another Minute
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.
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