Happily Even After
Listening, Not Defending
by Josh Noem
We are in a busy time in the academic year and a number of different events and activities are converging to create some stress. We have certainly grown more adept at staying connected in this stress, but there are times, like last night, when the stress breaks through in conversation.
Stacey has been working to structure a retreat for a group of 50 volunteers. We had been asked to facilitate the retreat together, but we did not feel that we could both be away from the family for three or four days. So, Stacey took the lead on planning and will attend the retreat. My role is to help her plan, be a sounding board for the structure and themes of the retreat, and to create a few stand-alone activities that she could plug in to the weekend when needed.
In the meantime, I’ve been using my time at work to prepare for a different retreat of my own. Having just returned from that retreat this past weekend, we both sat down last night to hammer out the final details for the retreat Stacey will lead this weekend.
At the end of the evening, as I was asking for a clarification and making a suggestion, it was clear that Stacey had a shift in attitude. We were sitting at the table working together when she responded to a suggestion I made with crossed arms and pointed questions.
(We’ve become pretty fluent in reading body language—it is amazing how our body postures reflect how open or closed our attitudes are.)
I took a step back in the conversation to ask what was going on. Things seemed to have changed, I said, and I was wondering if she could check in with me about what was going on with her at the moment.
She responded by stating how she has been feeling alone in working towards this retreat, which was supposed to be a common project. With her emotions breaking through, she told me about how she has felt alone in initiating work on the retreat these past three weeks.
My emotional, inner reaction as she was talking was to protect myself. In the past, I think I would have been focused on defending myself—explaining that we set out our roles pretty clearly from the start. I did gently raise this point with her to confirm that we were on the same page and that I did not misperceive things, but mostly what I did was listen (partly, I admit, out of confusion because I did not know what to say). In the end, I reflected back to her some of the feelings I heard her identifying (i.e., she was feeling alone) and affirmed the work I had seen her doing.
Keeping my mouth shut was an effective response, as it turns out.
Later in the night and today, she thanked me twice for allowing her to talk through things and get it all out last night. She said she felt better once she was able to talk through her feelings and express the stress she had been feeling. She was grateful that I did not take her comments as combative.
It reminds me that when I am confronted with emotion, I often try to fix things or defend myself. Ultimately, this is a selfish motivation—I am retreating within myself, I am not taking a moment to step into her shoes.
I think I am getting better at stepping into her shoes in moments of confrontation. The gift in the longevity of our relationship is that I know that whatever she is venting about is not the apocalyptic end of our relationship. If I can step outside of myself and see things from her perspective, she’ll feel like she has someone in her corner looking out for her.
Isn’t this love? Self-sacrifice for the good of another? This self-sacrificing love, in my experience with Stacey, always, always, always leads to new and abundant life.
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