THE PRACTICE: When you ask someone to engage (listen to you, converse with you) about something IMPORTANT TO YOU, give the me gift of knowing what kind of support you are looking for.
“I could really use some empathy.” “I really just need a hug.” “Would you help me figure out the best next step?” “I just need someone to listen.” “Could you give me some advice?” “I could use some reassurance.” “Would you brainstorm with me?” “I’d love to hear your thoughts on what happened.”
This is the next step of the “Get the thumbs up practice.” After you get the thumbs up with someone - or even as you are asking for the thumbs up - let them know what kind of support you are looking for. This is the best way of ensuring that you get the support you want.
Most people have experienced receiving advice when they are looking for empathy…Have you watched this: https://youtu.be/-4EDhdAHrOg ? How different would this scenario have played out if the person with the nail in their head ("the speaker") had started with, “I could really use some empathy. Could you listen to me without giving me advice?” In this video the speaker ends up getting frustrated with her listener. There is a slight message that the listener "should know that it's not about the nail." I take issue with this. I'm practiced enough that I might have started with empathy if I had been the listener. But maybe I wouldn't have. Maybe I would have been coming off a long hard day and forgotten to go there. I believe the speaker (the one with the nail) has responsibility and power...to be self aware and to share with her listener proactively what she is wanting when she asks for the listeners attention. This would avoid her initial frustration when she isn't "being heard" and the blame she lays on her listener when her needs aren't being met. This would be a gift to her listener and a gift to their relationship.
Uhg! Why can't we just talk? Why do we have to plan how we are going to talk?
Here's the thing...you wouldn't ask somebody to come work for you without telling them what job you were looking to hire for right? If they said yes, without knowing what the job was, it could be a disaster for you both AND it could lead to wasted time and effort on both your parts. So why would you ask someone for their attention and support without letting them know what kind of attention and support you are "hiring" for? It may seem like being transparent and proactive with what you want is time consuming. But not being clear and proactively asking for the support you need could be much more time consuming and result in disappointment, confusion and conflict. Because it empowers your listener, stating the support you want leads to more joyous, connecting and effective conversations.
It's affirming and empowering!
When you receive the kind of support you are looking for it affirms your needs, and there-fore is self affirming, perhaps giving you that sense of “I’m ok. What I need right now is ok”. It’s also connecting, giving you that sense of “they get me” and “they think what matters to me is important.” When the other person is able to support you in the way you need it also bolsters their sense of connection, success, contribution and value.
Sometimes when you receive support that you aren’t asking for it can be disconnecting and lead to conflict. You are more likely to have thoughts like, “They don’t get me”, “They aren’t listening”, “They think they know what’s best for me. They don’t”, “They don't want to help me.” Your thoughts are judgements of what’s happening. They aren’t reality. That said, they are there and likely lead to disconnecting feelings like frustration, anger, sadness, hopelessness, ambivalence, etc… Once you have these feelings it’s a much bigger hurdle to get the support you need and to stay connected.
Then there’s the other person. Imagine you are the one who put down the last chapter of your really good book, or closed your computer screen to give someone your time and attention. You did so because you wanted to support them, because you care about them. And then…as you are doing your best to give them support, they get angry, or frustrated, or sad. That’s hard. That’s confusing. You were doing your best. You tried. It seems to have only made things worse.
Asking for what you need is a gift to others
You are giving a precious gift to those you connect with and yourself when you are transparent with them about what kind of support you want. You are empowering them to serve. You are empowering them with understanding, clarity, choice.
What if I don't know what I need? Or what if what I need changes?
You're not stagnant. You move. You change. You may think all you need is empathy, but after you get it, you may realize you are ready to move forward and now want some advice. You may think you want strategies, but as you start brainstorming you may sense that you are needing some empathy first, or maybe you need help discerning if you have interpreted your situation in the best way possible for moving forward.
So what to do about that? First, before you ask for someone’s attention and engagement, get clear within yourself about what kind of support you think you need. Maybe you don’t know what kind of support you need. In that case you go to the person and say something like, “I know I need support, but I don’t know exactly what kind of support I need. Can you help me figure that out by listening and sharing your thoughts if I ask for them?”
Once you are clear on what kind of support you need, include it in your request for attention. For example, “Do you have a few minutes for me. I could really use some empathy” or “Thanks for putting some time aside for me. I really need some advice.”
Also, include the caveat, “I’ll let you know if what I need changes.” Just remember, if you notice that your need has changed, ask the other person before assuming they have the capacity to support you in a new way. It’s possible someone has just spent all their energy giving you empathy. They may not have energy for brainstorming or advice giving. Check in with something like, “That was really helpful. Thank you. I’m realizing I could really use some advice now on how to move forward. Do you have the energy to help me with that?”
Remember, we plan how we are going to engage all the time. We do it when we plan events, projects, or even dreams. We use those questions from grade school "Who? What? Where? When? Why?" to support successful execution of our plans. Applying these questions to your conversations is just as important as applying them to any other event or project in your life. In this case, WHAT is the question to ask yourself and share with others, "what kind of attention am asking for?" Sharing your "what" with your listener, you will likely experience more connection, more joy and a more wonderful and connected engagement.
Once you get used to this practice you’ll find it amazingly liberating for both you and those you engage with. Clearing the confusion, setting some expectations, making agreements, these practices create safety for freedom and flow within the connection.
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