With all the talk of Fake News and swirling rumours and secrets in my workplace, I have been thinking a lot about how to talk to people. About how people talk to people and the best ways to communicate. My favourite tv characters are the Mirandas and the Chandlers and the Richards (from Caroline In The City). The secondary characters with the good lines. The sharp zingers that stay with you because they are so perfectly crafted. For a long time, that was my modus operandi. Be the funniest person in the room. Being funny, being sarcastic was the thing. Actually communicating a message was less important.
I don’t remember when that changed, but I care a bit less about being funny now. I’m definitely sarcastic less often. Sarcasm doesn’t really deliver empathy, which is more important to me. The Mirandas and the Chandlers had the good lines, but they didn’t have the good stories until they developed and gave other people a chance. The Mirandas and the Chandlers are generally bitter and a bit broken, but isn’t everyone a little bit broken? Being bitter on top didn’t help them be less broken.
After the sarcasm, came the rage and I went through a shouty phase. I was angry all the time and my anger was directed at all the wrong things, all the wrong people. I never learnt how to handle anger as a child or a young woman – anger isn’t ladylike and was never on a GCSE syllabus, so I’m still trying to learn how to do that on my own. How to be angry and express it, rather than eat it and let it poison me from the inside. I try to never shout at people, but rather to shout about things to people. That difference is important to me. I never want anyone to feel attacked by me. There’s no need for that. The world has enough attackers at the moment.
I’ve had quite a few occasions at work lately where Difficult Conversations had to be had. My initial response has been to be furious and loud and make sweeping statements in my office. Then I’ve made zingers while I simmer and sift my thoughts alone. Finally, I actually spoke to the person and had soft conversations where firmly, but carefully, I made my point, asked questions and we worked on a solution. It works. It’s not as satisfying as shouting about how right you are, how you absolutely know best in this situation and anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool, but it works. And sometimes that’s more important than being right. It kills me to say that, but there we are.
We’ve all been in situations when someone repeatedly talks about the same problem – or worse! Doesn’t talk about it, but it’s ever-present! – and just doesn’t listen to our helpful and totally 100% correct suggestions. Usually this is how the media portrays women experiencing conversations with men. Men want to solve the problem, rather than offer support, which is what women “actually” want. But I notice this in female friendships and male relationships too. Work, family, friends, all of it.
This is a very difficult time for the world. Everything outside out homes feels hard and painful and sharp. Inside out homes and our heads and our hearts, we want to feel safe. We want our people to be safe and happy and successful. We want to help our people and help them quickly through their hard, painful, sharp problems, especially when we have the answers that they just can’t see.
Telling someone to go to the doctor about that thing they’re worried about, or to speak to a therapist about that problem, or to just quit that upsetting job already, or to leave that terrible girlfriend if she’s such a nightmare, or to apply for that residency card, or to go to that gym, or to join that dating app… is easy. What’s hard, what’s painful, is to sit with our people and hear them silently say that they aren’t ready. That they aren’t strong enough. That they’re scared. That they can’t think that far ahead yet. Speaking sharply or impatiently gave no person ever courage or strength or support to do a difficult thing. Sharp and impatient words make people feel that they’re failing their supporters on top of everything else.
Everyone knows this. Everyone has had a situation where that one person made them feel worse because their tone of voice cut to the bone, even if the words weren’t meant to wound. I can think of three times this very second where the memory still stings, even though our relationship didn’t even recognise it. And I bet there are at least ten people who can instantly call to mind a time when I did that to them and we’ve never spoken about it (I’M SORRY, I WAS A JERK. I’M TRYING TO BE BETTER).
What I’m learning, albeit so very late in life, is to ask questions. Not to say “see, you know what to do, which is what I suggested all along, now do it” but to help understand and to offer support in whatever way that person needs, rather than how I want to help them. I may not be helping anyone on my timetable, but I’m trying not to make anyone feel worse.
Empathy is thin on the ground at the moment. We need to gather it together and share it among ourselves, make more of it and then share it in the world.