This is another lesson I’ve learned in my parenting adventures. I think most of the good stuff I know I’ve learned through being a mom. This one I applied several times a day when my daughter was in a tantrum phase. It involved stopping myself from trying to fix every negative emotion she had and instead to acknowledge her emotions, reflect them back to her, and make myself available to comfort her. I got out of practice with this in the past two years since she’s not had tantrums as frequently, and I’ve had to re-learn the skill to help her with her very fierce five-year-old emotions. When I remember to do it, I find that this practice helps diffuse the situation faster than trying to intervene, and it also helps her learn to identify her emotions and to learn gradually how to deal with them herself.
This is also a skill I’ve tried to use with myself and with other adults. I remember one time speaking on the phone with a friend in crisis. At one point, there was a protracted silence. I thought I ought to say something but I didn’t know what.
“I don’t know what to say,” I said.
“You don’t have to say anything!” my friend said through tears.
This phone conversation comes back to me frequently. I felt so ineffectual and powerless to help this person whom I so wanted to help. It wasn’t until several years later when I read Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication that I realized that sometimes all we need is empathy, both for celebratory situations and for crisis situations. I attended weekly empathy practice workshops facilitated by a Nonviolent Communication mediator when we lived in California, during which we practiced the active listening techniques Rosenberg introduces in his book. Every week it struck me just how powerful it is to reflect back someone’s emotions without judgment and without offering solutions.
Even in those situations when it’s appropriate to offer solutions, it’s often important to sit and reflect back the person’s emotions and let them talk through things before trying to give suggestions for action. There are often multiple layers to a problem that even the person with the problem can’t get to without talking it through. Sometimes, too, the person comes up with her or his own solutions just in the course of talking things through, which is much more empowering for them than having someone else give them solutions.
I’ve heard many times, in the context of Buddhism and meditation, “Don’t just do something; sit there.” That, basically, is what I’m trying to remind myself to do with this commandment. There is a time for brainstorming, but there is also a time to explore a situation without trying to alter it.