As I wrote earlier this week, listening is hard. It's even more difficult when someone wants to report a problem. This comes up in all kinds of relationships, it even models software bug reporting.
Here's a scenario. A person with a missing leg says "When you push me, I fall over and that hurts." Here's a list of possible responses, from best to worst.
- If you understand what they're saying, just say that, literally: "I understand what you're saying." If you don't understand, then say that, but only if you really don't understand.
- Don't defend yourself. For example "I didn't know you only had one leg," or "I didn't know if I push you you'll fall over." The person just wants to know you heard them. You're changing the topic to something about yourself. This leaves the question of whether you understood out there, unanswered.
- Don't argue. "The leg you say is missing is really just shorter than the other one, it's not actually missing." We're getting very far away from "I understand what you're saying."
- Even worse. "It never happened" or "I didn't push you over."
- Worst. "What about the time you said I was stupid."
I'm sure you see the analogy to software bug reporting. We want to know that something went wrong, so we can fix it, and make the product work properly. Same thing in personal relationships. If you care about the other person, you want to know that something you're doing is trouble for them, so you can stop doing it. There really is no better way to show that you care for them than listening when it's especially hard to.
Finally, why keep the response focused on the problem?
- It builds trust.
- It encourages the other person to report other problems, so the relationship can be further optimized.
- It makes for a happy family!