Picture this: A friend calls you crying. She’s upset and launches in to what happened. Do you listen for a bit and then try to offer solutions — or do you simply listen? Because while reading Kelly Corrigan’s powerful collection of essays Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say, I realized just how often I try to help my friends (and even my kids) solve their problems, rather than simply listen and empathize.
Corrigan, who has been called “the voice of her generation” by O: The Oprah Magazine and author of the New York Times bestsellers The Middle Place, Lift and Glitter and Glue, is full of insight into the art of having hard conversations in her new book. She writes about topics many of us like to avoid, like the one phrase every apology should include and that it’s okay sometimes to simply say an unapologetic no.
But I’ve been most struck by her title essay, “Tell Me More.” By replaying a conversation with her young daughter, Corrigan shows that being a better listener can make your friend (or child) feel more cared about, more understood, and even heard. I’ve been using the technique since, and I’ve noticed just how much people respond to being really truly listened to.
When Corrigan’s sixth grade daughter, Georgia, calls her, she’s upset that girls at school are being mean to her. At the time, Corrigan is driving in a car with one of her best friends from college who whispers advice to encourage Corrigan to help her daughter get it out. Corrigan finds herself responding to her daughter’s rants with simple lines like “What else?” or “That must feel so unfair” and, when the facts seem exhausted, “Is there more?”. All of these things keep her daughter talking, and by the end of the conversation, her daughter gets off the phone feeling better, which hits Corrigan as helping more than any solution she could have provided.
“Solving Georgia’s problem, which had seemed so generous, was both unlikely and ran the risk of demoralizing her. Empathy was the tonic,” Corrigan writes.
So next time you have a friend who is upset or a child that needs an ear, don’t rush them to a solution. It may be more powerful to simply say: Tell me more.