13 Aug 2008

How to say "I accept you"

Posted by paulandrew

I was recently having dinner with a friend when she related a bad experience that she’d had. She’d made some bad decisions, things didn’t go well, and I’m guessing she was feeling ashamed about it.

As a Supportive Listener I know that just giving her space to talk and be heard is valuable, and so I stayed quiet and let her talk. So far so good. This went on for a little while, and she seemed to be benefiting from the chance to talk without being interrupted.

But then her sentences started to get shorter and she seemed pensive, worried. Trouble. Finally she blurted it out:

“You think I’m an idiot, don’t you?”

I had apparently overused silence. My intent had been to give her lots of room to develop her thinking, say what she had to say, without interference from me. But at some point her need to talk had shifted to hear from me, to have that connection reestablished.

And so I turned to that tool, my good friend the WIG, and told her some of the things I’d heard her say. Not verbatim, but a summary in my mind of some of the key things she had said. And as I was talking she seemed to relax a bit. As if she was relieved to see I was still tracking with her, I didn’t have anything critical or preachy to say–I was just there with her, implicitly saying “I accept you” (even if you think you did something stupid.)

For the rest of that part of the conversation I was more atuned to the balance between just listening and sharing a WIG. Of tending to that connection so that she felt accepted and supported.

It is very easy as a listener to forget how alone a speaker may feel when relating a story about bad decisions. If the speaker, within her own experience is thinking “wow that was stupid” then it’s no surprise that she would think that I, as a listener, would be thinking the same thing. Thus the WIG is a really valuable tool for demonstrating to the speaker “hey, I’m not judging you, I’m just right here next to you.” And even to go another level “hey, we all make mistakes. I still accept you.”

One important point here–notice how even though I “made a mistake” in taking the silence too far, the situation turned out just fine in the end. My friend pushed me on the silence, in her own way, and I had just the right tool to reestablish the connection and get back on track. I maintain that if my intent–acceptance and respect–is on the mark then the Supportive Listening interaction will be able to withstand all kinds of “mistakes” on my part as a listener. We’ll make it through.

And finally, I’d say it’s much easier to notice an issue if I err on the side of silence, rather than if I err on the side of talking. One of the most common challenges for people new to Supportive Listening is that they have trouble sitting through the silence, and so the speakers don’t get enough space. Push your limits for silence as a listener, and your speakers will surprise you.

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