Empathic Listening, or Hogging the Stage?

Empathic Listening, or Hogging the Stage?

Evangeline is describing to her friend, Honoria, a situation in which her boss caused her some distress. Evangeline tells the story in hopes of examining her relationship with her boss, figuring out how she feels, and to consider some ways to react. Doing so with a friend is calling on one of the duties of a friend, right?

Honoria hears the story, and says, “Oh, that’s upsetting. One of my assistants got into a situation like that…….”

What follows is a story about Honoria’s assistant, which story involves a lot of detail and background about all the characters, presumably because a brief summary would not be meaningful without in-depth knowledge. Honoria ends with a wrap-up sentence that connects her story to Evangeline’s: “So, I understand that this is a difficult situation.”

If someone were to accuse Honoria of not being a helpful friend, or of wanting to talk about herself, or of dragging out a story in which Evangeline couldn’t possibly be interested- of hogging the spotlight, in fact- Honoria would probably be surprised. She would deny these accusations and she would explain that she was demonstrating her empathy by reporting a similar experience.

Here’s what Evangeline might say:

– Just tell me that you know of a similar experience. Period.

– I don’t care about these people;

– I get it that I’m not the only person to have had a problem;

– I’m happy to talk about you and your assistant some time, but right now- this is my turn.

Talking about ourselves is so intuitive and compelling that it requires a very big effort to ignore the voice that says “Tell her the story about whatshisface!” It is especially hard when you think that the whatshisface story is going to be helpful. And to be fair, these stories, and we all have them, often are helpful. But when you’re telling a support story, you only get so much time on stage, because the main story belongs to the speaker. If you can’t get your support story out in a few brush strokes, it belongs in another scene.

Another reason stories are offered is because we don’t know what to say, or how to “help”. Well, here’s some good news. Until your speaker asks for your opinion, you don’t have to have one. You can just help her stagger through the telling, giving the noises that confirm your attention, and the attention that confirms your acceptance.

Being present for the other person sounds like a really hard thing to do, but in fact it just requires you to get off the stage for a while and give over to being a receptive audience.

Like a friend, right?