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Who Can You Really Talk To?

When you have a problem, or need an ear, how do you decide on who to talk to?

This blog has two parts:

  1. The who you can talk to part, and
  2. Is it someone you can trust with what you need to say part.

Sometimes a friend can listen well, but she might not be trustworthy with your personal stuff. How do you know?

Here’s my guide to help you with that. Let’s start with who you can talk to.

What makes for a good listener?

In general, good listeners can be quiet and let you say what you need to say without interruption. They’re also empathetic and interested.

These are the basic requirements, but there are several other guidelines that I’ll list here.

#1 They keep the focus on you.

Good listeners do not bring the conversation back to themselves unless they have personal experience that truly relates to what you need, and telling you about it will help you solve your own problem. Even so, when relating experiences like that, a good listener is short and sweet and relates only what’s pertinent to what you need. She doesn’t use your problem as a platform to talk about herself. The focus is on you.

#2 They avoid subtle one-upping.

I have to admit, this is the one I really dislike. Someone listens and responds with empathetic statements (sort of) while also letting you know she’s never found herself in that sort of situation nor would she. It’s a very subtle way of one-upping, and you know it’s happening when you begin to feel shame as she responds to you. You feel like you’ve done something wrong, or maybe horrible, and although she understands your dismay, she also ups the ante by distancing herself from you through her words and body language. Good listeners don’t leave you feeling judged in any way. They’re on your side.

#3 They don’t act shocked or surprised.

This one goes with the one above. When you’re talking about something that’s happened to you, or something you’ve done, and the listener acts shocked or surprised, it can startle you and make you wary all at the same time. It’s as though what you’re saying is too much, or you’ve done something that’s crossed the line, or the situation you’re describing is somehow over the top.

The feeling is that you’ve gone too far, or what you’re relating is unacceptable in some way or other. You feel self-conscious and the focus of attention shifts towards the listener’s feelings instead of yours.

Good listeners hear whatever you say with equilibrium. That doesn’t mean they’re without emotional responses, it just means they can handle your feelings and hear you without becoming overly disturbed.

If you relate something that you’re ashamed of or regret, they’re sympathetic to your feelings without judgment. They don’t comment on what you did, but rather how feel about what you did. They’re with you, not against you or in judgment of you.

#4 They don’t jump on the blame bandwagon.

If you talk to your friend about being left by your partner, does she go off on a tangent about how horrible he was and how good it is you got rid of him? Does she get all worked up and take over the conversation as she spells out all the reasons he’s a bad guy and is to blame for everything that went wrong?

Family members are prone to doing this, and often the intentions are good, but it’s not helpful. When you experience a loss or you feel mistreated by someone, you want someone to listen and empathize with your feelings, not take over by focusing on theirs.

A good listener gently helps you vent, or express sadness or sorrow or anger. Your feelings are front and center.

#5 They don’t cut you short or diminish what you’re saying.

Good listeners also don’t shut you down while you’re talking. They let you roll it all out, and encourage you to say all you need or want to say without feeling rushed.

One of the most common ways someone shuts you down as you’re talking is to get on the “suck it up” train. Either blatantly or subtly they let you know you’re just feeling sorry for yourself, or making too much of it. The message is “get over it, life is hard for everyone.” In other words, “Stop whining!”

If you’re a chronic complainer and frequently bend a friend’s ear with the same problems over and over, then that message might be warranted, but that’s not the situation we’re talking about here.

A Caveat: The Listener’s Gift

Along with choosing a good listener, it’s important to consider and appreciate her gift when hearing you out.

A good listener not only hears, but also feels your feelings, and by doing that, she contains them temporarily for you as you talk so you can get some distance from them and work them through.

This is what happens in therapy and is one of its great values. As you talk and express your thoughts and feelings, the listener takes in what you’re saying and holds it. This provides some relief as well as mental space to see things from a different vantage point. You don’t feel isolated or alone.

If you simply talk something out to yourself, your thoughts and feelings can circle around and around in your head and you may not feel as though you’re making much progress. It’s when someone else is attentive and willing to share those thoughts and feelings that you’re able to get a fresh view.

That’s a big gift, and a good listener gives it willingly. Our job is to appreciate it and not abuse it.

Okay, now let’s go to part 2.

How do I know I can trust her?

#1 What’s your previous experience with this person?

Have you shared personal information with her before, and if so, how did she react? Did she display any of the behaviors listed above? Did she listen fully, seem at ease with your feelings, show empathy, keep the attention on you, feel accepting, and allow you to talk as much as you needed? If you’ve already had a negative experience with her, then you may not want to take another chance. This is especially true if you were made to feel shame, or criticized, or devalued.

#2 Does this person participate in gossip?

Is this someone you’ve heard talking negatively about other people, or sharing information that was supposed to have been confidential? If so, she’ll likely do that to you.

#3 Is this person comfortable with emotions?

Especially strong emotions. Is she at ease with her own feelings and the expression of them? Does she see value in talking things out? Does she seek help herself when needed?  Is she empathetic?

#4 Can this person keep a confidence?

We touched on this one already, but this is particularly important. It isn’t so much about gossiping as simply holding a confidence. Sometimes people share information with the intent of “helping,” but a good listener never makes that decision on her own. If you ask something to be confidential, a good listener will never decide to break that confidentiality if she’s agreed not to. If she feels she’s unable to keep your confidence as in the case of a suicide threat, she’ll tell you that up front.

What about you?

Okay, now you know what to look for in a good listener. The reverse of this is to ask yourself if you meet the criteria?

Are you a good listener? Are you able to check all those boxes?

If not, don’t beat yourself up, just make changes. This is a great guide to listening, and if you can use it, you’ll find people are more willing to tell you how they feel or to let you in on what’s going on with them.

As always, I’m interested in your comments and experiences. Please leave them below, and if you liked the article, feel free to share it.

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