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  • Writer's pictureLouise Carnachan

You're Telling Me This, Why?

I was left scratching my head at the conclusion of a phone call from a person I don’t know well. What was that all about? Then later the same day, the worker completing my bathroom refresh (remember that project?) relayed a host of plumbing problems. I was in the throes of jet lag with my body screaming it was 3AM, and at the best of times I’m incompetent on the subject of pipes and drains. “Can you fix it or do we have to tear everything out?” I repeatedly asked with increasing desperation. No answer, he just kept talking.


Recently I met a woman who said, “I ask my kids if they want to be heard, helped or hugged.” Hm, maybe all three. After a restorative sleep, I pondered the previous day’s interactions through this lens. I’d thought they were asking for help but apparently I wasn’t there to solve anything. Illumination arrived in the form of a follow-up email from the caller which indicated what she really wanted to talk about; our conversation was a test of my trustworthiness. And by the time he’d left the night before, the worker had rambled his way to an intermediate solution—of course he knew I would be of no help. The next morning, he had a permanent fix. I guess he wanted to be heard, or maybe more accurately, wanted to hear himself.


We talk out loud to know what we think or to etch an impression more deeply in the mind. We explore ideas and linkages between thoughts, and we problem solve. Sometimes we’re alone while we babble away, other times we’re looking directly at someone (or are on the phone) with the need to speak aloud never mind the audience. How many times have I done that to friends?


I believe humans have a need to be witnessed and validated. When I know my role is to listen, I can do that. Actually, I’m pretty good at it but I have to kick into gear. The instructions for listening go like this: close your mouth, look at the person, nod, hear their words, add the occasional question (i.e., “then what?”) or empathetic remark (i.e., “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”). Most of us can summon up the energy to do this fairly well, although there are those who have a hard time putting their own mental agenda aside. Hint—if you’re thinking about what you’re going to say, you aren’t listening.


My personal failing is that I don’t recognize quickly enough that what I assumed was a request for help was not. It’s frustrating for both of us when I throw out possibilities and they’re thinking, “Why can’t you just shut up and listen?” I’ve been on both sides of this. Personally, I’m making a vow to get better at asking, “Do you want ideas?” Nothing shouts pain-in-the-butt louder than the person busily solving a problem that isn't asking to be solved.


Back to, “Do you want to be heard, helped or hugged?” I admit a hug is a stretch in work situations. However, you can offer verbal consolation, care or empathy. You can also display nonverbal sympathy through facial expressions rather than physical touching. Commiserating doesn’t require having had the other person’s exact experience. The real nugget is the emotional content hiding underneath the details of the story and circumstances. These are things like as anger, frustration, fear or worry, which we can all relate to.


Those three questions, do you want to be heard, helped or hugged are simple and brilliant. It might even be worth the speaker's time to consider which is desired before launching into a diatribe. And the next time I don’t know what the heck is going on in a conversation, I hope to remember to ask because there are so many reasons why we speak. I’m still learning, even after a long career specializing in communication. I hope we all are.


So then tell me, which of these do you need—to be heard, helped or hugged?

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1 Comment

Roxie Matthews
Roxie Matthews
Mar 12

I love how you make situations clearer without appending judgements.

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