Monday, June 6, 2016

Willing to listen

Complaining is cathartic -- except when it's poorly received. Then suffering tends to beget suffering.
Barbara Wallraff, Word Fugitives

Last night I watched, for the first time since it was in the theaters in 1991, the romantic comedy Only the Lonely starring John Candy, Ally Sheedy and Maureen O'Hara. Each plays a lonely person whose complaints are, in Wallraff's phrase, "poorly received." O'Hara is a widow who lives with a son (Candy) grown tired of listening to her intolerant rants. Candy plays a cop whose partner (Jim Belushi) thinks every problem revolves around sex. Sheedy, the loneliest of them all, works as a cosmetologist in a funeral home. The only audience for her complaints are dead people. The story, in effect, tells how these three each finds someone willing to listen.

In her book, Wallraff identifies some other ways in which complaints are poorly received.

1. "What you get back is what you should have done to avoid the problem." Usually we already know what we should have done differently. We should have read the contract before we signed it. We shouldn't have left the key in our car. We should have closed the windows when the forecast called for rain. We realize that now. Yet we would still appreciate a little sympathy.

2. "A puzzled look and a put-down like 'You let that kind of stuff upset you?'" Different things bother different people. Being told we shouldn't let something get to us, when it so clearly does, may be the worst response of all. It causes us to hold our troubles inside and not tell anyone.

3. "Or else someone might say, 'Oh, yes, that happened to me once too ...,' and launch into an irrelevant anecdote, leaving you feeling misunderstood as well as unburdened.'

4. "Or sometimes the listener might put a name to what happened to you, summing up your whole story in a word or phrase: 'So you got a hangover.' 'You tripped." 'Oh -- a flat tire!'" This may seem like sympathy, but it really isn't. It's more being placed in a category and then dismissed.

5. "A bit better is when the person says, 'That happened to me,' and then tells a story relevant to the one you told. This may not be sympathy, but it can pass for empathy." Too often, of course, the other person tries to top your tale of woe with one of his own. "You think your surgery was bad, wait until you hear about mine." They may even launch into their stories before you have finished yours.

My wife had Stephen Ministry training, which seems to center around listening to other people talk about what's troubling them. The hardest part, I gather, is simply avoiding responses like those above.  Sometimes the less one says, the better. As unsatisfying as Ally Sheedy's audience was in that funeral home, it could have been worse.

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