I've long forgotten exactly what the kid was mad at. All I know is when the problem began it wasn't me and when it finished it was nothing but me. It started when the young man screamed he was going to kill someone. I screamed back he'd have to do that over my dead body. He screamed that sounded like fun. I screamed quite louder what seemed to be the obvious response for this situation: do you know who you're messing with? He screamed he did and couldn't be more unimpressed by that revelation. Then I screamed a sense of disbelief like I've never screamed or disbelieved before.
And somehow things only got uglier from there.
I didn't know it then but I would often consider it later. And still today. We never did talk about what that kid was mad at before I got him so mad at me.
In our counselor training we talked a lot about de-escalation. The story above reflected absolutely nothing that training was supposed to have taught me. I was supposed to have learned the last thing a screaming kid needs is someone trying to scream louder than him. I was supposed to learn that an angry kid responds best to a calm adult. And I was supposed to learn that calm not crisis is the conflict resolution we were supposed to be working toward in the first place. The reality is, though, that day I did little of what I was supposed to do.
It wasn't because I was trying to ignore those valuable lessons. Not at all. The problem was, and still is today more often than I like, conflict is a wonderful place to unload our emotions and a very unappealing place to drag along common sense. When it comes to conflict, common sense says winning this battle isn't worth it while our emotions taunt us with the suggestion nothing could be worse than losing it. And too often, in the middle of crisis, being a mad and irrational winner sounds far more appealing than being a stable loser.
Why is that?
Many years later a supervisor would tell me something that helped me understand the answer to that question. He said you have to first seek to understand someone before you can ever seek to be understood.
When he said that I thought back on the conflict I described above and a thousand others I'd had since. In almost all of them - and I give myself the benefit of the doubt including "almost" - I had no interest in understanding what the other person in the conflict was going through. I didn't offer so much as a casual wonder why they were mad, frustrated, sad, confused or caught up in a variety of other emotions that led them to act in a way that didn't appeal to me. Because doesn't that often become the goal of our interactions - that people relate to us in a way we find appealing?
Most often the people we find most appealing in relationships are the ones who most often agree with us. On everything. And because there are pretty close to zero people who fit that billing, we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to convince people we're the one person selling the answers they should be buying into. Go to your Facebook newsfeed. How many people are sharing something they want you to understand them? How many are looking for more ways they can better understand you?
You'll likely discover evidence of why I believe we've become a world that will spend hours of time and energy seeking to be understood, but has little patience or desire to understand. And I know why that is. It's the same reason I spent 30 minutes screaming at a kid twenty years ago and not a single second desiring to understand what he was mad at in the first place. It's because I just knew if I could get that kid to understand me, to see the world like I saw it, and then respond to it exactly the way I responded to it, then he would be fixed. Anger gone. Poof.
I'm older now. More importantly -wiser. I got that way because somewhere along the way I learned that far more important than the me who talks and explains is the me who listens and seeks to understand. I came to understand the kid I was screaming at didn't respond to his world the way I responded to mine because his world didn't look like mine. In listening to him, and then more closely to other kids, and for the first time mindfully to the people in the circles around me, I came to understand two very important things we discover when we close our mouths and open our ears.
One - our opinions about how someone should act in their world are completely useless until we've come to intimately understand their world.
Two - when we come to intimately understand someone else's world, and come to fully understand how well they're actually navigating worlds more challenging than ours, we'll likely come to see we're not as good at responding to our own worlds as we once believed.
Together, those two things helped me understand the importance of becoming a better and more active listener.
I suppose by now you're wondering what any of this has to do with being a dad. A lot. I've never been in a relationship where it is easier to let the talk/listen balance get more out of whack than it can in the father-son relationship. Our boys get a little out of line and my first instinct is to tell them something that will get them back in line.
Sometimes that's the right choice. But often, more often than I do, our boys need me to first listen. They need me to seek first to understand what's going on with them before I try to have them understand what I think should be.
In the next post, I'll talk more about why kids need their dads to listen.