the courage to listen 

There’s something that tends to happen an awful lot in advocacy circles (and everywhere, really, but it’s most obvious there) and I was hoping we could talk about it. It tends to go something like this:

Someone, typically a member of a radically disenfranchised community (let’s call them A) says, “Doing X, no matter how well-intended, hurts us and our community.”

Someone else, who is almost never a member of said community but is somehow related to someone who is (let’s call them B) says, “But we do X to HELP you and the community.”

And A says, “Okay, but it’s not actually helpful. In reality, it’s hurtful. Here’s a detailed explanation of why the action in question is hurtful and a map of its consequences as they’ve played out in my life-long experience as a member of this community …”

And B says, “How dare you cast aspersions on my good intentions. I love [my kid / my students / my patients / my third cousin once removed’s kid …] and I would never do anything to hurt them.”

So A says, “What I’m trying to explain is that you ARE hurting them (and, depending on what it is that we’re discussing, quite possibly, by extension,  all of us.) I didn’t say that you didn’t care. I said that the action you’re taking is hurtful.”

And B says, “You know nothing about me or who I am,” which seems to make perfect sense to them in the context of the conversation but really, well, doesn’t.

So A says, “This isn’t about you. It’s about the action you’re taking which, purposefully or not, is hurtful.”

And B says, “You have no right to tell me what to do.”

And on it goes.

You get the idea, right?

I watch these conversations happen – and devolve – regularly. And they are as intimately familiar as they are frustrating. Because I spent years being B. Being the one crouched in that defensive stance saying, “But you don’t know me.” Years missing the point.

It took me a while to get that it really, truly wasn’t about me. That being told that something that I said or did was hurtful was not the same as being told that I wasn’t trying, didn’t care, or was simply a crap parent. It just meant exactly what was being said: that something that I was doing was inadvertently hurting someone. 

Intention simply wasn’t part of the conversation, nor did it need to be. What I had meant to do or thought I was doing were never the point. 

I was being given an opportunity to examine the actual or likely consequences (intended or not) of my actions. That’s a hell of a gift to squander just because it doesn’t come wrapped in a delicately tied, ego-soothing bow.

In a recent conversation on Diary’s Facebook page, I used the following analogy. I think it does a decent job of illustrating all of this.

I love my kid with all my heart. I am a pretty good person. I’d do anything for my kids. 

So let’s say that my daughter gets a really, really bad sunburn. I, with all of my good intentions and love for my kid, run out and get a bottle that reads “soothing sunburn spray.”
I run home and spray it on her sunburn and she screams and cries that it’s not soothing at all, that it actually stings like heck and it’s making it worse.

Should I keep spraying and tell her that she’s making me feel really badly because I was only trying to help? Should I insist that it doesn’t really hurt her because it says right there in the bottle that it’s soothing? Should I insist that she stop yelling and accept my loving gesture because that’s what it is? 

Or should I put the bottle down and stop doing the thing that she’s telling me is hurting her long before  worrying about how the disconnect between my intentions and their consequences make ME feel?

When a member of the community being hurt by what was intended as kindness says, “This hurts us,” shouting, “But it’s meant to be kind!” is not particularly helpful.

This is messy stuff. I know. Intimately, I know. It’s crushing and frustrating and heartbreaking and yes, even angry-making to hear that what we’re doing out of love and concern might actually be making things even harder for the people we love with everything we are and everything we have.

But if we keep allowing our egos to stand in the way of our ears, we’ll just keep inadvertently hurting the very people whom we so desperately want to help. 

30 thoughts on “the courage to listen 

  1. I’m finding more and more that it’s rarely wrong to pause, set emotion aside for a moment and just listen to what the other person is saying- for not just my kid but also for all those other perspectives that are different from mine.

  2. Your “soothing spray” example is wonderful. Could I cut/paste/attribute it to you when I run into this kind of thing?

    And your example – your story – has made such a difference for me and so many.

    And I really love “delicately tied, ego-soothing bow”. 😉

  3. In my experience, the root of this breakdown in communication lies in the subtext which is:

    A: please, stop trying to change me.

    B: I’m changing you for your own good so you can lead a more “socially acceptable” life. I’m helping you, I have the best intentions in making you normal.

    And what I’ve seen, is that that is where a lot of the hurt lies.

    This is a blanket statement and most likely not true in all cases. But this is what I see a lot of.

  4. Yes. I hear you, and I’m listening, and I do all I can to share your wise words so others can learn (heck, my own dad even reads your blog more often than he reads mine :D). All so true. We want to help, but we need to really listen to understand how to really help. Oh and by the way, that thing with the suncream? That’s exactly how my girl is if I ever try and apply anything to soothe her 😉

  5. dear jess, i know this A B fight intimately. for the last month, my every thought and effort has been to dig down deeper than ever to finally type with no touch from anyone. to say this is difficult is beyond me as communicating as one not two is against my nature because i know the oneness of all as clearly as i know gravity (typed the heavy autistic in the hard world arena.) why now? because i believe my courage to be a laconic spartan for us As will finally give the Bs the courage to listen. thank you dear scout! with you, lacadamonian b

  6. Pingback: Reblog: the courage to listen  | a diary of a mom | Ever So Gently

  7. I go through this every time somebody talks about Light it up Blue. I tell them why it’s hurtful. “But we don’t do it for THAT reason. We do it because THIS reason.” Then I say, “But you’re still doing it, regardless of the reason.” “Too bad. We’re doing it anyway.”

  8. I am a “newbie” Aspie-mom. These last few years have been very adventurous for our family, to say the least. We are stumbling right along though and diving into the deep end of the pool; steadily trying to stay afloat. I am really glad I found your page! This post spoke to me in so many ways, because I am not only a mom to a child with Asperger’s I am also a wife and caregiver to a combat-veteran. There are so many times I’ve had conversations with people about their “well-intentions,” just be reminded by them that they don’t necessarily care much about whether their actions hurt or help families like ours.

  9. Your topic is so relative right now – and I hope you can share your perspective with me.
    Say your daughter wanted to work somewhere for the summer, and you knew one of the higher ups. This person really liked your daughter, and understood that she didn’t want to volunteer, but wanted a paying job for the summer. The company didn’t have a paying job, but since this person really liked your daughter, they wanted to pay her salary themselves, because they felt it was a good investment. Would you approve of this? Would you feel differently if this was offered to Katie? Brooke?

    • I think that’s fantastic. And no, it wouldn’t make a difference if it were Katie or Brooke. I think it’s great that someone is willing (and able!) to make a personal investment and what they see as potential for the future of their company.

      • Thank you. I really appreciate your feedback & opinion. It’s hard for me sometimes to differentiate between generosity and pity (if that even makes sense).

  10. Your analogy reminds me of when my son was 6 and started on medication. We weren’t sure if he could swallow pills, so the doctor prescribed a liquid. I asked him if it tasted bad, but he assured me it would be flavored. It took 3 days of my son protesting how awful it was while I argued that it tasted good before I actually tried it myself. It was awful. The experience reminded me of two things. 1. Take the time to listen to my son, and don’t discount his feelings, and 2. Doctors aren’t always right. (We switched to pills, and he did great!)

  11. Pingback: The only valid way to LISTEN | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  12. Great analogy! Jumped over from the reblog on Diary of a Mom, and went back to add a link here on a much older article on my ADD/EFD-focused blog: Listening from Belief. I think you might find we are preaching to the same choir.
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    “It takes a village to transform a world!”

  13. Well put 🙂 I’d love to get in touch with you to see if you are interested in reviewing my upcoming book Everyday Aspergers (10 years in the making) connected to my blog Female with Aspergers experience. Glad to have found your diary and page. x

  14. It’s hard, isn’t it, to know what’s right from the get go. I’d rather short cut to the solution than spend valuable time making mistakes for our family. I’ve had to give myself a “you did the best you could with what you had” get out of jail card so many times… But as Maya Angelou says “when you know better, you do better”.

  15. wonderful post! Your blogs are amazing. I am a mom of 2 ASD boys. I have started a blog myself, you are part of my inspiration… we so much need more understanding for our kiddos. You do this so well with your blogs. Thank you !!!

  16. Pingback: Listening from Belief | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

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