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I’ve been grading a lot of papers this week. As a professor, grading is one of the most time intensive things I do — partly because I tend to assign papers, not tests. Tests have right or wrong answers. But papers don’t. A good paper, in my view, tries to convince the reader that an idea or argument is important. This can be done through logic, through empirical evidence, or through an anecdote or personal experience.
In the last few weeks, I’ve also been called by a few reporters from newspapers and television to talk about how to navigate the holidays with close family members who have different ideas or opinions. Depending on the reporter’s questions, I’ll have different answers. But there is one I’ll always give — listen well.
When it comes to listening to our family members, sometimes we treat them like tests. We might ask a question but with the intention of hearing what we see as the “right” answer. To me that’s not asking good questions or listening well. When our conversations become about resemble “true/false” or “multiple choice” questions, we aren’t building relationships.
Instead of treating out family members like tests, we should approach conversations as papers. My students’ firsts drafts of papers are never great. They need time and space to organize their thoughts and put them together in a coherent way. They need time to sit with the prompts they were given to write the paper to think through their ideas. They need the flexibility to edit, make changes, and rethink their ideas as they continue to write.
When we listen well, this is what we do. We ask questions without right or wrong answers. We give our loved ones space. We allow them to talk out their ideas, change their minds, and edit what they said. When we listen well, we continue to ask questions to clarify our own and our loved one’s understanding. We don’t rush to judgment; we hear them out.
That doesn’t mean at their end of their answers or their story we will agree with them. That’s not the point. The point of listening isn’t agreement, it’s understanding. Understanding allows us to see more clearly the whole person.
So, if you find yourself testing your loved ones — or if your loved ones are testing you — maybe changes things up. Instead of looking for or trying to give the right answers, give them space to clarify their ideas. Instead of judging their initial response, allow them to keep speaking and give them space to think through what they are saying.
This won’t remove all the tension or conflict from your holidays, and it will probably be more time intensive. But if we can all do this well, I think we can find greater understanding and more compassion for those we love.
Jacob Priest is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a professor in the University of Iowa College of Education. He is also the co-host of the Attached Podcast. Comments: email@example.com