Have you ever made the statement “you can tell me anything” to someone else? This is a well-intentioned statement and we usually perceive it to be genuine. But do we really mean it? And more significantly, are our actions really embodying it? Even when it’s difficult for us, possibly even making us feel bad about negative impacts of our own actions? Hmmm . . .

We have all experienced contexts in which we have felt “heard” (hopefully) as well as contexts in which we felt ignored or dismissed. As such we are no strangers to the emotional effects of each. When we were part of Casey Family Services, I remember doing an exercise in a training that was eye-openingly effective. Try a variation of it sometime and see for yourself. Essentially you have two people tell stories about their lives. In response to one, you listen intently, speak periodically to affirm or reinforce or coax more information, and generally show that you’re engaged. In response to the other, you look away, display distraction from other things (texting, for example) and respond in ways that indicate that you aren’t really paying attention. It’s amazing how good the first one feels to the speaker and how the second one not only feels bad, but creates a strong disincentive against continuing to talk. I use this often in a jazz ensemble setting to help students understand something Jason Berg taught me years ago, how someone’s musical attentiveness (even when standing around before or after taking a solo on a wind instrument) can either encourage or stifle another band member’s motivation to either dig deep due to the attention and encouragement or phone it in because of the message that nobody is listening anyway.

Perhaps a case could be made that this second response is appropriate if, in fact, you are attempting to use a passive-aggressive technique of making somebody stop talking about something you think is boring and self-indulgent. Whether or not that is valid, what if we’re talking about real, consequential topics? What if you need to tell me something that you fear I will respond to poorly because it somehow might implicate me or otherwise make me feel badly. If you do, then I have a number of likely first reactions:

1)      Retreat – either literally (e.g. leave the room) or symbolically (zone out, become distracted, etc.)

2)      Defend myself

3)      Deflect – re-frame the topic, change the subject, etc.

4)      Take in the emotional substance of what’s being said and be so overcome with emotion that my own feelings dominate the landscape, taking precedence over those of the person talking to me (and possibly, therefore, wanting that person to console me)

I’d like to think that I’m a pretty decent listener, and that’s in large part because, at least on a good day, I internally observe these impulses and then choose not to act on them. It has come in handy to say the least. I’m not a great parent, for example, but I like to think that when I screw up, at least in the subsequent processing I’m able to sit attentively and take in whatever needs to be said. It took me a while to learn this, and whenever I have failed to do that (okay, but you don’t UNDERSTAND what it’s like to be in MY shoes . . .), it’s been counterproductive and, in hindsight, “my bad.”

But, you might ask, what about the exceptions? What if a grievance really IS unjust? What if you really MUST defend yourself or at least explain what REALLY happened? Or what if hearing about it really IS so hard that in that moment you desperately need comfort for yourself?

Those are all legitimate, of course. Ultimately there are two questions to ask if you feel you’re in that situation. The first is whether you actually want to make the other person feel heard and validated for their feelings. Perhaps you don’t if, for example, the other person is a telecom customer service person defending an invalid charge on your bill, or maybe a distant acquaintance who’s getting all “up in your bizness” on a level that makes you uncomfortable. This discussion is only relevant if that person’s feelings and willingness to talk to you again are important to you. If the answer to this one is “no,” that’s fine, just make sure you don’t claim in that situation to be approachable.

The second question is whether defending yourself is necessary. This is the hardest one to grasp when feeling confronted. Think now for a moment about what it feels like when you are preparing to tell somebody something that is awkward. Most likely it is an emotionally intense experience, and when in that state you are probably not looking for a point-by-point intellectual debate on the topic at hand. In that vulnerable state, you most likely need a response that projects some variation on “your feelings are valid.” If the tables are turned and I am the one doing the listening, what’s so bad about that? If I choose in that moment not to debate the point-by-point minutiae, it doesn’t mean that can’t be discussed later. If I choose to say “I’m sorry” instead of “I’m sorry, BUT . . .” it doesn’t mean that I’m somehow more culpable. We’re not talking about being a defendant in a court of law here.

Though there are no guarantees, just listening and validating could provide a release for the other person, and if that happens, then maybe the door will open to further discussion another time. Or maybe not. Most of need only stop and contemplate for a moment to realize that just being able to speak one’s personal truth is powerful and to be really heard is doubly powerful. Riding the wave of that can be so cathartic for everyone involved that if you have the strength to stay with it, in time it just may render some of the other concerns irrelevant. I wonder how many ongoing interpersonal conflicts could be dissipated through the simple (though admittedly not easy) act of compassionate listening. Maybe not all of ‘em, but more than you might think . . .

Here’s a song I wrote about this topic a couple years ago. I’ll insert all the usual caveats about how I’m not really a singer or (fill in the blank of instrument)-ist but I think it evokes this subject pretty well.

click here to hear “I Want You to Know” by Noah Baerman:
i want you to know

copyright 2011. (NB: vocals, djembe, floor tom, shaker, kazoo, cast iron skillets, guitar)

One Responses

  • Deborah

    Beautiful and poignant as always, Noah. This post came at an especially relevant time for me; the day after I needed to share something honest but difficult with a friend.

    No response yet, but I take the timing of your post as sweet synchronicity and comfort during the vulnerable time of having ‘shown your hand’ but before receiving a response which one hopes is reflective of being truly heard.

    Thank you, and my best to you and Kate!

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