The Comfort of Feeling Heard
I’ve always believed it’s better to say I’m sorry than to make excuses or constantly come up with defenses that are meant to uphold my own sense of pride. If we can lessen pain or frustration, instead of increase it, why wouldn’t we do so? And yes, sometimes this means saying I’m sorry for something that you didn’t personally do. I’ve had this conversation with most of my past employees, at one point or another. But why is it better?
For example, many of you know I used to fly a lot for work and often found myself stranded or late. For the most part I’d plan ahead and be able to handle this frustration. But, sometimes it
would overwhelm me. And I remember one time standing in an hour long line at United customer service in DIA (Denver International Airport). If you’ve spent any amount of time in Concourse B at DIA you’ve seen these lines. When I got to the front I wasn’t angry or yelling; I just wanted someone to listen to me. I wanted to express calmly that this was the 4th trip in a row where my flight had been canceled. If they weren’t going to run this flight they shouldn’t offer it. This really did affect people’s lives. The person at the front was tired and I’m sure wished they had a different job by the time I got there, but they could have made life a little easier for themselves also. All that person did was list off excuses. “Miss, there is weather there is nothing we can do. Weather… weather… weather…..” Funny, that didn’t make me feel heard at all. I walked away even more frustrated than I’d been. On the other hand, I once had a customer service agent that stopped what she was doing, listened to me and said, “I understand. This has happened to me also and it really affects your family and work doesn’t? I am so sorry for your inconvenience. We are working to solve the issues with commonly late and canceled flights.” I felt listened to on that day. I didn’t get anything more than I did the time before. I still only had a seat on the flight the next morning. I still had to sit in the airport all night or go find a hotel room, but I was ok with it. I wasn’t alone. I didn’t even care if she was lying and United didn’t care and wasn’t working on it. She had listened to me.
A few days ago this topic rumbled around in my head as we sat without power and I worried about my freezer items. We were only out of power for 21 hours, many people in Missoula were out much longer than us due to bad storms and some are still without power when I write this over 60 hours later. Interestingly, I was ok being out of power. I knew there was a storm and people were working on it. I didn’t expect magic to happen. But then I was listening to MTPR (Montana Public Radio) on my iPod and on local news they interviewed someone from Northwestern, our electric company. That person said, they’d had a lot of people without power, but the crews had worked all night and they had most of the issues solved. That was blatantly untrue. We were to find out over 18,000 people were still without power and would be for a long time. That comment got to me. As a PR person, they could have said something like, “We are aware many people are without power. Our crews have been working hard overnight and they have restored a lot of power, but we have many customers still without power and we will keep working until everyone is back up.” It is possible to acknowledge how hard one is working, while still acknowledge there is more to be done. I guess they thought someone without power wouldn’t be listening to the radio!
These examples are customer service examples, but I invite us to think about this in the way we talk to friends, family, and anyone around us. How can we speak with concern for that person, recognizing they had a tough morning or a certain situation is hard on them? It may also be hard on us, and that should just help us even more to recognize the pain they are in at that moment. What can we do to lessen the pain? I encourage you to practice seeing where the person you are talking to is coming from and instead of trying to make them feel better; or helping them to see another side to a situation; or defending anything; maybe you can just listen and practice saying, “That must be really hard.” “Tell me about how this feels.” “I’m sorry you have to deal with this right now.”
I would argue that helping someone feel heard may be one of the greatest and simplest gifts we can practice giving on a daily basis; a gift that costs the giver nothing, nothing but time and a little compassion.