The other day, a very good friend of mine and I were chatting and she decided to bring up a topic of conversation that is strictly a hands off topic for me. It concerned a relationship with someone in my past who no longer shares my present. Now, I am not one to deny past events, but I find it more useful to not dredge up things that don't serve me now or later.
I have had a discussion with this friend about this particular situation and to please not bring it up. I was a little blind-sided by it. I'm not sure what her intentions were: whether she was trying to find out what this person was up to, or get more information, or whether she was simply forgetful. It's hard to say, but it didn't sit well. And to tell you the truth, I've been grumpy about it ever since (admittedly my stubbornness is a strength but also a weakness).
I've been thinking a lot lately about the helpfulness of the conversations we have with each other. Most of us are open and willing to let our boundaries be semi-permeable. Our flexibility is what makes people good friends, good spouses and good parents. The same arms that are open for a hug to a crying friend, can be used to shield someone from pain. The same words that can bring comfort, can be barbed if the intention is different.
In a time where conversations are critical to building bridges, we are reaching out to more people than we would normally reach out to. Social media has been a big part of this. Between our disbelief, the use of humour, and if-then situations, we've all been talking to each other. It is now more important than ever to have conversations that help us move forward. We can share in each other's grief, and panic, and humour, and joy, but all of it is for naught if we don't stay sensitive to people's boundaries and communication skills. Here are a few things I've learned in sharing conversations with others over the last few months.
1. Ask yourself whether you're honouring someone's sensitivities: If you rolled your eyes at this, don't worry, I'm rolling mine too. I sound like I should be wearing a crown of flowers. But the point here is important If something is particularly painful for a person, respect that they might be sensitive talking about it and try not to push the issue. They may need the time to process it, or they may never want to speak about it. It's not your call to make.
2. Ask yourself if you're being helpful: Sometimes being helpful means shutting your mouth. If you are talking just to add a voice, ask yourself whether this is what the conversation needs. Is it worth your time to argue with an egg?
3. Keep the prophesying to a minimum: Conspiracy theories are fantastic fun if you're watching the X-Files. But as far as you and I are concerned, none of us know anything about what tomorrow will hold, and whether the most recent article on CNN will be right or wrong. Prophesying leads to fearmongering, and unfortunately, that spreads like wildfire.
4. Listen: You don't need to talk all the time. Someone needs to listen too.
5. Accept that you don't know everything: It's easy to google things and sound smart. Lord knows we've all done it. The Coles notes version is not always the most accurate because it misses the nuances. Accept that you might just know a small part of the story and either learn more, or talk on terms that are aligned with what you know.
Last Monday, I fired up my email at work early in the morning. I had an email from a senior colleague titled "Reaching Out". He wanted to see how I was doing after a rather tough weekend for the world. He mentioned that he was there to support how he could, and would like to have a chat about how he could be useful.
I have worked with this colleague an awful lot, but we have mostly kept it professional and our tea room chats are generally about what I'm reading lately. I tend to keep my personal and professional life strictly separate. This was, however, one of the most thoughtful emails I have received. It offered help, it added action, and it respected my boundaries.
It is lovely to be part of a group of people who help each other along. Action is important, but usually starts with words. Words hold incredible power to help others rather than merely take up space. We move forward when we employ them with the intent to help each other move forward.