Recently, a reader recommended How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. I couldn’t agree more. I think this is the best parenting book out there.
One of that book’s most important lessons is simple, and just as applicable to adults as to children: acknowledge the reality of other people’s feelings. Don’t deny feelings like anger, irritation, fear, or reluctance; instead, articulate the other person’s point of view.
Sounds easy, right? Wrong. I had no idea how often I contradicted other people’s assertions of their feelings until I tried to quit. “You always have fun when we go.” “You should be thrilled, this is great news.” “It won’t be that much work.”
The other day, I had a chance to put this principle to work. I was in the bedroom when the Big Girl burst in, crying. I knew it was real crying, and not fake crying, because the Big Girl has a very convenient “tell” when she’s staging her tears. If she balls up her hands and holds them to her eyes, like an actress in a melodrama, she’s faking. This time, her hands were down, so I knew she was really upset.
I pulled her onto my lap, and she sobbed into my shoulder, “People always pay attention to the Little Girl but nobody ever pays any attention to me.” Now, it isn’t factually true that no one ever pays any attention to the Big Girl, but I managed to restrain my first impulse, which was to argue, “What about the five games of Uno I played with you last night?” and “You know everyone loves you just as much as the Little Girl.”
Instead, I said, “Wow, that hurts your feelings. You feel ignored.” I rocked her for a few minutes without saying anything, then said, “You feel like people pay more attention to the Little Girl.” We sat in silence for a while. She seemed to be getting calmer. Then I said, “You’re our most precious, darling girl, and no one would ever forget about you, or think that someone else is more important than you.” Then she got off my lap and skipped off!
Experts say that denying bad feelings intensifies them; acknowledging bad feelings allows good feelings to return. That sure seemed to be what happened.
This principle is just as true for adults. Recently, I undertook a MAJOR household project. Which, I admit, I did with about zero grace—but I did do it. The Big Man was well aware of my simmering resentment. Just before I was about to start the biggest part of it, he looked around and said, “Well, this doesn’t look like it will be too tough.” Wrong thing to say! Probably, he thought he was being comforting or encouraging. Instead, he enraged me. It would have been better to have acknowledged my feelings, by saying something like, “Wow, this looks like a huge job, it’s great that you’re going to do this.” Plus it never hurts to give me some gold stars.
I’ve found, too, that when other people deny or ignore my feelings, I tend to keep repeating myself (i.e., whining), because I don’t feel heard. So, for example, maybe the Big Man doesn’t want to talk about my annoying encounter with the cable guy, and I don’t even particularly feel like talking about it, but until I get my “Wow, that must have been so annoying,” I can’t let it go.
Have you found that acknowledging bad feelings helps people to feel better?
From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.