I’m terrible at small talk. I know it’s an important part of casual getting-to-know-you conversations, but I’m kind of bad at it. I love getting straight to the heart of struggle. Got baggage? Excellent! Let’s dump it out in the middle of the floor and start digging! Oh by the way, what’s your name again??
We can all agree that kind of intense exchange has its place. A very small place. It definitely shouldn’t be my go-to for all situations. For example: I went to a funeral for a friend. I was sitting at a table enjoying refreshments after the service and an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in quite awhile asked me how I was. Big mistake.
I was deep in a season of chaos and my conversational filters were weak at best. They took the day off that day. Ten minutes after she asked the question the entire table was looking at me in shock. “Wow” she said. “And all I asked was how are you?”
I learned a big lesson that day. Pondering this lesson, I realized God had been trying to teach me this.
When our oldest was struggling with chaos in her life and started acting out I was challenged by a trusted friend that I was talking too much instead of listening to her. I didn’t get it. I kept talking because I wasn’t feeling heard. I was deeply wounded and needed my own breakthrough. Completely valid, but I didn’t know how to separate my hurt from my daughters hurt and ask for appropriate help. As a result, I was spewing emotional vomit at every opportunity. I straight up scared people. Those who may have been willing to try to support me were pushed away by my intense language and emotion.
Here’s what I’ve learned about communication. Especially communication with my girls.
I learned if I didn’t engage in conversation about nothing, they wouldn’t engage when we needed to have a conversation about something.
I was often too busy to engage in meandering chatter. To be brutally honest, that kind of conversation with my kids grated on my last nerve. So I would often avoid and deflect. Or be partially present in the conversation, hoping they wouldn’t notice. Except they always noticed when I wasn’t fully present. As a result, when we needed to have a serious conversation about their risky choices and behaviors, they completely checked out. We had not invested the time, attention, and resources required to establish a foundation of mutual trust in our conversations with them, so we got the same in return.
We recognized our failure in this area but we didn’t know how to reconnect with our daughters. What we did know was their friends came around a lot. And their friends liked us better than our kids did. I decided to leverage that. Anytime a friend was over I was nice to them. I was interested in their lives. I offered good snacks. I did my best to make them feel welcome and want to come back.
I knew I was on to something when my daughter’s friend came upstairs for a soda and ended up hanging out in the kitchen with me telling me about her current problem. After awhile my daughter came upstairs to find out what was taking her so long and found us talking. “Okay, this is just weird! Why is my friend talking to my mom??” I may have indulged in a fist pump after they went back downstairs.
My husband and I decided to back door our kids.
We told them Sunday night was BBQ and fire pit night. They were welcome to invite friends to come hang out. We would stay on the fringe – just there to feed them burgers and hot dogs, and feed the fire. They thought it was weird but they did ask a couple friends who came and enjoyed themselves. Word got out that we had an open invitation to all of our girls friends to come for supper and fire pit every Sunday night. Sometimes there were only a few kids, sometimes we ran out of chairs. If it rained we stayed inside and played games. We continued this all summer. Our girls started to soften up as they saw us through their friends eyes.
When their friends struggled we were there with unconditional kindness and support. When they needed a couch for a few nights they knew they were welcome in our home. When they needed a loving kick in the butt to get off said couch and get a life, we provided that as well. Many of those kids are still our “heart kids”. We hear from them every once in awhile, a few of them quite regularly. They know we are always there for them if they ever need us. And over time we reestablished a relationship of trust with our daughters.
Another important thing I learned was to stop assuming I knew what they needed from me once they started talking to me again.
Yup. I went right back to the well worn mistake of talking too much. I jumped at every chance to give advice, offer solutions, and point out mistakes. And the distance between us began to increase once again. I learned to shut up. I learned to bite my tongue. I learned to keep all the advice and solutions inside my head. I learned to ask a crucial relationship building question.
What do you need from me right now?
Do you need to vent? Let off some steam? I can do that — bring it on.
Do you need to verbally process your thoughts and ideas to sort them out and come to a conclusion? I can be your sounding board. I promise to listen without judgment or share solutions.
Do you want my advice? I can do that too, but I am going to ask questions so I clearly understand the problem. I don’t want to jump to conclusions. You deserve a thoughtful, intentional answer, informed by my best intentions for you because of how much I love you. And I won’t be offended if you don’t take my advice. Because its not about me. This is about you and I want the best possible outcome for you.
How did I learn all of this? Dr Phil. Yeah — I said it out loud. I’m a fan. And I am not ashamed. I’ve learned a lot from the good daytime Dr that has enriched my life and my relationships. In fact, the title of this post is a well known Dr Phil-ism.
Except for the back door strategy. That came straight from God as an answer to my prayer for new ideas to reconnect with my daughters.
Now that the girls are both successfully launched into adulthood and careers, we still have awesome relationships with them. Thank God I learned to shut up. And thanks, Dr. Phil, for all the great advice.