Last spring, my 12-year-old daughter said something to me that has been reverberating in my bones ever since. She was struggling to cope with a group of girls at school who were being incredibly unkind to her, and I very much wanted to help her. And so I was constantly jumping in with advice and solutions, speaking daily and at length about how I thought she should handle it.
Finally, she said to me: “Mom, I don’t need you to fix this. I just need you to listen.”
And so, in the months that followed, I resisted the urge (on most occasions) to jump in and “fix” her situation and I practiced just being present for her, just listening with love and gentle curiosity, grateful that she wanted to talk to me about what was happening in her life.
Usually, I only offered advice if she asked, which wasn’t very often at all. She really did need me to simply listen.
And this practice, inspired by my wise daughter, has actually changed the way I see my role not only in my relationship with her, but with everyone I know.
To start with it made me so aware of how often I tend to jump in and “help” everyone, offering unsolicited tips and strident words of encouragement and commandments in the face of their tears and turmoil.
I would feel their pain and want to talk them out of it, shepherd them through the darkness to the light. I thought this was how I could help.
I believed this was the best I could offer…but it wasn’t.
I realized that I could be offering so much more – in fact, we all could.
Perhaps like I did, you believe that this desire to advise and problem solve comes from a place of love, but it is more often a result of what Matt Licata calls “an avalanche of our own urgent, anxious, fixing energy” that likely springs from an unresolved desire to fix our own lives. It can also be a reflection of our discomfort with the chaos of strong emotions.
So I told myself this: Shona, if a friend comes to you in emotional turmoil and you wish to respond with love you simply open your arms and your heart and close your mouth unless you are going to utter kind and soothing words.
Over and over again I resist the desire to solve or resolve the other person’s crisis/challenge/pain – because I now know that unless they actually ask for my advice, that’s not what they’re looking for.
I know how powerful the act of being quietly present and attuned in the face of someone’s pain can be, because I am blessed to have someone in my life who holds this space for me.
I have noticed the space that opens up when you feel like you are falling apart and someone simply listens to you with compassion. Not problem solving for you or thinking about what they are going to say to you next or analyzing why you are having this experience but REALLY listening.
Without judgement. Without rushing you to a resolution.
Listening not just to the words you are saying but to the unspoken depth of feeling emerging through the panic, grief, and confusion of the moment.
You are heard.
You are witnessed.
You no longer feel alone with your pain.
You are offered safe space to process what is happening, offered not a sermon but a sanctuary.
And in that moment, you are touched, even healed in a way that well-intentioned advice could never accomplish.
I confess when my daughter asked me not to fix but to listen, part of me was relieved. Because I simply don’t have all the answers and in this mad world, who does?
But I know what I CAN do. I know that no matter what is going wrong for her I can slow down and listen with love, I can welcome her words and her hard story and let her know that even if things are not ok, that that’s ok.
With my quiet, loving, compassionate presence I tell her: “sweet girl, you don’t have to heal or have it all figured out in this moment for me to stay by your side…I am here.”
So perhaps you are relieved along with me, relieved to know that if you are a compulsive fixer that you don’t have to offer any solutions. Because in fact that is not what is needed.
What is needed is just one moment of genuine, loving, quiet connection to change pain into peace.
We all have the power to be still and let healing come through us into the world, simply by being present with another, without judgement. To hold a safe space for a friend or a daughter as they struggle to make sense of this messy, confusing but beautiful life.
To help them know that they are worthy and loved. To offer them, in your grounded presence, shelter from the storm.
When you are unsure of how to help — this is how.