When A Conversation Makes Us Uncomfortable

Kathy was having some issues with her husband, and wanted to speak about this with Paul, a long-time friend whom she considered both wise and compassionate. Paul had also gotten his divorce the year before, so Kathy figured that he would have first-hand understanding about all this.

But as Kathy began describing her situation, Paul felt increasingly uneasy. Kathy’s description of the ‘he said, she said, he did, she did’ that was happening between her and her husband reminded Paul of what had happened in his own marriage. Painful memories came up, and this made it hard for Paul to focus on what Kathy was saying.

Paul was becoming increasingly agitated and wanted to extricate himself from the conversation quickly. He interrupted Kathy and said, “These are small things that are part of every marriage and nothing to be concerned about.” Kathy, stunned by this response, said a curt ‘thank you’ and left. In her heart, she felt hurt and disrespected by Paul’s dismissal of her concerns.

From the standpoint of Communicating with Compassion, what happened here is that Paul experienced what we call ‘listener’s unease’. This is another way of saying that Kathy’s upset was upsetting to him.

There is nothing wrong with having ‘listener’s unease’. We are all human, and it will sometimes happen that listening to another person’s story will trigger memories of our own unresolved pain.

The question is, how do we handle such situations? In this story, Paul did not explain to Kathy what the problem was. Instead, he looked for a way, any way, to end the conversation quickly.

Ideally, Paul would have found a respectful way of excusing himself from the conversation. He might have said something like this: “I myself had a bitter divorce not long ago, and so listening to what you are sharing is bringing up painful memories. I wish I could give you the attention that you and this issue deserve, but at this point I can’t.”

The reason that such a statement is powerful is that Paul would be explaining, honestly and respectfully, why he is unable to continue the conversation. Authenticity of this kind connects people.

Notice also that in this statement, Paul acknowledges Kathy’s need and expresses his sorrow for not being able to continue (‘I wish I could give you the attention that you and this issue deserve… but I can’t’). That expression of caring about her also connects. It would be natural for Kathy to be disappointed, but she would likely not feel disrespected.

Here are the key points to remember when you experience ‘listener’s unease’ and need to exit a conversation:

  • Be honest with yourself and realize that for one reason or another you want to end this conversation. This honesty will help you avoid mistakes.
  • Don’t end the conversation by being disrespectful to the other (unless you want to destroy the relationship).
  • Explain candidly why you are unable to speak. If you don’t wish to share those details, simply acknowledge the other’s need and respectfully explain that you are unable to meet it.
  • If you wish, set another time with the person, or help the person strategize about finding another resource.

Put these skills to work and watch your communication improve!

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