A few weeks ago, several of us nurses got together for a cup of coffee outside of work, a rare event but an occasional holiday celebration. We sat around a table, holding our hot drinks and warming our fingers from the bitter cold outside. After some light banter, one of our colleagues shared a recent difficult encounter with a patient, one that left her feeling defeated and out of sorts as a professional. We all listened intently, and it was interesting to observe the various responses from her friends and co-workers. Because our responses were so reflexive, it made me think that we might also respond this way in other situations. Is good listening a skill we can learn and get better at? Consider the responses from around that table and think about how you respond to patients, co-workers, family members that share vulnerably with you.
1. Almost before she could finish her story, one of the group asserted loudly (even pointing a finger in her direction), “I would not take that. I think you should respond by saying…” She went out to detail how the conversation might have gone had she been a participant, laying out clearly what she saw as the answer to her friend’s problem. Her body language, her forcefulness, her certainty all seemed to push the storyteller back in her chair, away from her cup of coffee, as she raised her eyebrows questioningly. “Do you really think so?” She queried, her hurt and confusion visible and audible.
2. A second person listened a little longer then said, “Well, I don’t think you should feel that way at all.” She continued to “should” all over the teller, minimizing her struggle and essentially asking her to harness her feelings into something less hurtful than they really were. “Shoulding” is so common, isn’t it?
3. The third person, the speaker’s close friend, remained quiet through the various exchanges, allowing the story to have plenty of time and space. She leaned forward a little before quietly offering her empathetic response: “What happened to you really stinks. I am so sorry that you had to go through that.” To me, it felt like she came alongside her friend and figuratively put her arm around her shoulders, sharing the difficult space and sitting with her as she felt the feelings she was feeling.
Same story, three very different responses. Where do you see yourself? Ideally, we would like to say that we are consistently in #3, but most likely, we vacillate in our responses, employing all 3 from time to time and moving back and forth.
The advice-giver meant well, but she effectively shut down communication, didn’t she? By delivering her pronouncement, she declared that she knew what was best and how that situation could be resolved. As unrealistic and presumptuous as her response is, we see it and experience it often, don’t we? People want to “set things right” by their standards and don’t want to leave a lot of uncertainty hanging around. While it is possible to offer advice, people rarely really want it, even if they ask. Generally, people need to work out their own individual approaches, their own answers, in their own time. Occasionally, if we have been in the exact same situation (unlikely) we can share what we did, but most of the time, those who share with us are looking for validation, a careful listener, and help in the form of a well-placed question such as, “So how do you feel about things now?”
The advice-giver’s body language also closed more doors. Finger-pointing rarely feels good to the recipient of the gesture. It can be a strong, power-loaded motion, one that requires careful thought before deployment.
The “shoulding” friend also delivered a put-down, didn’t she? We have the right to our feelings even if our feelings are not right. Feelings are proprietary. We acknowledge them, deal with them in our own way and hopefully find a path to mastery over time but “shoulding” brings some shame into the picture and makes us ask ourselves, “What is wrong with me to feel this way?” Of course the “should-er” doesn’t mean to elicit these feelings at all; she simply wants to make everything “all better” and smooth over discomfort. She longs to fix it, doesn’t she? As nurses, we can be attracted to the profession because we long to help our patients. This charitable desire has a dark side which is the “fixer” of the profession—always knowing what is best for others and letting them know what we think instead of allowing them to feel their own feelings and find their own way. If not carefully monitored, our desire to help can morph into control and manipulation and codependency.
The third friend’s empathetic response felt the most compassionate to me as I observed these interactions among friends. While the first two seemed to close doors of communication, the third response pushed the door ajar, allowing for future conversation and more opportunity to discuss the hurtful occurrence and to process it.
The conversation at the table moved on to less heavy topics and we continued to share and laugh as our coffee cooled, offering healing and support to one another. Long after we went our separate ways, I thought about what I had witnessed and how many times we miss the mark in our responses to others.
Were #1 and #2 “wrong” and #3 “right?”
Well, yes and no and maybe. We are not perfect humans. We must offer each other grace and forgiveness every day if we hope to find any joy at all in this life. Friends sometimes say the best thing and sometimes not. We don’t discount their input either way, and we usually try to overcome differences. But such conversations shine a light on how we communicate and can help us to pause and think as we listen to someone’s story, careful as we try to respond with empathy and concern.