A CONVERSATION WITH SUSIE ALBERT MILLER
Have you ever felt overwhelmed, frustrated, alone, stressed, desperate, stuck or even bored in your relationships? Do you wish your connections with your spouse, significant other, kids, family, friends, clients or co-workers were better? Whether your relationship is mediocre and you want to make it better, or you’re at your wit’s end and ready to throw in the towel, we’d all like to make improvements! But wanting good relationships is only the beginning … and building great relationships requires a few skills!
Thankfully, improving our relationships isn’t as daunting as it sounds – and according to Susie Albert Miller, it can be done in 30 days or less! She’s a speaker, coach, consultant and author … and is committed to helping everyday people thrive in their most personal and professional relationships.
We sat down with Susie to chat about her book Listen, Learn, Love and get her insights into how we can significantly fix those connections … and fast!
GRAPEVINE: What prompted you to write ‘Listen, Learn, Love’?
SUSIE ALBERT MILLER: I found myself repeating the same advice with my clients and realised that if I could get this message out to a wider audience, people would have the tools to begin to communicate and connect better.
Talker & Drivers
We’re taught a lot of valuable things as we grow up, but we’re seldom taught how to communicate well. And people don’t always recognise their weakness as communicators. It’s a little like how people who don’t drive well still think of themselves as being good behind the wheel!
I realised that I needed to improve my driving years ago when I began transporting my little kids around – so I identified the gaps in my skills, and worked at becoming a better driver.
I feel the same way about communication. I’m a good communicator now because I’ve worked at it. And ‘Listening, Learning and Loving’ are three simple, elegant skills to help people become better communicators. My goal was to make it a quick-and-easy read – I wanted to share things I think will make the biggest impact in peoples’ relationships. From relationships in the home … to friendships … to business and the workplace.
GRAPEVINE: What’s at the heart of a good relationship?
SUSIE: The ability to feel safe and seen. We want to know that we’re still going to be loved and accepted even if we’re known completely: our weaknesses … our frustrations … our struggles. None of us want to have to pretend to be someone different or to constantly have to edit ourselves – like thinking, for example, “Oh, I can’t say that, or they’ll get angry.” Because those worries begin to govern how we engage with others.
Truly good relationships are where we genuinely feel seen, known and heard. Relationships where we can say, “I’m having a hard time”, or “I’ve had some news that’s really knocked me. I don’t need you to fix it, but I need someone to understand me …”
And the best relationships are interdependent.
GRAPEVINE: What do interdependent relationships look like?
SUSIE: Well, there are other types of relationships that are less healthy: a dependent relationship, for example, where one person needs the other for everything … an independent relationship, where the belief is “I don’t need anyone!” … and then a co-dependent relationship, where neither person is willing to do anything without the other.
Interdependence, however, allows us to support one another in really healthy ways. This is where – in a friendship, a marriage, or a partnership – we can say, “I’ll carry the weight for a while. I’ll give you some space to get your sea-legs or recover …”
Interestingly, we do this naturally in times of crisis. When there’s a crisis, human beings are amazing: we band together … we feed people … we take on tasks … we cover gaps. We’re kind and giving people in a crisis. And we naturally become interdependent: “You can lean on me here because I’ve got you. And if the shoe was on the other foot, I know you’d have my back!”
When we bring that kind of interdependence out of the crisis moment, there’s an opportunity for a deeper connection. So, if you have a bad day, miss a deadline, or are struggling with one of your kids, relationships like this say, “I’ve got you! I can’t fix it, but I can be here with you.”
GRAPEVINE: You claim that the key skills needed to create better relationships are to Listen, Learn and Love. How do these actually work?
SUSIE: Well, firstly, LISTENING: Listening seems like a no-brainer, right? But we do a lot of hearing without really listening!
HEARING – NOT LISTENING
It’s entirely possible to be looking at someone while they’re speaking – smiling and nodding along – while actually ignoring what they’re saying. I sometimes catch myself listening to respond, but not listening to understand – and that creates a communication gap.
By pausing and listening to understand, we make space for connection.
With LEARNING, I recall one of my dear friends telling me that she and her fiancé were having a disagreement about something, and she said, “I’ve just got to learn him.” I love that way of phrasing it! Because we think we know each other – our friends, co-workers, and even those closest to us – but what we know is really just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much depth below the surface. So ‘learning someone’ is about taking the time to understand the fullness of who they are.
When we begin to pause and ask, How is this person wired? What are their natural bents? Are they a quick decision-maker or slower to process? Do they focus on the big picture or on the details? We’re all wired differently when it comes to taking in information or engaging in problem-solving. When we ‘learn people’, we discover what they prefer – the things that make them feel connected, seen, known, and heard. And when we take the time to ‘learn someone’ in a business setting, we discover how to engage with them in the most productive, profitable way.
And finally, LOVING … To me, love is a choice. Loving well means I choose to do what’s best for the other person – even if it’s uncomfortable or difficult for me – because that leads us to a better end. In a personal relationship, it may be learning to overlook a slight or hurt: like when your close friend or spouse is tired, you don’t take their sharpness personally. Loving well in that moment might be giving grace and understanding that this isn’t the time to confront their attitude. Loving well with a work-colleague might say, “I know next week is a huge week for you. So here’s what I need done by this date, and however you want to accomplish that is fine.”
Loving well sets people up for good engagement. When you love well, you live from your commitments, not your emotions – because nobody feels like doing the right thing all the time. Loving well means honouring our commitments to family even amid a busy time at work! If you’ve committed to being home for dinner twice a week and it means disappointing a co-worker, you’ve got to make that tough call and show up for dinner. Making those choices means doing what you said you’d do, and allows people to trust that you’re choosing them and not yourself.
GRAPEVINE: How can we be serious about ‘learning well’ the people in our lives?
SUSIE: Ask, ask, ask! Be curious about your loved ones. Unfortunately, the importance of ‘quantity time’ isn’t discussed very often, but when you spend time with people, you learn about them and connect with them. We don’t live in a world of quantity time; we live in a world of distracted quickness. So one of the ways we can connect is to slow down, lean in, and ask questions to find out more about them – to learn more about who and how they are.
Author Glennon Doyle talks about putting on ‘perspectacles’ to give ourselves a fresh view. We all have a lens through which we interpret the world; when I look at the world through my lens, everything I see is coloured by that perspective. But that doesn’t mean that my perspective is always accurate, complete, or the best.
We often forget to pause and listen to the perspectives of others. So by putting on ‘perspectacles’ we stop and appreciate the lens through which someone else might be viewing something. We walk in someone else’s shoes … remembering, of course, that we don’t have to agree on everything.
GRAPEVINE: How do we keep relationships intact when there’s conflict – when we don’t agree on things – or when there are difficult conversations we need to have?
SUSIE: I strongly recommend addressing things at the right time and setting. At work, maybe, you’ve got a team member who’s not pulling their weight. So you choose to have that conversation privately, not in the middle of a meeting – because timing is so crucial for difficult conversations. If there’s tension in a family situation and you all have to be somewhere like Christmas dinner together, that’s not the time to announce, “I’m mad at so and so for such and such!” It’s better to tell yourself, Hey, it’s going to be a little tense. I’ll do my best to be warm and kind, or I’ll stay on the opposite side of the room.
I think it helps to acknowledge the elephant in the room – because you’re all aware of it. Otherwise, everybody’s wondering when it’s going to come up. But also be prepared to just go ahead and play cards and do the family barbecue, because you’re choosing to do that instead of confronting the issue in that moment.
And then, when the time IS right to address the issue, put on your perspectacles and acknowledge the other person’s perspective on what’s going on. Validating is one of the quickest ways to diffuse tension. When we say, “Help me understand the way you look at it,” or, “I can see where you’re coming from,” we’re not saying that we agree or take responsibility for them feeling that way. But knowing that people want to be seen, known, and heard, we’re meeting their needs – even in the middle of that conflict or disagreement – and paving the way for a better relationship.
GRAPEVINE: You pose this challenging question: “Have you settled for average when what you really want is awesome or at least better relationships?” For those who answer ‘yes’, what’s your advice on improving our lacklustre relationships?
SUSIE: The first thing I would say is: Take a breath. Know that no one is always perfect, and our relationships will never be perfect. Having relationships that need work doesn’t mean something’s wrong with you or with the others. But if you become aware of something that needs to be addressed – if you realise that you’ve settled for something not so good instead of helping improve it – then it’s worth examining: “Okay – what do I want to do now?”
In certain relationships, maybe it’s just time to let go – maybe you’ve outgrown each other or moved past the stage when that connection was natural. This sometimes happens with family friends as the kids grow up, and you no longer find yourselves at the same sports events or holiday spots. You may realise that a friendship isn’t going to go any deeper – in which case you need to either make peace with how it is, or gently move on.
For the more superficial or seasonal friendships, it’s important to be gracious with yourself – because we don’t have the bandwidth to maintain all friendships forever and ever! You simply let go without feeling the need to make a big pronouncement. Sometimes things just fade.
Of course, if this is a relationship with a close family member or your business partner, you really can’t just move on. You need to ask yourself, “What would I like to be different?” And then, “How uncomfortable am I willing to get to gain what I want in that relationship?” It’s funny, because we’ll do that with food and exercise: we’ll deprive ourselves or we’ll ‘feel the burn’ because we want to build our bodies – but we’re scared to be uncomfortable in relationships.
WHERE DID THAT COME FROM?
If you don’t address difficult aspects of important relationships, the tension may grow. Or you’ll stuff it down so much that one day you’ll snap! You’ll make a snarky comment, and everyone will be shocked – because it’ll seem to have come out of nowhere.
The rule is, if you’re feeling frustrated in a relationship, you should address it.
GRAPEVINE: You mentioned earlier that we often do a lot of hearing without listening … how can we listen to others more intentionally?
SUSIE: The biggest thing is to slow down, which isn’t always easy in busy modern life. I talk about listening with your eyes and your ears. I learned this from my kids when they were little: you know, they take your face in their hands and pull you over and go, “Mum, Mum!” because they know you’re distracted – doing dishes or folding washing or on the phone – while they’re trying to tell you about their latest adventure! I realised back then that my kids knew when I wasn’t really paying attention.
So, when I talk about listening deliberately, it’s this idea of tuning my ears and turning my eyes towards the speaker and slowing down enough to be present with them and attentive to what they’re saying.
That’s so important because a great deal of our communication is non-verbal. It’s not just the words we hear while we’re scrolling on our phone or trying to look like we’re listening – someone’s facial expressions, tone of voice and body language all communicate, along with the words they’re saying.
We also need to avoid jumping in too quickly to reply. When we engage before someone is done, they invariably feel like what they have to say is not important. People’s brains work at different speeds – it’s not about smarts; it’s just about processing time. One of the ways I work on that is to take a beat when I think they’re done. It’s a bit like music or dancing – you’re watching and listening as they speak, and then when there’s a pause, you hold on for that beat. You don’t have to go, “Are you finished?” You can just feel it.
Another thing is, if someone is sharing a story and you’ve had a similar experience, you want to avoid hijacking the conversation. It comes from a good place – we have this desire to connect – but instead, we need to learn to pause and let it be their story. Because otherwise, suddenly, we’re talking about our story instead. So, if we notice ourselves doing that, we can pause and say, “Let’s go back: tell me again about that …” to bring it back to the conversation you want to have, instead of leaving things derailed.
GRAPEVINE: How important is an apology when it comes to helping people feel understood and listened to?
SUSIE: “I’m sorry …” is one of the most powerful phrases in the English language. We’re afraid of apologising, because we seem to think that saying “I’m sorry” means we did something wrong on purpose – but that’s not always the case. When we say, “I’m sorry”, we acknowledge that our actions impacted another person in a hurtful way – even if we didn’t intend that.
I don’t think there’s anything more repairing than to go, “I’m sorry. I overreacted there. What is it you need from me?” With partners or spouses, one person can sometimes feel they’re doing more than their share, and they’ll make a snarky comment – then, when the other person gets defensive, it’ll blow up into an argument, or they’ll go to their separate corners and feel disconnected.
I’M SORRY …
It’s so powerful to apologise and say, “Can we press the reset button? Can we just rewind and try again?” – because that simple act diffuses the ‘I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong’ element. Instead of ending up against each other, you’re alongside each other, going, “How do we solve this?”
That way, we can see the problem is that we’re tired, and our kids are driving us crazy, and we just need to get through dinner hour… or, we’re feeling stressed about a project at work, and we need to figure out how to progress with it.
When you come alongside each other and look at the problem, it’s much easier to reach solutions. And that often begins with, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it to come out like that.”
GRAPEVINE: How do we ‘love well’ in a relationship that’s not with a loved one? Like, for example, applying these principles in business?
SUSIE: To quote Bob Burg from his book, The Go-Giver … he asks, “Am I in it for me or am I in it for them?” Do we ultimately believe we live in a hostile world? Because if you’re living like everyone’s out to get you, you’ll never love well – you’ll always be grasping.
A colleague referred someone to me recently, and I had to tell them, “I’m really not the best fit for you … I can help, but this is a speciality of another colleague of mine.” To me, loving well means that my income is not more important than the client’s result – so if referring them is likely to result in a better outcome for them, that’s what I’ll do.
When I talk about love, I talk about making a sacrifice for what’s best for the end game … the other person … the long-term nature of the relationship. It’s not only transforming in personal relationships but also in the workplace as well. And best of all, it works! It means that people know they can send clients to me, because they trust that if I can’t work with them, I’ll find them the best person to help. It increases trust when people understand that you’re authentic and you’re in it for the greater good – not for the instant rewards.
CHOOSING TO LOVE WELL
I believe that doing the right thing IS the right thing. And it’s always the right time to do the right thing! That’s what sacrificial love is all about. It’s a choice. It’s about treating people the way we want to be treated – and considering what we’d want if we were in their shoes.
One of the chapters of my book is called The Deeper Yes – and to me, that’s about what matters long-term versus what’s easier now. I used to be a marriage and family therapist, and I’d see this a lot in parenting. In the moment, it’s often easier to let a kid get away with something, but long term, it’s going to result in poor behaviour or an unhealthy relationship. So you incur the wrath of the child in the moment, because the deeper ‘yes’ is, “I care about your growth.”
In a business setting, it could be saying to someone, “Hey, you’ve had three problems with the deliverables, and I really believe in you. But for the company to grow, I need this kind of improvement …” or “I believe you have potential, so I’m going to help train you.” It’s the ‘yes’ that says I’m investing in the outcome – in the long-term relationship.
GRAPEVINE: Any final advice for our readers?
SUSIE: One thing I’ll add is ‘Don’t let the simplicity stop you from doing the work’. These ideas sound really simple … we all think we listen well! Well, maybe ask your people: “Do I listen well? How well do you feel like I know you?” I’ve done this myself, and man, it’s humbling! Because some people will say, “Yeah, you do!” and others will tell you, “Well, not all the time.” So don’t overlook the need for growth just because you feel things are okay and you’re communicating well. Don’t overlook the fact that we can ALL get better at communication, and we can all grow a relationship to a deeper level.
So be willing to be uncomfortable.
Those are the principles I live by – because it’s so important to me that the people who are in my world feel like I see them, I hear them, and I know them.
TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT SUSIE MILLER AND HER BOOK LISTEN, LEARN, LOVE CHECK OUT HER WEBSITE LISTENLEARNLOVEBOOK.COM FOR RESOURCES AND INFORMATION.