I was talking with some friends of mine who have what we humorously called, “The Face”. “The Face” is how we described that intangible thing about a person that evidently invites people, sometimes friends, and sometimes people you don’t even know, to open up and begin telling you their stuff. Sometimes their very personal stuff. Sometimes at really awkward times.
This photo captures a young me, learning something about the art of listening with a delightful German student.
There was the time when I was in the express line at Wal-mart – and the cashier began telling me about her upcoming second marriage and how she felt about it, how the first one didn’t work out, how her mother wasn’t being supportive… and I seem to recall something about tattoos. Did I mention I was in the express line? Which is not exactly the place where long-term relationships form. One friend, a former airline attendant, told us about her many stories of, what she called, “Jump seat therapy,” where passengers sitting next to her on take-off or landing spilled their guts…and then walked off the plane. She would tell them, “Buh-bye,” in standard flight attendant speak, and think, “Wow. I know waaaaaay too much about you.”
We also shared stories of how, in our circle of friends, we would end up in the deep end of the conversational pool, often without even trying, sometimes when we didn’t mean or want to. And how sometimes, we sort of felt used, even by people we loved, even as we loved the practice of being authentic with each other.
In light of all this, I have realized how my love for people and really great conversation (Which is the basis of all of this.) has, at times, had the somewhat ironic effect of turning me into an even greater introvert. (As if I needed a push.) The reason? If it seems most every conversation holds the potential to turn into a gut-wrenching, tearful sob fest, well…some days it is just easier to stay home. (And, side note, I’m finding that this tendency can make people begin to avoid me – which, because I love people, is something I would like to avoid.) We then chuckled a bit, relieved there were others like us out there, and wondered what it was that regularly led people to pour their hearts out to us. Recently, I think I named part of the reason.
One of the greatest gifts we can give another person is the gift of being present with them. Of our undivided attention. When we tell someone else, with our eyes, our body language, our facial expressions, the stories we choose to share, with a well-worded and timed question…that says “I see you. I hear what you are saying, even beneath the actual words you are using. I am interested in you. In this moment, you are more important to me than my phone, than watching what is going on behind you, than me thinking about what I’m going to say to you next. I am here with you. And I am listening.” (My friends and I called it “The Face, but we probably should call it “The Heart” because that is a more accurate description of what it actually is.) Some have a natural curiosity and affection for people…and it shows up in their face and heart. Bumping up against it can be a powerful experience for some. As I’ve met people with this gift, their presence, interest in, and affection for me often surfaces deep emotion in me too.
When we are seen, heard, loved…hearts open up. No wonder deeply personal stuff sometimes comes spilling out…even if it wasn’t the plan for either of us. When I pay attention to how people normally interact with each other, I realize that this type of dedicated and focused interaction can be kind of rare. I find this sad, because I think God created us to communicate this way much more often than we do.
And so the next question my friends and I discussed was, if you’ve got “The Face,”…how do you survive? Because, as much as we love people and interacting with them, it isn’t always appropriate, or safe for every conversation to descend to the depths of one’s soul. Besides being potentially inconvenient or awkward, (or sometimes even dangerous) it can be exhausting. And we realized that people who are good listeners, who have something to give, sometimes attract unhealthy people who may use them for their relational gifts.
Therefore, here are some thoughts on how to walk the line between being a good listener, an interested conversationalist and decent human being who loves and enjoys people – and staying healthy and safe while doing it.
1. Choice: We should always have choice in where our conversations go. If you feel like you don’t, it is probably a conversation you should end, or a conversational partner you might want to avoid. Some people are relational black holes…and their gravity will suck the life out of you if you aren’t careful.
2. Mutuality: Conversations should be two-way streets, with both parties giving and receiving, talking and listening. If they aren’t, it isn’t a conversation, but a monologue. (Or a counseling session, which is a completely different thing.) Except in those periodic circumstances when it is appropriate for the conversation to be about one person and their needs, if you find your dialogue descending into monologue, you probably want to find a way to end it.
3. Learn to turn it off: I am learning that, just because I am interested, just because I know the right “next” question to continue a train of thought into deeper places, just because I may hear the emotional subtext sitting underneath someone’s actual words, it doesn’t meant I have to go there with them. I don’t have to ask the next question. In fact, it can be a very freeing and healthy thing to learn to turn my conversational radar off and just be in a moment with someone – without looking for or trying to control where it might go. This, however means I must continue to learn #4.
4. Learn the joys of small talk: I am not a natural small talker. Most of the time, I would prefer not talk at all, as opposed to talking about nothing. (Over the years, Sunday mornings at church has ruined me in this area – we go there to meet with Jesus and each other in authenticity…and we waste the time talking college football, the weather and the last movie we saw…I digress, and mini-rant over.) I continue to learn that small talk can be a beautiful thing for all involved, and is in no way an indication of being a shallow person. It may just mean I am a “person.” And here is a big lesson…hours of pleasant and healthy small talk are actually very valuable. They plant the seeds of safety, of affection, of learning about one’s life and relational style, so that if or when a deeper conversation comes around, we are both ready for it.
5. Think about the greater love: There are people in my life whom I love deeply, and to whom I want to give the first of my relational and emotional energy. If I know my resources are limited, then it is irresponsible for me to give away to others, what belongs to those in my closest circles. Sometimes I need to avoid or shut down certain conversations if I know it will drain away energy I will need for someone or something else.
6. Find your “life-giving cocktail” and drink it regularly. If one wants to have meaningful conversations, one must first have something worthwhile to say. (Unfortunately, this is an often overlooked practice in our conversations.) What is it that breathes life into you, that generates substance, character, depth, ideas, curiosity and love for others? For me, over the years I have found the practices (or cocktail) of solitude (which is different from isolation), intentional reading, and exercise do this for me. Afterwards, I want to be with people more. (And people seem to want to be with me more too.) When I am healthier, there is more of me to offer. I suspect each person has a different “life-giving cocktail.” My point is not for anyone to copy mine, but to find their own. And drink it regularly.
As I write these things, I find myself a bit torn. At times, the idea of strategically thinking through this part of my life can seem kind of cold and calculating. However, I want to be the best me I can be and I want to be a blessing to others in my relational circles. And, as I age, I realize have less energy, less margin, and less time left on the earth with which to work. In light of all this, I must learn to be a wise steward and manager of all God has given me…including my “face”.