Giving each other the space to be authentic

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like there’s been a recent shift in the way that many of us talk to each other.

“Oooh, your kids are all in school full-time now – aren’t you so excited?

Or this one:

“Oh, you moved into a new house – aren’t you so happy?

We think that we’re asking people how they feel about a recent change or new development in their life, but really, we’re assuming how they feel, and asking them to confirm it.

“Aren’t you so __________?”

The problem is that sometimes, the assumption is incorrect.

For the two example questions above, I know that the answer I’m “supposed” to give is, “YES!” That’s what the other person is expecting to hear.

But most of the time, the real, honest answer to those questions is something more like this:

• Well, actually, it’s really complicated.

• I feel sorrow and grief and joy and hope.

• It’s so much harder than I thought it would be…yet it also feels so right.

• I feel deep loss and deep gratitude.

• I feel like I want to stay in bed with the covers pulled up over my head, and yet I want to be surrounded by everyone I love most dearly.

I often find myself at a loss for words when people ask me a question by assuming what the answer is. I believe that they really do have good intentions, and are attempting to relate to me, and express empathy. I get that, I do. And I can appreciate it.

In fact, I know I’ve been guilty of it myself. We often rush by each other, to and from school and church and the grocery, making time only for small talk and surface-level conversations.

Yet every time this happens, I’m faced with a dilemma. Should I be honest? How honest? Or should I give the pat answer that most people are expecting to hear?

Either way, I can say this much for certain: being in these situations has made me much more aware of the way that I speak to other people, and the assumptions that I make about their circumstances and feelings.

When I start out a conversation by assuming that someone is “so excited” or “so happy” or so anything at all, I’ve already created a barrier that might prevent him or her from feeling like they can actually be honest with me.

Instead, I can try to give people room to struggle and express doubts and fears, just with a simple change in my language.

“How are you feeling about having all your kids in school?”

Or this:

“Oh, you moved into a new house – how are you feeling about that? How is it going?”

I know we don’t always have time to get into the nitty-gritty details when we’re having a conversation with someone in passing. But if we can at least open a conversation with someone in a way that gives them space to be authentic, then the chances are so much better that they will feel truly heard, and truly loved, and that they have freedom to say, “You know what? It’s been pretty complicated. I’d love to catch up with you more about it later.”

Everyone wants to be truly heard and known. Let’s try to give each other space for that.

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