Connecting with Others (or, my new strategy for getting through holiday & other social gatherings)

Dec 27, 2012

I’m not one for small talk. I wish it came easier to me, like when I was a teenager and spent hours and hours on the phone, talking about I-don’t-know-what. Or maybe it wasn’t so menial . . . perhaps I was very in touch with my (overflowing, hormone-driven!) feelings and enjoyed connecting with my girlfriends on very fundamental levels.

Now a few decades later, I find that this kind of connection is what gives incredible meaning in my life, and yet, it seems there isn’t enough to fill me up. I long for more. Yet, I am no doubt blocking my own goal of connecting with others by my avoidance of many social situations! I recognize that it’s not only “small talk” in and of itself . . . but also a deep-seated fear of judgments.

When I find myself surrounded by strangers in a social setting, I feel nervous. I’m not comfortable conversing for long about matters that don’t truly touch my/our hearts. It’s scary to try to go there with someone I don’t know—too vulnerable? unsafe? I also know that since living in the Netherlands (the last three years), I find myself avoiding situations in which I think I’ll be exposed to the directness of Dutch people—I’ve often experienced the thought that I was being unfairly judged.

So I’ve been thinking lately about a good set of questions I might ask others in order to feel more comfortable in an awkward social situation. I haven’t gotten very far, other than an invitation to listen to one’s personal history, for example:

  • What events have led you to this place?
  • How do you know the host?
  • Who else do you know here and how did you meet?

These are quite “safe” and potentially superficial conversation starters. But the trick to this isn’t the question I ask as much as the quality of my LISTENING. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that people wish to be heard. This is the most important part about connecting with others and not simply the exchange of words. As I’ve expressed before in this blog, behind our words are “beautiful longings from the heart.” When we sense that one hears/understands what these are—especially without judgment—then we feel a deeper connection with him or her.

This listening for what’s behind people’s words is how I’m getting over my fear of small talk with or being judged by others. The strategy is this:

When I hear someone express a judgment (even one completely counter to my own set of values), I see it as an opportunity to connect to his/her underlying need(s).

In other words, I don’t let the judgment crawl all over me and/or try to provide perspective or a counter position. These strategies may contribute to dialogue, and even interesting conversation, but do not typically lend to someone feeling heard and understood.

For example, if someone says to me: “Everything being served here is all rabbit food!” Instead of replying with “I love it—I prefer a vegetarian diet, because I know it’s healthier for me and the planet” . . . I now might respond with something like, “I gather that you prefer a bit of weight to your food?”

Or this:  “What are you Americans thinking with all of your ‘right to bear arms’ nonsense—don’t you see too many innocent people are getting killed?” Instead of going into defense mode and spouting off, “We don’t all agree that guns should be so readily accessible!” I might now sooner say, “It sounds like you are concerned about the safety of Americans and wish that circumstances around gun control in the U.S. could be different.”

Or:  “All this talk about empathy this, empathy that—it’s enough to drive me crazy.” At this, I would remain quietly attentive (silent empathy!) and let the speaker continue on, until more words shed light on his/her underlying needs (autonomy, privacy?).

I’ll end with this nice (non-referenced online) quote—it summarizes what I’m trying to get across and why my new strategy is working for me:

Empathy is the social glue that allows increasingly individualized and diverse populations to forge bonds of solidarity across broader domains so that society can cohere as a whole. To empathize is to civilize.

Yes, it feels so very “civil,” and I love the calming effect it has on me and others with whom I’m empathizing.

Cara Crisler
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