I know EXACTLY how you feel. Here’s what you do…

Ever back to the beginning we must go…

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post.  There are three excellent reasons for this:

  • I was sick.
  • Life’s been manic
  • Nothing that terribly exciting’s been going on.

What if???  Why not?!!  Right?  That’s what it’s supposed to be about!  This crazy-cool life experiment…

Two years ago, Chris and I left our jobs and got rid of most of our stuff and said, What if we could spend a whole year in a place we’ve never been, where we don’t speak the language?  What if we could spend that year working full time for free, doing things we deeply believed in?  What if we could learn how to look at life completely differently from there on out?

So we did…we did all those things.  At the end of that fateful year, we decided that life the way we’d lived it leading up to our departure from London wasn’t unfulfilling as such, but that it wasn’t right for us…that there had to be another way. Since then, we’ve been working really hard to discover precisely what that other way looked like for Chris, what it looked like for me, and what it would look like if we laid our paths right on top of one another.

I am happy to inform you that we’re nowhere near figuring out the answer to that question, so this blog’s job ain’t done yet.

Some things I’ve personally discovered, though, in no particular order:

  • Time is our most precious commodity.  It’s the one thing – above all other things – we always wish there was more of.
  • If you love your job – like, really, truly love your job – you’re luckier than pretty much 99% of the whole, wide world.  And we want that.
  • Taking care of ourselves – i.e., eating well, sleeping enough, and avoiding the bad stuff out there – is really important…feeling good means more gets done during the afore-mentioned limited time we have.
  • Self-improvement is a journey without end…it’s excrutiating and emotional and humiliating, and I’ve bought a life membership to the club nevertheless.

Faced with life’s current circumstances (winter approaching…fast, starting to get a handle on French and plunging into finding regular work to replace those French classes, well-settled in Le Puy and no plans to move any time soon), I’m increasingly focused on that last bit.

What if I could truly acknowledge my weaknesses and faults?  What if I could look squarely at those shortcomings and begin to break them down?  What if I could forgive myself for things I’ve heretofore been too embarrassed to admit even existed?  What if I could start to address those things – what if I could change?

What if I could teach this dog a new trick or two?

In that vein, there are a couple of things I’m ready to tackle, and they both deal with the way in which I communicate.

The good listener.  Nothing in the world is more important to me in my communication than being perceived as a good listener.  It’s the holy grail of good personhood in so many ways for me.  To be a good listener means to value the person who speaks, to value what they have to say and therefore to value who they are.  To be a good listener means to hear not just what someone says, but how it is said, and therefore what they really mean when they say it. To be a good listener means not to think about one’s response ever – responses come naturally, like inhaling after exhaling.  It means to just listen, absorb, mull, consider.

There are two things I do that keep me from my goal of being a good listener.  They are related, and they are both really super annoying.

Thing #1:  When someone recounts an experience, or tells me about something they’re going through, I often tell them about my own similar experience.

I mean well.  I do want to show I’m empathizing. I don’t want to seem like I’m one-upping, but I’m afraid that’s how it might often come across.  Thing is, it’s rare that people (me very much included here) divulge difficult or even incidental anecdotes in the hopes that someone else is poised and ready to come back with, “I know exactly how you feel!  This one time…”

Thing #2:  When someone recounts an experience, or tells me about something they’re going through, I very often give…oh geez, this is hard to admit…completely unsolicited advice.

Again – it comes from a good place.  I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff, and while I love my life and have very, very few regrets, I’ve been through and gotten out of some pretty rough patches.  And for a very long time I worked in a field that necessitated giving advice pretty much all day, every day – even if my clients were sick to death of it, because if I wasn’t telling them what they should be doing, I wasn’t doing my job.  But if I’m being 100% truthful…I’m pretty sure I’ve been offering unsolicited advice since WAY before I ever started offering solicited advice.  And I know it’s freaking annoying.

Here’s the even trickier part:  I know there’s a time and place for both of these things!  People sometimes do want to hear that someone’s been through what they’re going through!  People sometimes do want someone to offer some good advice, and just don’t know how to say, “What should I do?”  The thing is, if we do it all the time, we lose those precious human sensors – the ones that really good listeners have completely honed – that are receiving not just what someone says, but how they’re saying it, and therefore what they really mean when they say it.

So here’s my goal for myself:  I’m going to consciously endeavor to stop giving unsolicited advice.  Completely.  I’m going to try really, really hard to stop sharing my life experiences when somebody tells me theirs, and instead just be in the moment with them, hearing about what they’ve been through and how it makes them feel.  I’m going to do this for as long as it takes, until I can feel with confidence (at least most of the time) when it would be appropriate to proffer said advice and anecdotal empathy.

And I’m going to all of this in another language.

This might take a while.

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6 thoughts on “I know EXACTLY how you feel. Here’s what you do…

  1. Wow! First, I want to say that you’re my hero! I would be absolutely terrified to move to a place where I couldn’t easily communicate with people! Even visiting a place where I am unfamiliar with my surroundings proves to be more stressful than fun to me, because I’m more than a little directionally challenged. But, adding a language barrier to that would likely do me in!

    I’m one who is thought of as a good listener. I’ve never thought of myself that way, because I know that my mind secretly wanders when people are telling me things. “Did I put the laundry in the dryer before I left the house?” “What do I need from the grocery besides cashew butter?” But, somehow, people feel better talking to me, and I’m okay with that. While I’ve noticed the advice thing before, especially as it pertains to getting healthy, being healthy, and knowing that no one really wants to hear it, I don’t think I quite got around to noticing that I throw in tales my own experiences. Truthfully, don’t people largely want to feel that their experiences are unique instead of something we’ve all been through before? Don’t people want the spotlight to shine on them for those few minutes, so that their pain, their happiness, or their anger can be all there is and all that matters for just a moment? Maybe.

    Also, I’m interested to know your thoughts on those comments that people make that seem to beg for certain replies. It seems to fall somewhat in the same category of “things” as sharing experiences and offering advice in response to people’s attempts to communicate with us. Do you give those desired replies? Do you offer advice? Do you offer support for overcoming the issues at hand? For instance, I recently read a series of posts on Facebook that can be summed up in a couple of sentences:

    Catrina: “I’m sorry your back hurts, Stephanie.”
    Stephanie: “Well, that’s what I get for being so fat.”

    To me, it seems Stephanie is looking for reassurance that she’s not so fat. Do you make her feel better?: “Oh, Stephanie, you look great. You’re not fat at all!” (She is. She’s very fat. You would be flat out lying to her.) Do you offer advice? Is that what she’s fishing for? “I know a great book that can walk you through how to start eating right and exercising.” Do you offer up your own experiences? “I was overweight once. My back hurt me, too.” Do you merely offer support? “If you ever want to talk about it, or maybe go to the gym with me, let me know.” In this particular case, it seemed no one knew what to say to Stephanie… because there were no further comments.

    • Ann says:

      beyond the shadow of a doubt, i would say that the right response was the last one. that scenario is precisely something i’ve been thinking about for a long time…gandhi was on a search for what he called satyagraha, yeah? the truest truth. absolute truth. the problem is that i don’t feel like an honest answer is equivalent to absolute truth. because the question – as you quite rightly pointed out – isn’t “am i overweight?” in point of fact, stephanie never asked a question – she made a comment that we in the u.s. might call “fishing for compliments” or something along those lines because of the perceived appropriate response (that is, incidentally, entirely culture-specific. i’ve been told by many people from all over the world that i’m fat – in large crowds of people, with big smiles and laughter…one mexican friend of mine called her girlfriend “gorda” or “gordita” as a term of affection). if i’m really really listening for real, though, the truth is that she wasn’t simply making a statement – she did indeed hope for a response. assuming she’s in her right mind, telling her she’s not fat when she is will just be patronizing and false. she doesn’t need advice any more than smokers trying to give up do…if she’s got one eye open she knows what she needs to do to lose weight. personal experience – where i’d often go – is i guess symptomatic of what i like to call ‘willie lowman syndrome’ (i made that up). it’s the condition whereby we do anything we can to be liked, because that’s the measure of our value in this life…if stephanie knows that i’ve been there, maybe she’ll feel better about herself, and – i think this is where my brain goes – maybe she’ll then know that i’m a good person. but the truth? the truest truth is that she made a hurtful, hateful comment about (and therefore to) herself – that she should somehow be physically punished by her own body on an everyday basis (back pain is a bitch…ahem…i’ve been fat, so i’ve been there) for having lost track of something very easy to lose track of nowadays…i think the truth is that she just needs to know someone’s there…that she is valuable regardless of her physical state at this precise moment. ‘if you ever want to talk about it, let me know.’ god – how many days have i gone through wishing somebody would just make that offer…not that i’d necessarily take them up on it, but just to know they were putting it out there…
      so that’s my very long two cents. to be fair, it was a complicated scenario 😉

      • Antonia says:

        If you ever want to talk about it let me know. xxoo By the way, one of my most important AA lessons is that if you always think and speak from the heart people will know where you are coming from.

      • Ann says:

        hehehe…oh, you. do love that one…i always say, AA’s got the best maxims ever…

  2. Amanda says:

    I love this “good communicator/good listener” topic, and I very much relate to your thing #1 and thing #2, Anne. I totally do both of those things and then I realize that I did them and promise I’ll try harder next time to just listen and pay attention. On the topic of giving advice, I’ve been thinking about something Krisnamacharya said– something along the lines of, “Let your student ask you for your advice three times, and then offer it.” I guess that way you know they really want to hear it. Not like I actually do this…

    • Ann says:

      three times! i can see my tortured self just trying not to opine! nah…don’t think i could take krisnamacharya’s advice there…p.s. – REALLY loved your last post!

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