In a Facebook group I administer, I raised a discussion question, “What does love mean to you?” Among many great, thought-provoking comments, one member quoted something she’d heard, “Love is giving what someone else needs, not what they want.”

Another member followed up with an incident in which a friend of his really only needed a place to stay for a few days, but ended up staying two months. This resulted in dysfunctional interactions that were harmful to all concerned, especially the houseguest.

I thought of a child wanting his mother to write a homework essay for him, when he really needs to learn how to write on his own, perhaps beginning with guidance from Mom, then, building up to writing an essay all by himself.

But I also commented: “I love the recognition that what people think they want is not necessarily what they need. It can get tricky, though, because I am not necessarily the best judge of what another needs, either. Don’t roll them up in a blanket, hold their nose, and pour my own brand of medicine down their throat.”

So when a person asks us to do, or refrain from doing, something, and we think agreeing would work out badly for them and/or ourselves, how do we know what the person really needs? We look for the interests behind the favor the person requested. We can ask open questions, including my First Magic Question, “Why?”[1] Then, we listen. Listen to understand, not to inspire counterarguments.

I soon got a golden opportunity to practice this. Tuesday, I heard voices in the hall. I looked out my front door and saw an elderly neighbor I’ll call “Bea”—who has been limping worse and worse lately—struggling to her door. Another neighbor, Dee was pushing Bea’s grocery cart.

Two bags on the floor partially blocking Bea’s doorway. (I later learned that a third neighbor had placed them there for Bea.) I picked them up and entered Bea’s apartment with the others.

Bea fell into the first available chair. Dee and I offered to put the groceries away. “Why not? We could have this done in a few minutes.” But Bea wouldn’t agree. Said she could do it after a rest. I did talk her into letting me put away the milk I had picked up outside the door, pour out an out-of-date carton of buttermilk I found in the fridge and trash the carton.

She said she couldn’t order groceries because she didn’t have a computer. I suggested a simple, basic smart phone model.

Wednesday morning, I woke thinking about Bea. As frail as she is, her spouse Jay is worse. She’s the one taking care of him.

I was thinking things like: I should qualify my phone suggestion. Bea needs to learn if she can get comfortable using a smart phone before buying one. She needs more help at home. She needs her daughter to get more involved. They need to deal with whatever has caused her walking to deteriorate so rapidly. The couple needs to think about moving to an assisted living facility. I need to offer to do more for her.

But the recent Facebook group discussion reminded me that I’m not the best judge of what Bea and Jay need. I started planning open questions to ask Bea when I saw I had missed a call from her. When I returned the call, everything worked out even easier than I had expected. I didn’t have to formulate questions. I only had to listen with an open mind.

As to some of my concerns, Bea volunteered what I wanted to know without any prompting. She told me how I could help—pick up her mail when I went to the mailroom for my own. She had gotten some leg exercises from a physical therapist. Her daughter, who works for an imaging company, had set Bea up for scans on her legs.

As to other concerns, I only had to mention the general topic, and Bea took it from there. I mentioned that there’s a learning curve to using a smart phone. She said her daughter was going with her to buy one and would teach her. I offered to take her garbage to the trash room. She was determined to do her exercises and take it herself later.

Then, she added the words that clued me in to her most important interest: “I’m not going to give up.” That’s why she wanted me to do less instead of more. Not because she was bothering me. Not because she was embarrassed. Rather, because the more activities she “gives up” and turns over to others, the worse she will feel about herself—less confident, less hopeful, less secure, less independent. Conversely, the more she can do for herself, the better she will feel—mentally, physically and emotionally.

That’s what she needed—to do for herself as much as possible. So the loving thing for me to do was back off. I’m so glad I didn’t even try to persuade. Listening to understand did a better job.

[1] See Bridges to Consensus, p. 51