People have a habit of coming up to me and telling me the most amazing things. These are really deep, dark, personal things that are very private. I’ve taken classes on how to deal with this because it happened so often. I believe that since people are handing me very heavy stories, it is important that I learn how to receive them and carry them in a way that is safe for me. I believe it is also important to make sure that I handle what they have had to say in a way that is respectful to them. There are many ways to do this incorrectly.

I’m sure all of us have had the experience of when we say something really private and personal to someone that they will say something insensitive such as “Oh something worse happened to me,” or “Oh, it’ll get better,” or “It’s not that bad.” It is important not to diminish a person or minimize their pain. But it is also important not to attempt to fix them. Sometimes (often) the most healing thing you can do is simply to listen.

I know several people who have gone on to become professional counselors because the same thing happens to them. They get paid to listen to people tell their secrets and fears. I feel that to turn such a private and personal and beautiful experience into a transaction cheapens it. I believe that it is exactly the same as the difference between making love and being a prostitute. It has turned a very private and intimate experience between two people into a mechanical thing that has money involved.

Perhaps the answer is that people need to all be trained how to talk honestly, and how to listen with open hearts. We need to share with each other. The relationship needs to be two-sided, equal. And then people need healthy places to share.

Sharing with the bank teller or the store clerk isn’t healthy or equal. The employee is trapped there and is not allowed to share how she is feeling. They are not trained in this either. There need to be meeting areas where people can gather and speak on equal ground.

New age newspeak? Speaking up, empathy, and the new rules of communication.

I read this recently as the caption to a picture on a friend’s post.

“My child,” The Goddess said. “When you have to sacrifice expressing your feelings for the fear of the reaction of another, this is hiding your truth and deeply damaging to your value. Your feelings are worthy. Your thoughts and expressions deserve to be brought into light. It is not our job to rule how another takes our truth, that is theirs to figure out and not for us to absorb. You need only to express yourself fully. That is what you are here to bring into being.” ~Ara

I’m really conflicted by this.

Sure, we need to stop being so sensitive. We need to express our true feelings. If we spend our lives suppressing ourselves, our very natures, then we are constantly living a lie. It is important that we be who we truly are. This way we are truly alive.

There is a way of thinking these days that goes like this – If we are honest and real, it gives everyone else around us permission to be honest and real too.

Until it doesn’t.

Being honest and real can scare people off. It can be intimidating and overwhelming. It can be too much, too soon.

Are we supposed to tell people that we are recovering addicts within the first week we work with them? Are we supposed to tell people about the abuse we received as children on our first date? Are we supposed to tell people all of our misfortunes, misgivings, and mistakes?

Is that kind? It is honest, sure. It is real, sure. But is it real good, or real kind?

How much of this new desire to “actualize the self” is being fueled by the old tendency to be selfish and self-centered? We have to consider other’s feelings when we speak. We have to be kind. We have to live and work together as a community, as a world.

If every instrument plays whatever it wants to play in the orchestra, the result will sound terrible. If every instrument plays as loud as it can, not caring about the other instruments being heard, it will be a cacophony. Only when the instruments work together will we have beauty and harmony. Each has their part and their place, and they work together to create something beautiful.

Many people have played small, for a long time. It is important that each person feel able to speak up and share from their hearts. But it cannot be at the sacrifice of other people’s hearts.

Unwritten rules

Just think about how hard life is if you don’t know the language. You’re always frustrated and you always feel that nobody understands you.

If you walk up to a food stand, you hope they have pictures so you can point at what you want. If what you want isn’t there, you are stuck because you don’t know how to ask for it. They also may have something really fabulous that you don’t even know you want. You’ll never know about it, because you can’t read that language.

We have ways to teach people language. For their first language, they learn by imitating their parents at the beginning. Then they go to school and learn more. They have to start with the basics of the alphabet and what sounds each letter makes. Once they can do that, they can then work on putting the letters together to make words. Then they can put the words together to make sentences. It is a long step-by-step process that hopefully, usually, results in us being able to communicate with each other.

But what if the language isn’t written down?

There are a lot of social rules that are just assumed, but if you “read” them wrong, you have failed at communication just as surely as if you read the book backwards. You don’t know what is happening or what to do next.

Everybody wants to be heard and understood. They want their feelings to matter.

We have a habit of assuming that everybody is like us and have had the same upbringing. We also have a habit of thinking that nobody is like us and we are all alone. Both have great fault to them. These ways of thinking cause the majority of communication issues. Often it doesn’t matter what you say, but what you don’t say that matters the most.

Do unto others as they do unto you.

Sometimes the rule isn’t “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Sometimes the best way to interact with a person is to imitate how they are interacting with you.

Imagine this – if they are working on the premise of “do unto others…” then how they are interacting with you is exactly how they would like to be treated. So if your way doesn’t work, try their way.

If they stand too close, try standing close to them when you initiate a conversation. If they only talk standing up, try that. It may make you feel uncomfortable, but it may help them feel comfortable. If you keep communicating with them your way and not their way, they may feel like something is wrong. These unwritten rules of social interaction are often what make or break a conversation.

Just like different cultures have different conversational styles, so do different people. To make someone feel comfortable, try doing things their way – not yours. Often, it isn’t what is said, so much as how it is said that makes the conversation work or not.

Cornered – physical boundaries and confrontational conversation styles.

One of the worst things you can do is make someone feel threatened when you talk with them. It is important to be mindful of the physical space between you and another person. A safe rule is to put out your arm, fingers extended, at a 90 degree angle away from your body. Don’t stand any closer than that to a person you don’t know unless they have given you permission. If you want to make them feel even more comfortable, stand even further away.

Just because you work with someone doesn’t mean you have permission. The boundaries are even more important if you are a manager, or of the opposite gender. Physical space is the same as people’s homes. In the same way that you wouldn’t invite yourself over to someone’s home you don’t know, you shouldn’t stand right next to someone you don’t know.

Cornering is another thing to think about. You may not be close to them, but they may not be able to leave. Your conversation will go much more smoothly if you pay attention to their physical comfort. If you are mindful of their physical comfort, they will mentally feel more comfortable as well. A simple conversation can become a confrontation if someone feels physically threatened.

Consider whether they are literally up against the wall. Are they able to physically back away from where you are when you’re having a conversation? Even if they’re not up against the wall are you blocking their method of escape? They may not want to escape but if you physically block them then they will feel like they need too. If you are essentially trapping them in a room it is very threatening.

If you need to talk to a person who is sitting in a chair at a desk, be mindful of cornering them there. They are blocked on their front and back, and depending on the chair they are blocked on their sides as well. If you are within an arm’s length of them at the same time, you’ve just doubled their discomfort. If they have to look up into a light to talk to you, and at an angle, you’ve achieved the trifecta of terrible communication styles.

Having a conversation while standing up is also a bad idea. It will make the conversation more confrontational. Sit down if at all possible, and make sure you are both at eye level. Having a table between you can make the other person feel more comfortable. Be mindful though that it might establish a sense of hierarchy. If you are a manager and the conversation is at your desk, it will not be an equal conversation.

Also it is important for you to consider your body posture. Is it open or closed? Do you have your arms crossed in front of you? Do you have your legs crossed? Are you looking away from them? All of these are “closed” body postures and indicate to the listener that you aren’t listening to them. Do the opposite to let them know you are fully present.

If you want them to listen to you, then you have to make it look like you are listening to them by altering your body posture. But you have to get some sort of middle ground. It is important not to fling your arms around a lot. It is important not to open your legs up wide and scoot your pelvis towards them. Both of those are very aggressive moves. They are too open. Look for a balance and remain neutral, not too forward, not too far back.