(Names have been changed)
Last week I wrote that what we say to others, and the way we say it, might evoke emotions in our listeners that may or may not be what we intend. It can also say more about us than we want to reveal. Thinking before we speak, especially to people who do not know us well and will therefore judge us by this first impression, is vital. Since we all bring our emotional history to everything we hear, it is so important to be sensitive to how others will hear and interpret what we say. But what responsibility do we have as listeners? Do we have an obligation to examine our reaction to words that inflame us and be introspective, instead of accusatory about our reactions?
In last week’s article, Sadie* was livid at Joyce’s* response to information she had forwarded to her. Instead of thanking her, Joyce just gave Sadie a job that would help Joyce stay on task. This made Sadie livid. She felt that Joyce saw her as a person with nothing but free time, someone to be ordered around at Joyce’s behest − an underling that could be asked to do the jobs that Joyce could not be bothered with, and certainly not her equal.
As Sadie and I talked, I discovered that Sadie had recently left her job and was now self- employed and worked from her home. Since this change, Sadie felt that people often saw her as a person who was not employed at all, and assumed she could often do what others with “regular” work hours could not. Since leaving her former job, she had often been bombarded with requests to volunteer and she thought she perceived resentment when she had to refuse. Sadie’s former job had given her public status, whereas her self- employment has left her without her past reputation or prominence. Could this have played into her reaction to Joyce’s statement?
We all bring our emotional history to every conversation. When we are talking to friends, we can often bypass minor comments that would set us off if made by someone we hardly know, or who we liked less. But when our sensitivities are ignited by others − especially people we barely know or possibly dislike, all the emotional baggage we carry explodes and translates into anger at what we think we have heard and what we think it says about us.
Though Joyce’s reaction to Sadie’s information may have been inappropriate, perhaps she was rushing about and doing several things at once. Perhaps she could not jot the date down and felt Sadie was just the type of person who would be nice enough to not mind helping her out, and whom she could rely on. What Sadie took as a personal attack on her schedule and status may have had nothing to do with Joyce’s perception of Sadie, and everything to do with Joyce’s own lack of efficiency and skills.
When we react strongly to what is being said to us, a signal needs to go off in our heads that tells us to withhold judgment of the speaker, and do some introspection instead. It is a tremendous opportunity for self-discovery. We can learn so much about ourselves when we examine the cause of our reaction. What is it about the statement that was just made that bothers us so much? What can we learn about ourselves, and our feelings of inadequacy that prompted such a strong, emotional response?
Is there something here we need to work on, to improve, or just need to accept about ourselves? Is our reaction based on reality or some long outdated value that is no longer relevant to this time in our lives? When we look inward instead of outward, we give ourselves the gift of potential personal growth that we so quickly expect of others and often ignore in ourselves.
Just as we need to be sensitive to the emotions of those to whom we are speaking, we must consider how the listener might react to what we are saying, because it may say a great deal about who we are. We also need to examine why we are reacting so strongly to what has been said to us. It will also go a long way presenting ourselves in a more positive light to those around us, because how we listen and react to what we hear, tells us − and everyone around us − a great deal about ourselves. It may even say much more about us than we’d like.
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.