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When You Don’t Want the Details

Being a compassionate listener doesn't necessarily mean hearing every detail of someone's story.  Sometimes hearing the details of a story can have a lasting negative impact on you, as when someone is sharing a violent news story.  Sometimes the details of a story just aren't connecting, as when someone shares a technical part of his or her job of which you have no real understanding.


Unfortunately when you say, "I don't want to hear the details, just summarize," it usually doesn't go over well with the other person.  S/he can't distinguish between you not wanting the details and a sense of rejection or intolerance.  So how can you take care of your own needs and still offer compassionate listening?


With the violent news story or similar example, you can follow these four steps:  call a pause, reassure the other person that you want to hear him or her,  let the other person know how you are affected by particular details,  and then make a specific request.  It might sound something like this, "Wait!  I really want to hear about you. And when I hear details about violence, the images stay with me for years.  Would you be willing to share about your experience without sharing the details?"


More often you likely find yourself hearing details to which you simply aren't connected, that is, you get bored.  Sometimes the only way someone knows how to share an experience is by sharing the details of what happened.  S/he doesn't have access to the experience behind the details in a direct way.  So if you asked for the person's experience, you might get a blank stare.  If you asked this person skip the details because you are bored and have a need for aliveness, you are likely to be perceived as insulting and rejecting.


What's more helpful is to interrupt to connect with an empathy guess.  At first, when you interrupt, the other person may be a little startled and tense.  Most interruptions are followed by taking attention away from the speaker, so it takes a few interruptions for the other person to get that you are actually expressing curiosity.  Interrupting to connect is a skill that takes practice.  It requires attunement to the other person's experience and a sense of how much intimacy your interaction of the moment can hold.   It's a practice of  listening to the other's heart regardless of the words.  Over the course of the conversation you will feel the tone start to shift as the other person relaxes into being seen and heard more fully.  Often your empathy guesses can float along the top of what the other person is saying in

one word or a short phrase.  For example,

  • Frustrating, huh?   

  • Sounds complicated

  • feeling proud?

  • respect?

  • A bit overwhelming?

  • A frantic day?

  • You're really into it, huh?

  • It's your passion?

  • Do you enjoy the challenge of those technical problems?


You can likely tolerate a certain amount of boredom or disconnect in a conversation knowing that conversations have ups and downs.  However, when boredom turns into resentful listening, it's toxic for both of you.  Interrupting to connect is a way to take responsibility not only for your own needs, but also for caring for the relationship.


Practice

Take a moment now to choose a particular relationship to practice interrupting to connect.  Set your intention to practice in the next interaction with this person.

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2 Responses

  1. Mar 27, 2015
    Kim Braun

    LaShelle,
    Thanks for the article. I have tried to interrupt to get to the feelings and needs especially if the "story" is something I don't agree with but do want to offer empathy and to connect. Can you give some tips on addressing someone who wants you to agree with them and continues with the details because all you can offer them is empathy. I would like to move onto the needs, feelings, etc and move on in the conversation, but seem to get trapped with them repeating themselves over again and dismissing every guess at a need or feeling. I try to summarize, mirror and to ask if they think I understand. But unless I agree, they continue and later they may say the needs and feelings that I asked about earlier were the ones that they had but didn't want to say earlier because I didn't agree. Thanks

  2. Mar 29, 2015

    Hmm, I would try going right to the request, asking "So what to want to have happen next time we are in that situation?"

    When someone is attached to his or her memory of an experience, they are usually looking for accountability hoping that if you own what you did, it won't happen again and that your empathy will be more genuine.

    Also, I might let the connection go for a while and not offer empathy if the other person is so attached to me agreeing, they may be too reactive to receive empathy.

    Does this help?

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