When our kids were growing up, I (Charlie) used to get teased a lot by them for being optimistic so much of the time. They used to accuse me of denying the reality of how hard life could sometimes be whenever I would share a hopeful attitude about a difficulty that they were struggling with. It’s not that I would deny the difficulty, but rather I often tried to introduce a different perspective. One that might open the possibility to them of seeing things in a way that might reveal new, creative, possible solutions to their problems. In retrospect, I can (finally) understand their frustration with me. In my zeal to help to pull them out of their discouragement, often, I would not-so-subtly lay my trip on them in order to feel less anxious myself. If they can feel more hopeful, I thought, I’ll feel better myself. While optimistic by nature, I have sometimes (rightly) been accused of trying to coerce others into adopting this attitude when they may not necessarily see things the way I do.
Fortunately, my kids were willing to be honest enough with me to let me know that they didn’t always appreciate my coercion, particularly when they felt that their own feelings of frustration were being ignored. They helped me to learn the very powerful lesson that people can’t really hear your advice, no matter how good it may be, until they feel that you’ve heard their experience. It wasn’t so much that what I was saying was wrong or misguided, but rather that my timing was off. If, for example, I had been more able to acknowledge their feelings of frustration, or wanting to quit, or whatever they were experiencing, with empathy and compassion (which doesn’t, by the way, mean that I agreed that their conclusions were correct), they would have been much more open to my input. Fortunately for all of us, I was eventually able to get the message. I was able to start adding the missing ingredient of listening and accepting their feelings before plunging in with my “solution” to the situation. This lesson has served me incredibly well, not only in my relationship with my kids, who rarely make this complaint to me anymore, but also in my marriage, in my work, and with my friends. I suspect that others in my life have at times felt that they were not heard by me as a result of my efforts to get them to see things my (the “right”) way, but may not have felt comfortable confronting me with their feelings.