The gift of your complete, undivided attention

I’m almost 30. And I think I’m finally learning how to talk to people

I lost my grandmother a couple of years back. I still vividly remember that I got to know this through a message that my sister sent me. My head began spinning, and I had to sit down for some time to process the information. My grandmother and I had drifted apart in the last few years, and it was disheartening to not have completely made up with her before her demise.

The last time that I had met her, she tried to talk to me about her impending death. Everybody knew that she was unlikely survive beyond a year or two. However, as soon as she brought up the topic of dying, I dutifully shushed her and told her that nothing would happen to her. She would get better very soon, and all would be well. She looked down with a sigh, and said “Let’s see what happens”. The conversation ended there, and I left after some time.

I’ve replayed that conversation in my head a lot of times. What should I have done differently? My grandmother probably wanted to reflect on the concept of death by talking to me about it. Had she laid out all her stories and feelings in front of me, she could have had an epiphany which would have helped her reconcile with the ending of human life. However, before she could do any of that, I just ended the conversation with a “don’t worry, you’ll soon get better”.

I was recently reading the book “Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre” by Keith Johnstone. In a small footnote, Johnstone talks about how nurses are trained to talk to patients. I will reproduce the notes that I took on this section.

Therapeutic techniques are the techniques that nurses should use to talk to patients, while non-therapeutic techniques are those that they should be careful to avoid. Of course, these techniques can (and should) be used with people in general, and not just patients in mental asylums.

On reading this section, I realized that I was basically doing almost everything wrong while talking to people. Let us explore some of those mistakes below:

  • Reassuring- I chose to reassure my grandmother that nothing would happen to her, instead of just listening to her attentively
  • Giving approval- If I wanted to get along with someone, I would just signal my approval with whatever they were saying. This didn’t always get me close to them, as they would probably suspect that I was being insincere.
  • Rejecting/Challenging- I would commonly reject or challenge a political opinion during a conversation, instead of finding out why the person held that opinion
  • Advising- A lot of times, I would offer unsolicited advice to friends who would tell me about their problems, without listening to them fully.

Instead of doing all of the things that I’ve mentioned above, I could have just offered the person I was talking to my complete, undivided attention. Let us explore some hypothetical scenarios below:

What my conversation partner saysWhat I shouldn’t sayWhat I should say
I have been feeling lonely for a long timeYou should join some Meet Up groupsSince when you have you been feeling this way?
I think the Democrats have it all wrongI think you’re wrong, the Democrats have been doing greatWhich of their policies do you most disagree with?
Grad school is a nightmare, and I wish I’d never comeExactly, this is hellI see. Is it the work pressure that you dislike?
I don’t get along with my family. I created a ruckus at a family gathering. They refuse to acknowledge my presence, and have cut me offThey can go to hell/ you should be more accommodating of your familyDid they cut you off after your incident at the family gathering, are the two unrelated?

When people tell you their story or their opinion, they are often searching for clarity in their own thoughts. Help them find it. Ask questions, find connections between different parts of their story, ask them to explain something in more detail. Gift people your complete, neutral (don’t agree or disagree with things they say), undivided attention. Be curious about what they’ve been through. Let them arrive at their own epiphanies and meaning, on their own terms. Facilitating someone’s clarity of mind is often the greatest gift you can give them.

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Graduate student

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