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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21 Comments

  1. Suse Fish

    So true Katie, and I particularly agree that we often experience a confusing mix of feelings towards things that others may assume would be all good. Thank you x

  2. joanna

    This is great. I do this to my husband. Thanks for pointing it out. Its better to ask.

    I hate when people in passing who you haven’t seen in a while say…”so you’ve been busy?” I never know what to say BC yes I am busy but since I’m trying to slow life down I don’t want to respond that way. Anyway excellent post.

    • Katie Fox

      Yes, that’s a tough one, too! I am guessing people say that if maybe they have also been busy and haven’t seen you in awhile and maybe they’re feeling a little bit bad about that….or maybe they’re trying to give you an out for not having seen them i awhile? I don’t know. But it’s an awkward one, too, for sure. It makes me feel bad for saying yes or no, because either way it makes it seem like I haven’t made time for them. Sigh. 🙂

  3. Steph

    I’m always amazed at how simply wording a question differently makes such a profound difference in the level of conversation able to be had. This is good wording that I plan on incorporating myself. Thanks!

  4. Kathryn

    this is so insightful! way to bring authenticity back to relationships

  5. Sarah

    In my experience the assumed answer to a question is a blended motive. One that person just wants to make quick conversation and not get into the nitty gritty of the details of your world but rather just acknowledge what’s happening in your world therefore glazing a concern/caring tone. Or two they just don’t really care to know he answer. This one grates me how in the world can another person begin to know the answer to what’s happening in your world.

  6. Guest

    Good stuff and very true. I’m very transparent when asked questions so people may do that to me to curb the honesty – ha!

  7. Lisa L

    I agree!

    Also, I feel that today’s “journalists” don’t ask questions in any “get to the truth” ways. They will say “You must’ve been terrified when the tree hit your house.” Let the person say what they were feeling! Don’t put words in their mouth!

  8. Angelique

    I find most people are only asking because they want to discuss or share their experience. I’m honest and will answer with a quick version of the truth and they either look at me like a deer in the headlights before fumbling for a response, or they argue and dismiss any part of my answer that contradicts their agenda. It’s very annoying and rude. My mother-in-law is guilty of that. I love her, but that irritates me to no end.

  9. Bernadette Noll

    I find the same to be true for the harder things. “Oh, you’re separated, that must be so hard.” Not completely. I love this idea of creating more space around the answer and truly listening/feeling the people around us.

    • Katie Fox

      Good point! Thanks for adding that, Bernadette.

  10. Shawna of Shawna At Home

    i completely agree!! It’s so frustrating to be in conversation with someone and have them impose on you their thoughts and opinions without really caring about your own. It’s amazing to me that the idea of being authentic and allowing others to do the same, with love, respect, and compassion is such a revolutionary idea, but indeed it seems to be so. I wrote for 31 Days on Cultivating a Radically Authentic Life, and I stand by my personal convictions of needing to be brave in who we are, but truly it is a two way street… All of my bold and brave authenticity means nothing if I’m not honoring the same in others. I so appreciate your perspective on this!!

  11. Andrea Mullens

    “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” – Spot On! The same thing occurs when we use our story to relate to someone else. “Oh your dog died. I know exactly how you feel because my hamster died too.” We think we’re being relational when what we’re actually doing is making ourselves the center of the conversation. We do well when we listen and ask open ended questions. Thanks for your insights into how to connect better with others.

    • Stephanie@Mrs.Debtfighter

      I was going to write the same thing. I am so guilty of this, thinking I am keeping the conversation going and being helpful by sharing my experiences. I work towards being a better listener daily! 🙂

    • Katie Fox

      Yes…this is part of it, too, Andrea! I guess it all comes down to asking open-ended questions and then LISTENING well. 🙂

  12. Kallie Culver

    Hey Katie, thank you for writing this post. It really spoke to me where I am at right now. Appreciate both the reminder and the encouragement. Do you have any thoughts on how to respond to someone when we recognize it happening? I know that its frustrating and thus want to be perceptive to keep from doing this to someone else, but I also see where I often just ignore when someone else does that to me and never say anything… is that always the right response when someone continues to not give us that space?

    • Katie Fox

      It’s so hard to know. I have a few people in my life that speak to me in this way on a regular basis. But my relationship with each of them is very different, so the way that I can respond to each of them varies from person to person. I think the relationship will determine your response. The hardest part, for me, is that unless I do intentionally address it in some way (whether by actually talking to them about the issue or just giving the long and unexpected answer rather than the pat response), the relationship will never grow past that point and into a place of truth. It’s hard. But growth is usually hard. It just depends whether we want it and whether we think it’s worth it.

  13. Kate

    I love that you bring this up as I think I am guilty of doing this–putting words in my friends/acquaintances mouth without really thinking about it. With real conversation and connection going to by the wayside and facebook and instagram interactions making us feel like we are truly connecting (yes, I realize I’m commenting on a blog!), it’s so important to allow others to be authentic and really speak when we actually get the chance to talk one on one in real life! Thanks for the great post.

  14. Erica Layne

    Absolutely. Thanks for this.

  15. Katie K

    Yes! I can definitely be guilty of this, especially with people who I know aren’t ‘big talkers’. It’s like I feel a need to draw them out, and I think my leading question can help. Thank you for the reminder to re-frame my questions!

  16. Nina

    One time I was working as a temp at a law firm with a very busy attorney. I had passed the bar exam and was going to be sworn in. He asked me to complete some documents and I said I wouldn’t be able to till the next day due to my swearing in ceremony. This was YEARS ago and I still remember his response – he said” tell me about that.” It made me feel wonderful! I try to use that when I am interacting with others all the time because I remember how it made me feel like he was really interested in ME.

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