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Sociability • Communication

Why We Should Listen Rather Than Reassure

Whenever people tell us their problems, one of our most common, quasi-automatic — and subtly dispiriting —responses is to try to deny the severity of what they have just said to us.

Someone tells us that they haven’t been sleeping very well: and we respond — with the best of intentions — that not getting a requisite number of hours ‘doesn’t really matter.’ Another person tells us that they didn’t get a promotion and we try to be nice by reminding them that: ‘they are already doing very well as they are.’ Were someone to reveal that they were dying, we might — in extremis — be tempted to say: ‘But you can’t be…’

Parents are often to be heard performing this manoeuvre on their upset or angry children:

Child: I’m feeling sad.
Parent: Don’t be silly, you’re not, it’s the holidays.

Child: I’m really worried.
Parent: Darling, that’s ridiculous, there’s nothing to be scared of in your bedroom.

The reason for our cheerful rejoinders lie in our unresolved relationship to our own despair, fear and sadness. We seem so unable to square up to awful things in our lives, we have no option but to try to deny that they might have a place in the lives of others. We become sentimental, that is, addicted to airbrushing away the uncomfortable aspects of reality, out of fear, not deafness.

A more evolved relationship to ourselves — of the kind psychotherapists seek to promote — can assuage the itch to deliver upbeat messages by prompting us to make our peace with sorrow. Someone might say that they were sad, and we could in time learn simply (and more helpfully) to answer: ‘I hear you.’ Another might insist: ‘Everything is awful,’ and we might look them warmly in the eye and respond, ‘Yes, it really can feel like that at times.’

The more we listen to the ‘sad’ messages our companions send us, the less hard they will have to push them. The more we hear, the quieter they can be. Someone who says they want to burn the country down doesn’t want to burn the country down, they want to be heard for their deep frustration that their job or family is causing them. They will only become an arsonist if we continue not to listen — not if we do so amply with empathetic good humour. Feelings get less strong, not stronger, once they’ve been acknowledged. It is a move of exemplary generosity and maturity to let someone be sad and desperate around us without falling for the cruel temptation of saying something cheerful.

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