Saturday, February 21, 2015

Sometimes we should just shut up and listen: A meditation on ownership

You know the temptation to slow down and stare in morbid fascination at a car wreck as you drive by it?  Amazingly, in the past few years I've changed my behavior with regards to that.  I purposefully try to not slow down, keep my eyes on the road ahead of me and say a prayer for those involved.  It's been an exercise in self-discipline, and not contributing more to the ugliness.  I see metaphorical car wrecks happen often on Facebook, and recently coming upon one has prompted me to write this entry.

Lately I've been reading quite a few controversial Facebook articles and then daring to skim through the comments, and often, I can feel that same kind of morbid fascination that hits when I pass a car wreck surge up within me as I read some of the offensive, trolling remarks.  One in particular hit me hard enough that I felt compelled to write a note to the original poster of the article saying how bad I felt for her.  It was an article in memoriam of an infant death posted on a popular site, and an argument about birth philosophies had worked its way into the comments, filled with advice, criticism, outright insults, and even a pictures of healthy babies born in similar circumstances.  The mother whose baby had died was reading these comments.

* insert "I'm just here for the comments" meme here *

It all got me to thinking, why do people troll on social media?  Why, both online and in real life, is the first instinct to give advice when someone's struggling, and maybe just needs a listening ear?  The word that came to my mind at that point was ownership.  It didn't feel right to me that people were posting those kinds of comments on that woman's story because they didn't own the story.  They stepped into a sacred space - really barged into it - and stole some of its essence away.  They made it about them, instead of what it was really about.  Her sadness, her warning, her pleading and wish that things could have been different.  They were story hijackers.

Why do we speak out sometimes when we should just shut up and listen?  On social media it's so easy to forget that a real person is behind the words you see.  But even in real life this is a problem.

This is a deeply personal issue to me.  I'm a sensitive person.  This plays out in some good ways, as being sensitive to how others are feeling helps me to be a caring and compassionate person, and being sensitive to my own self helps me to be reflective and productive through a willingness to make changes.  And yet, there's also a downside to my sensitivity. My sensitivity to things being wrong has led me into perfectionist behaviors.  There's a finely tuned error checker in my brain.  A little too finely tuned.  That's why, when others may just laugh at a situation being a little off, I'm first set ablaze fuming with the injustice of it all and then immediately plotting out a mostly fantastical scheme in which I solve this particular problem and then go on to solve everyone's problems everywhere.  The problem is that when I realize I can't actually fix the problem, sometimes I can have a hard time accepting that and I ruminate over the issue.  So what sets off my error checker?  If this is a rant, what is it ranting about?  It comes down to not honoring one another in conversation ... to making people feel as if they are not heard ... hijacking someone's story, and making it about you.  Now, I can't toss every starfish back into the ocean, but surely I can toss back a few.  That's why, when I've calmed down and realized that just because no one else is on fire for it, doesn't mean that the whole thing warrants at least a match, or something. In other words, this may not seem like a big deal to you but for us sensitive types, it is.

SACRED SPACE in conversation

I'm no philosopher, but it seems to me that there's more to "personal space" than just a couple of feet (or inches, depending on your culture) of atmosphere.  A person's space is more than that.  It's their words, their stories, their heart.  I cherish conversations when we get beyond small talk, and we share something close to our hearts.  When a friend shares something real with me, she's shared a bit of herself.  Her words - her story - that's her space.  I feel that when we do life through conversation, we have a few choices on how we can interact:  we can respect our friend's ownership of the situation and not ask for anything; we can steal, or hijack, her story which results in more shallow relationships; or we can transfer ownership back and forth as long as each side is willing to gift their story to the other.

Conversational OWNERSHIP when a friend is vulnerable:

I believe that sometimes we really do just need to shut up and listen.  If a friend is going through a tragic situation, or even if it's an everyday situation and they're on the verge of processing something new, she probably just needs us to listen, to offer our condolances,  let her know that we care and are there for her.  She is not asking for any advice.  She is not asking for us to tell her about a similar time that we had.  She may be so distraught that if you try to tell her anything she won't even hear your words.  I think that if we talk about ourselves in a situation where someone really just needs to get their story out, we are stealing the opportunity to connect.  So what CAN we do in a conversation like this?  We can listen.  We can ask gentle questions to show that we understand and care.  No advice.  No turning the conversation back to be about me.  Some people figure things out by thinking, and some by talking.  If we cut off someone who is figuring something out, or turn the conversation back to being about us, we're robbing them of the opportunity to have an insight.

Story hijacking:

We could have our default be giving advice and talking about ourselves.  It might, after all, make people respect us, want to be like us, think we're cool, or whatever.  It might also make them not like us very much.  It will probably make people feel ignored.

Shared ownership:

Realistically, most conversations fall into a more equal balance, where our friends want to share their life with us, but also hear about ours.  I think that the trick, though, is that we have to really honor the moments that are shared with us.  Listen.  Ask a few questions.  Don't give advice unless the person wants it.  I feel that unwanted advice is a little bit like entering into a strange garden assuming that the person wants to do some pruning or pulling up weeds and figuring you'll help - but you know so little about their strange flowers that you're pulling up weeds and flowers both.  And don't have your default conversational style be to immediately talk about a similar experience you had.  You're in THEIR garden ... admire THEIR roses.  Then invite them over to yours once you've had a look at theirs.  Don't make the conversation all about you.

So often I think that we really need to sit back and listen more, to make sure that we're not trampling on roses.  But the good news is that conversational roses aren't like real roses.  They grow much more quickly, so even if you accidently trample on a few, just let the next ones grow up and I believe that the relationship will benefit.

To me, this is more than just being a good listener, although it's very related.  It's about widening our perspectives to let other people into our lives.  It's learning to be vulnerable, and to create a safe space for others to be vulnerable.  Friendships are precious, and we can be truly present with one another.  Thinking about listening in terms of ownership helps me to be more purposeful in my interactions, and gentle in tough situations where a friend is going through a hard time.  Also, now in my life, it's also helpful for me to reflect on when I find myself taking things personally.  I can take a step back, and realize, maybe we're not in my garden right now, but my friend's.  And I want to honor that.

Relating this back to social media

What prompted me to think about all of this was observing some interactions on social media.  I believe that we can still respect ownership on social media.  The biggest way I think we can better honor one another as talk about things on social media is to reflect, when commenting on a post, on whether or not our comment actually reflects on the post's content, or whether we're just using it to sound off on a tangential issue that's important to us rather than the original poster.  Now here's a beach where there are so many more visible starfish than the ones on the other beach where people are having real life conversations.  But again, there are real people beyond the computer screen, and even a few thoughtful remarks via social media can really serve to encourage people.  Here are a few guidelines I try to act by when considering how I behave on social media:

  • I try not to comment on someone's article unless I read the whole article.
  • I prefer to point out what I see as an error privately rather than publicly, because it's their space and they are the stewards of it and should have the right to portray themselves the way they want to be seen, and not the way that I think they should be seen.  I may not have all of the information, and I don't want things to spin out of control as a result of something that I contributed in a discussion.
  • Related to point #2, I also try not to "win arguments" on someone else's facebook wall.  I've set this as a goal for myself because I realize that I've historically been the kind of person who often wants to have the last word.  I realize that this is often a problem, and I just feel that it's more honoring to others to let them win arguments on their own wall.  Now, if it's on my own wall, you can bet I'll continue the debate until I think that it's rightfully finished ;)

Honoring one another in conversation

In my opinion, someone's words are so much a part of who they are.  Words are powerful, and should be treated as such.  Thus when people open up and are vulnerable, we should recognize that people are letting us into their sacred space.  We should be gentle.  We should take off our shoes.  We should make sure that we have permission before we start mucking around, doing any weeding, or planting anything new.

Let me be clear, there are times where we really should speak out.  Where people are not being vulnerable with us, or people are not honoring one another, or someone IS being vulnerable but action is drastically needed and they just can't see it.  But that is not the point of this blog post today.  This isn't about how to deal with negative comments in a productive way, it's about trying to be a person that handles a friend's vulnerable moments well and doesn't miss out on opportunities to connect. This is about the countless situations where we barge in on someone's sacred space when we shouldn't.  Ultimately it's up to all of us to determine when it's relevant.  I think that we could all benefit, however, from listening more - from being present with others more often, instead of present only with ourselves.


  1. I have definitely been guilty of some of these things. Thanks for writing this in a very thoughtful way.

    1. Thank you, Martha! Yes, I am definitely guilty of some of them too!!

  2. Nail on the head Molly! Good points. I often find myself fighting the ignorant trollers but to no avail they are everywhere. Thanks for sharing

    1. Thanks Claudia! Yes, no matter what it seems like there will be people just trying to stir up trouble. When it comes to social media interactions I'm more concerned about when people who don't mean to cause trouble fall into trolling patterns without even realizing it!

  3. Good to know, you write so beautifully!

  4. I love this Molly! And so well writtrn! Thanks for the great reminders