It’s Okay Just to Listen

Here’s a thing— I’m conflicted about what I want to write about, because there’s a level on which I absolutely believe it’s true, and would like to make proclamations and definitive statements. And there’s another level where I don’t think proclamations and definitive statements help, because they make connecting with people too hard. If you’re coming from a genuine desire to connect with me, but have to consult a 625-page rule book before you can be in conversation with me, I get why you’re not going to be in conversation with me that much. Sometimes I think that I just need to find a smidge more grace to extend. Other days, I get tired of being the person who is always looking to extend more grace. It’s a puzzlement.

Here’s the gist of what I want to say: Sometimes, it’s okay just to listen to someone when they talk. You don’t have to have a corresponding anecdote to tell to my every story, and you for sure don’t have to interrupt me to tell yours. Also, unless I ask for it, you don’t have to assume that I’m looking for advice. Unsolicited advice is kind of a sore subject for me, so I try to make it very clear if I’m looking for advice, and I will probably use the phrase “what would you advise” or “what do you think I should do” as your cue, there.

For example—and I feel bad even sharing this example because she does come from a good place and she feels like she does empathize with my life, and I appreciate that—I’ve repeatedly had a version of this conversation with my mother.

Me: [Something about being single for much longer than I expected or about work]

My mom: I totally relate. I never wanted to get married. My mother told me no man would ever have me. I had resolved to be a career woman… [long story about her career or her challenges in the dating wilds of the late 1950s.]

I do appreciate what she’s trying to do here. Honest and truly I do. I appreciate that she’s trying to relate to my experience. But our experiences are pretty far apart: my mother met my father when she was 15, and they were married when she was 20. They broke up briefly, somewhere in year 3 or 4 of their courtship, but then they were married 43 years until his death, and she hasn’t seriously considered other prospects since then. (She has dated some, and entertained the devoted attention of a gentleman or two, but doesn’t really intend to get remarried.) She had four kids, was a stay-at-home mom for all of it, and hasn’t had a full-time job in over 55 years. She worked her senior year in high school and for a couple of years after that until she married. She didn’t live alone, ever, until five years ago. She has grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I’ve lived outside the family home since I was 23, have been dating for more than 20 years, worked outside the home part time and full time for more than 20 years…

We can connect meaningfully about her experience of singleness since my dad died, but it’s pretty difficult to take her seriously when she tries to pass herself off as a never-married career woman. And honestly, I’m not asking her to tell me how she knows all about it, because even if it were analogous in more ways, it still happened in a very different cultural landscape. I’m aware of the difference between our experience. It would be enough, for me, if she’d listen while I told her the thing about my experience that I’m trying to say. By the same token, I try not to tell her what it is to be a married woman, a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, a widow, or someone in a life stage that I haven’t experienced, because I’m not credible on any of these topics (and when pressed, I tell stupid outside-my-experience anecdotes like “I don’t know, when I was a kid, I felt this way” or “so and so does it that way, which seems smart, to me.”)

She’s far from the only person in my life who does this and this isn’t the only area of my life where I experience it. And I know I’m not the only one. I feel pretty strongly about conversations like this when someone is coping with personal tragedy, serious illness, grieving, or other things.

But it’s awkward. I get it. What are you supposed to say, when someone is talking about something that far out of your experience? Aren’t you supposed to mine your experience for something, anything that gives you common ground?

Here’s the best I can come up with:

  • Try leaning into that “I don’t know what to say” thing that’s screaming in your head, stop scanning your memory banks, and listen.
  • Ask questions about what’s outside your experience. “What’s that like?” “It sounds like that was hard for you.” “What do you do in that situation?” “What would really help, that no one ever thinks to offer?”
  • This probably isn’t about you. Really engage with what someone is saying, without projecting yourself onto their experience. They don’t have to make the decision you would make in that scenario, or hear how you’d handle it. You’re not in that scenario. They are/were.
  • Not every conversation is in your area of expertise. That’s a good thing— it makes you more well-rounded as a human being. Just don’t pretend expertise where you don’t have it, in scenarios where meaningful connection is at stake.
  • Understand that if someone is trying to connect with you about something that is central to their experience that they know is pretty far outside your experience, it’s by definition not small talk. They’re trying to tell you about something meaningful to them. It’s worth giving them your full attention (which you’re not actually doing if you’re interrupting, advising, speculating or one-upping. No, you’re really not.)
  • Don’t cut to the chase because you’re uncomfortable. If you don’t have time to really listen to someone for a legitimate reason, say “I’d really like to hear more about this, but I’m not really able to dig into this the way I’d like to, just now. Can we touch base about it [specific suggestion, like “early next week over coffee. Would Tuesday at 10 work for you?”] If you leave it vague, the person may hear “I can’t handle this” or “this isn’t important to me,” or “you’re not important to me.” Someone who’s opening up to you needs not to hear “they’re blowing me off,” from how you handle that, if you’d like them to feel like they can meaningfully open up to you again.

Now, again,  I’ve come full-circle on this. Because it would be great if we all were good listeners and had the perfect response on our lips and were the very best, most sensitive versions of ourselves every time. But we’re not. We’re all just doing the best that we can. And as long as we’re doing our best, I think we deserve the benefit of the doubt. But when in doubt, just listening is totally an option, and one we don’t much explore, these days.

Gretchen Rubin does a thing on her podcast that I’ll try here— Try this at home: One of the ways I’m practicing what I’m preaching about this is that when I ask my mom about the book she’s reading, she’ll give me the whole thing— plot and characters and lots of detail. When I ask her about it, my intention is just for neutral conversation. “I’m enjoying it— it’s really well-written,” or “I’m kind of disappointed in it— I’m not that far into it, and I think I’ve solved the central mystery already.” This is almost always a book I haven’t read and don’t intend to, so my actual interest is pretty limited. But what I get is 20 minutes of depth. Instead of letting that drive me as crazy as it naturally does (I have a touch of natural impatience),  I’ve started to lean into it some and ask some questions. “Did the [situation you described last time] work out the way you thought it would?” Because if she wants to talk to me about it, I can listen. Especially since that’s what I’m asking of her.

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