The heart-to-heart before head-to-head principle embodies the most valuable wisdom there is for calming the troubled waters of a loved one’s heart. When someone you care about is overwrought by anxiety, fear, grief, frustration, guilt, anger, fury, depression, despair, embarrassment, shame, or physical pain, this principle will help you be as comforting as you can possibly be. It’s especially vital for helping kids and teenagers who are not yet mature enough to manage their more intense feelings.
As a man I can get away with saying that men need to learn this lesson more often than women do. That’s because we men too often make the mistake of trying to make others feel better by using our heads instead of our hearts. With all the best intentions we lovingly offer explanations, answers, perspectives, and solutions that we assume are practical responses to upsetting problems. And we are astonished when these offerings seem ineffective and unappreciated. Our head’s reason, analysis, perspective, and solutions all have their place, but that place is second in line to what the heart needs to provide first.
Here’s an important thing to understand about human nature. Intense emotions easily hijack clear thinking. Attempting to reason with someone in great distress is mostly ineffective because their rational mind is not yet ready to be engaged. When a 4 year-old child wakes up from a night terror about a monster, saying “Don’t worry, stop your crying, monsters aren’t real, it was just a dream, now get back to sleep,” doesn’t work. When a teenager comes off the court furious over losing a big game because the referee made a bad call, saying “Calm down, it’s just a game, refs make mistakes, you’re still in first place,” doesn’t work. When a spouse comes home from a horrendous day at work because of their idiot boss and wants to quit their job, saying, “Come on now, we all have rough days at work, you’ll feel better tomorrow, and besides, we can’t afford for you to quit your job,” doesn’t work.
In order for a head to be engaged, the heart needs to be comforted first. And for a heart to be comforted, it needs to hear from your heart first, not your head. And the four most valuable things a distressed heart needs to hear are recognition, understanding, empathy, and reassurance (hold the solutions).
“Hon, I hear what you’re saying (recognition), I get it (understanding), that sounds really scary, sad, infuriating, depressing, etc. (empathy), and it’ll be alright because I’m here for you, etc. (reassurance).” Simple messages that contain these four elements can make all the difference in the world to a distressed heart. Understand that love is far more soothing than information.
After a good heart-to-heart conversation lowers the emotional intensity, then your loved one’s head will be more ready to listen to what that great head of yours has to say. Though bear in mind that many situations may only call for emotional comfort and you can spare both your heads the extra effort.
Even though the heart-to-heart before head-to-head principle is wise, simple, effective, and necessary for being an effective nurturer, it may go against your grain and seem like a daunting habit to cultivate. If so, I want you to know that I hear and understand your worry about this, and assure you that with a bit of practice and success you’ll find it will become second nature in no time.