How to interact with me, part 2 (long)

In my talk with my Uncle Paul back in January, I told him about seeing the counselor last year and mentioned that it had helped. And he asked what about it had helped. And so I told him some of the kinds of things I'm looking for in a sympathetic listener, which were mostly things the counselor did really well. And it felt good to tell someone about that; I've said most of it to the counselor and to a few close friends, but opportunities to say it don't come up often, and I hadn't sat down and thought it through carefully in a while.

Which emboldened me to write about it publicly--although I use the term "emboldened" with a dash of irony, since it took me more than three months after writing this to find the courage and emotional wherewithal to actually post it.

There are various potential minefields here; I'll try to navigate them carefully, but I might not quite make it. I only hope that if any friends are distressed by this, you'll try to forgive me.

This is to some extent a followup to an entry from last summer titled How to interact with me. But this post supersedes that one in any areas where they contradict each other. And that one was more a set of guidelines for general interaction with me at a particular point in time--and a confusing set, at that--whereas the below list is a set of guidelines for a particular kind of interaction with me that are likely to apply in most situations when I'm upset or unhappy, not just for stuff about my father. The funny thing is that now, in May, when I'm finally posting this, I'm actually doing reasonably well most of the time, so this is all much less of a big deal.

The other thing I should note is that not all interactions with me have to be deep and meaningful, or have to be about me. If in some interactions you want to just chat with me, or tell me what's up with you, that's fine. The below items are specific to the purpose of actually finding out how I'm doing and how I'm feeling when I'm distressed about something; if that's not what you're looking for, at a given moment, then you can ignore these.

So here's a list of the circumstances and behaviors most likely to get me to talk about what's going on with me in a meaningful way. I'm arrogant enough to think that many of these items are good ways to approach listening to people in general--most of them are things I try to do when talking with others who are going through difficult stuff--but I'm also aware enough of my own idiosyncrasies to know that some of them are very specific to me.

(Paul quoted a great line from, I think, some church context: "What these people need is a good listening-to.")

I should also add that this is not written in anger or distress, and I don't mean anyone to feel bad for not following these, and I certainly don't mean to be lecturing or suggesting that these are Rules That Must Be Followed if you want to talk with me. I can't demand that you approach me in a particular way; and if I want to say something, it's up to me to say it, not up to you to provide space for me to say it. Also, I very much appreciate people's attempts to treat me the way they assume I would want to be treated; it's not anybody's fault that some of those assumptions don't match how I actually do want to be treated. It's taken me a long time to even get to the point of being able to articulate these, and being willing to say them publicly; nobody should feel bad about not having read my mind.

So with all those disclaimers and caveats, here are some notes on the ideal situation for getting me to open up:

  • A quiet, intimate setting. (I'm extremely unlikely to be emotionally open in a place where I have to yell to be heard. I don't like to talk loudly in general; I especially don't like it for deeply personal stuff.)
  • Not too many people present. (The more people present, the better I have to know them to be willing to open up to them.)
  • A conversation in which I can ease into talking about what's up with me, where I don't have to choose between jumping immediately into the emotional deep end and not getting to talk about myself at all. (For example: in response to the conversation-opening "How are you?" I'm not always ready to go into a lot of detail; I want to be able to say "Holding up okay" or something, and then ask how the other person's doing, and then come back to me later. Often when I say "Holding up okay" and ask how the other person's doing, the rest of the conversation becomes entirely about them.)
  • People who are at least as interested in hearing what I'm thinking and feeling (about what's going on with me) as in telling me what they're thinking and feeling (about what's going on with me). And who will ask how I feel about what's going on with me before telling me in detail how they feel about it.
  • People who can listen without interrupting too often or too irrelevantly. (A certain amount of interruption is fine, of course, just like in the usual give and take of conversation.) And who can let me pause for a little while as I try to come up with a way to express what I'm saying, without trying to suggest endings to my sentences too often. (Again, a certain amount of sentence-finishing is fine.)
  • People who will ask specific questions that are relevant to the topic at hand, and who won't refrain from asking things on the assumption that I won't want to answer them. (Even "How are you feeling about [specific thing X]" is often a good question. When I'm talking with someone who's upset about something, I sometimes assume I know the answer to that question, but when I actually ask it I often find I was wrong. Admittedly, in some contexts it does take some grace and tact to ask it in a way that doesn't provoke the angry response "How the hell do you think I feel? Isn't it obvious?" But fwiw, if you ask me such a question I will pretty much never react angrily, unless I just told you the answer and I get the impression you weren't listening.) (More generally, in a comfortable environment it's almost always okay with me for people to ask me any question that won't lead to conflict/confrontation; if I'm uncomfortable answering, I'll say so.)
  • Listeners who will contribute to the conversation, not make me feel like I need to give a monologue.
  • Listeners who will be sympathetic and yet not blindly take my side. (For example, if I'm upset with person A, and talking with person B about it, I want person B to acknowledge that I have reason to be upset, but I don't want person B to say "Person A is the worst person ever." If person B says that, it forces me to defend person A, which isn't necessarily what I want to do right then. More generally, I don't know anyone who's the worst person ever, and it generally distresses me to hear mean things said about someone else, even if it's someone who I'm having difficulties with.)
  • Listeners who can acknowledge and/or understand both emotional and rationalist reactions to a situation, and can acknowledge and/or understand that people can have multiple kinds of reactions at once, even contradictory ones.
  • Listeners who can comment on a situation using brief and relevant examples and anecdotes and stories drawn from their own lives and the lives of their friends. (Without derailing the conversation into a protracted discussion of those examples and anecdotes.)
  • Listeners who, if they offer suggestions on how to improve things, offer them in the form of questions or suggestions, rather in the form of statements about what I should and shouldn't do.
  • Listeners who are aware of subtlety, nuance, and complexity in real-life situations, and don't try to paint everything in black and white.
  • Listeners who can make me feel like I'm (a) having a conversation, that's (b) focused on me. Both parts of that are important; I want a middle ground between general conversation and monologue-about-me.
  • Another way of putting that: listeners who can navigate the flow of the conversation well enough to balance listening with talking; in particular, who can talk about themselves just enough to not make me feel like I'm engaging in a monologue, but who will also make plenty of room for me to talk about myself (and won't take a question from me as a cue to go into 45-minute-monologue mode).
  • Listeners who can keep track of topics that we slid away from on tangents, and who are interested in returning to those topics after finishing the digressions. (I love digressions; I just want to come back to the original thread afterward.) (An old friend and I used to have conversations in which we would explicitly push and pop topics in the conversational stack. (Yes, we were reading Gödel, Escher, Bach at the time.) If you don't know what "push," "pop," and "stack" mean in this context, then you can think of it as being something like opening and closing sets of parentheses.)
  • Listeners who, if they express their own feelings about something strongly, can make clear that they acknowledge that other people (especially me) might legitimately feel differently.
  • Listeners who won't take my starting to cry as a sign that they should change the subject and talk about their own lives and/or light and fluffy unrelated things.
  • Listeners who ask me whether I'm up for talking about something, rather than assuming that I'm not. (I usually am, given a comfortable enough environment.)
  • This one's tricky (and even more optional than the rest of this stuff), but I'll mention it anyway: listeners who can provide some degree of physical contact. I often find sympathetic and friendly touch (from hugs to occasional light touches on shoulder or knee) very reassuring and comforting. Not always, and not with everyone (and more with people I know well than with those I don't), but more often than not.
  • Listeners who, once told that I'm not up for talking about something in a particular context, won't assume that I will never be up for talking about it in any context. (This ties in particularly with setting; for example, if we're in a crowded restaurant and you yell down the length of the table to ask me how I'm doing, you'll probably get a non-answer.)

I understand and appreciate the well-meaning and sympathetic rationales that lead people to approach me in lots of ways other than the ways described above. But there are things that are part of most people's toolkit for dealing with distressed friends that just make me tense when used on me. (The "You're totally right and the person who hurt you is utterly evil" one is a prime example of this; for a lot of people, it seems to be the default method of providing sympathy and support. Unfortunately, it's the wrong way to be sympathetic toward me.)

Anyway. I don't know if any of this makes sense to anyone else. I know I project an air of being very private and unapproachable about what's going on in my head, but that's not really intentional. I like talking about myself; I like people expressing interest in me; I like answering questions. But I think that on many of the rare occasions when people do try to talk with me about difficult emotional stuff, they try to do that in environments where I'm not comfortable, like crowded rooms or public spaces or in loud voices, and my evasiveness in those contexts tends to reinforce the impression that I don't like to talk about stuff. As does my inability to dive right into difficult topics without some warmup conversation first. As does my inability to explicitly say most of the above to people. It ain't none of it anybody's fault; just the way I'm wired.

Anyway. I hope some of that made sense, and I hope it didn't come across as too lecturey. Mostly just trying to open lines of communication. Or maybe I mean meta-communication.

5 Responses to “How to interact with me, part 2 (long)”

  1. David D. Levine

    With the single exception of “Listeners who won’t take my starting to cry as a sign that they should change the subject”, those all seem like good general guidelines for being a polite and caring conversation partner. Thanks for putting these together.

  2. Cj

    That was a bundle of worthwhile and useful information. Thank you. Not sure, considering my nature, that I can take advantage of it, but insight is always valuable (even if I’m not quite sure if I will ever be able to spend it). You are very brave.

  3. SarahP

    Thanks for sharing this, Jed. I think a lot of people assume lots of things about others, probably with the best of intentions (like, “I don’t want to intrude”, or “he doesn’t need to hear that from me). It’s good to be reminded.

  4. Jess T.

    Good to see these laid out–they sound like good reminders for any situation that requires listening. And something of a challenge…

  5. Trent Walters

    Yes, thanks for sharing. Great guidelines. You need to write a book on how to be nice to people. While most of these are general for any personal conversation, I do think some of these are personal. Some don’t feel comfortable touching others without invitation to do so. Likewise, if I were crying, I probably don’t want to talk about it (unless I’m talking about it). So if people mess up, they might be responding as they might wish to be treated.


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