Think of thoughts as guests at the party of your mind. Imagine being at a family gathering and the relatives are a talkative bunch. You are “observing” the scene not as a detached bystander but as a loving, involved family member. You catch snatches of conversation, some not that interesting, some best to ignore. But you’re watching out for someone who may benefit from your attention (Granddad looks confused) or maybe someone is saying something that you want to pursue, then you listen and maybe even get involved in the conversation. You might want to correct someone’s misstatement, or maybe just listen and give them support because you feel what they’ve saying might be important to them. You engage in active listening: trying to sense the feelings and intentions behind what the other person is saying, trying to understand their meaning, sometimes, asking questions or trying to steer the conversation to “bring them out” because you sense that they’re working out an understanding or idea and might need a little patience and encouragement.

Uncle George is always spouting his opinions about politics at these gatherings. You like to argue with him, because he welcomes disagreement and vigorous debate and doesn’t seem intent on winning the argument at all costs. Sometimes these arguments with Uncle George help you see things a little differently and you’re grateful for the learning experience. Sometimes you even manage to change his mind.

On the other hand, you avoid arguing with Aunt Irva. She complains about the same things over and over and there is no use trying to talk her out of her opinions.

Like Aunt Irva, there are always a few relatives at these gatherings who seem to be endlessly kvetching about something. You find yourself wanting to talk them out of their bad moods but past experience tells you that’s a losing proposition. You’ll just get entangled and never convince them of their wrongheadedness. In fact, trying to talk them out of their opinions can only make matters worse – like fanning the flames of a fire.

At the same time, you love these relatives and talking with them can be rewarding when they’re not in one of their moods. Sometimes they’re more receptive to gentle persuasion than other times. They are not a lost cause. You want to maintain a relationship with them, and that means paying some attention to them at family gatherings, regardless of what’s in it for you. So, you go over and listen for a while, nod occasionally, but simply not engage with their complaints.

You might find that by simply listening and acknowledging, but not agreeing or arguing, Aunt Irva will eventually calm down. The fire of righteous anger will slowly burn itself out. The clouds of her bad mood will dissipate.

Some thoughts are like endlessly kvetching relatives. Engaging with them only encourages them, regardless of whether the engagement is supportive or resistant. But not all thoughts are problem relatives and problem relatives aren’t always pointless to engage.