After viewing my recent podcast on emotional abuse, a friend of mine asked, “What can one person do though?”
My answer is not new, instant, or sexy. It’s simple yet requires great self-control; we can LISTEN to the people we say we care about. I don’t mean politely nodding our heads while thinking about how to make the next keto-friendly cauliflower pizza. I am suggesting we listen with the intent to understand, being a true friend by resisting the urge to make everything about us.
How Can Listening Address the Problem of Systemic Isolation?
Too many of us believe that nobody cares, and no one understands, which is utter nonsense. Or, we are ashamed of our feelings, our thoughts, or our situation. We don’t want people to think of us as weak. Or, maybe we fear people will say something asinine like “I don’t believe in (fill in the blank).”
Welp, addiction, abuse, and disease are not religions so. . .
Listening lets people know that they do matter and that someone cares enough to make space for them. It eventually teaches them that they don’t have to pretend like they have it all together because none of us do. They will come to learn that they are not the only one who struggles and that they need not struggle alone. A person who cares enough to listen cares enough to help.
People Love to Talk About Themselves
I have been a massage therapist for nine years. If I have learned one lesson about people, it is this; we want to talk about ourselves!. I know, when we hear “want to talk about ourselves,” we assume we talk only to boast. In my experience, this is rarely the case. We want to talk about our struggles with health – physical, mental, emotional -, frustrations in the workplace, family matters, and what we did last weekend or what we are going to do next.
Listening while massaging is pretty straightforward. I know that offering advice or giving my opinion is not in my job description.
Listening outside of massage is significantly more challenging. I, as my daughter often tells me, love to “chat, chat, chat.” I am happy to talk about nearly everything with nearly anyone. However, frequently, I am so excited about sharing my thoughts that I cut other people off. I try to finish their sentences or jump to a seemingly related topic before they are done talking.
By usurping control of the conversation, as innocent as it may be, I am not allowing them to speak their piece. None of us start talking if we do not have something we want to say (at least when it comes to friendly conversations).
Most people have a “toe test” – you know, when people test the water temperature to decide if their bath is warm enough or if they want to swim in the ocean – to gauge who is worth “talking about the deep” with. Some people need only feel the wet sand left behind by a moving tide to jump in. Other people prefer to wade in. They move slowly, an inch at a time until the water reaches their waist.
My older brother, for example, waits until the water is at his shoulders. Only then is he willing to lift his feet off the ground and paddle around.
To get to know him, you must listen to stories about his projects. He can build or fix just about anything and naturally has 2,065 ventures going on at once. Or perhaps only intentions. Anyway, in conversations about his undertakings he lays out every detail; the measurements, the tools, the cost, the time . . . Everything you can imagine that goes into engine repairs, cabinet installation, welding, granite countertops…you get the idea.
Unfortunately, some people don’t want to listen to him enumerate meticulous details. They want to move past the projects and talk about things that “actually matter.” But, here’s the deal; they matter to him. If someone isn’t willing to listen to what he likes, he certainly isn’t going to talk about the feelings or opinions he keeps close to his heart.
Genuine vs. Polite Questions
Furthermore, we often need an invitation to start talking. We don’t want to bother anyone or unload our burdens on them. We definitely don’t want to appear like ungrateful complainers. So, we ask and answer questions that are said so frequently they have lost their meaning.
“How are you?” is just another way to say, “Hello.” We say it while passing someone in the hallway or on the street with no intention of slowing down. They say, “Good. How are you?” We say, “Good.”
Keep being polite, of course, but we need to tailor our questions to the person we are talking to if we want more than, “Good.”
We must see the people around us as the unique individuals they are. What is their sense of style? What makes them laugh? What are their hobbies? After identifying one thing that makes them unique, ask a related question. Better yet, we can ask them to teach us about it if it is something that can be taught.
For instance . . .
My husband is a quiet soul. He chooses his words carefully and prefers to let other people do the talking. I have been frustrated in the past when I feel like I’m having a one-sided conversation. Finally, nine years into our relationship, I learned to ask him to teach me about his hobbies.
One day we were talking about Lord of the Rings, and he mentioned how much he enjoys the movies and wanted to watch them again. I am not a person who chooses fantasy or sci-fi entertainment. I would rather watch human interest or historical fiction sorts of shows. When he rents a new movie or views an old favorite, I check out. I work on a craft, read a book, whatever.
I decided to watch the movies with him without any distractions, half a film at a time. I asked questions about what I did not understand (which was all of it). He patiently explained everything to me, including the artistic license choices of the movie makers. Their choices led to opinions about why Samwise is superior to Frodo and how J.R.R. Tolkein’s view on the industrial age influenced the mass production of the Uruk-hai… .or something like that.
After we came to a stopping point, we kept talking! It turns out he is 100% capable of directing a conversation. I don’t need to grab the reins just because he leads differently than I do. We eventually wound up talking about the things that matter most to him, things I had asked him about 1,800,499 times.
Let us resist the urge to think that complicated problems can only be solved from the top down. I submit that this is rarely the case. Instead, let us honor the impact that one person can make on the world. History focuses on the people who did the most damage; Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Bundy, to name a few.
We can shift our focus to the people who have done the best; Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther, Johannes Gutenberg, Corrie Ten Boom, all of which operated in their immediate sphere of influence by utilizing their capabilities to serve those around them.
Take a moment today and identify one person you care about. Call them. Text them. Invite them over for dinner. Ask them questions, listen to their answers. Don’t give unsolicited advice or criticism. You’ll change their day, which can change their life. They may eventually change yours, too.