It was husband’s birthday this week. Getting him a gift he’ll love is always a challenge. If I ask, he’ll give me a modest little list. He never wants very much. Each birthday and Christmas I say ‘I’ve got to give you something more than that!’ and he replies ‘But that’s all I want.’ Not to be put off, I head off to the shops or the Internet and trawl around for something I think he’ll like, or even love if I’m lucky. Nine times out of ten I come back with perfectly good clothes (but he’s not that into clothes) or books I later discover he’s already read. The question begging to be asked is who am I doing it for?
Obviously, I want to get my husband a gift that shows I care. But when I tell him that what he’s asked for doesn’t seem a good enough gift, the underlying message is: ‘Your choice is not okay. I’m going to get you something I think is better, because, after all, I know best.’ Put like that, it starts to sound more like a metaphorical slap in the face than an act of love. It sounds like my focus is on making sure I feel good about what I’m giving rather than making sure he gets a gift he’ll appreciate. It’s all about me making sure I feel okay with myself.
I’ve got a friend who loves chocolate. People make chocolate things for her. They tell her they’ve made it specially, then send her home with leftovers. More than once she’s told me she didn’t really want them but feels they would be disappointed if she said no thank you. The people giving her the cupcakes or brownies would say they do it for her, and of course, on the surface it’s a lovely thought, but they never ask her. Again, who’s it really for?
I’ve also been on the receiving end, in different ways. When I’ve been working away, at the end of a long and tiring day, a colleague has said “You’ve got to join us for dinner; you don’t want to be alone.” But I’m very happy in my own company. Sometimes it’s what I need to recharge. The problem is the others didn’t really care about that. I’ve also worked with people so busy trying to be ‘uber’ polite they have no idea what I need or want. It’s charming in small doses, but I find it suffocating in larger quantities.
The common theme in these examples is that the wishes and preferences of the individual being treated or taken care of are not very high on the agenda. They’re either not being asked or ignored when they are. The focus is on the person doing the giving. Their real goal, whether they recognise it or not, is to make sure they feel okay. That’s much more important than the other person being heard, or their needs and preferences being acknowledged and met.
If you’re caught up in this sort of behaviour, or even suspect you might be, my advice is to take a moment. Whatever the situation, there is always a benefit to slowing down and reflecting on what’s going on for you. What do you notice about yourself at the idea of going against your natural instinct? Register the thoughts and the physical response. What happens to your breathing, to your heart rate? What do you experience about yourself? There’s no right or wrong, but it can be very revealing.
Then try focusing your energies on listening to the other person. Ask about their experience and really tune into the answers. Put your expectations, preferences, ideas and ideologies to one side and focus your attention on them. Being truly heard is an incredibly powerful, beneficial experience. For my husband, it meant I got him a present he actually wanted!