As we left off last in discussing framing, we were asking our FOX news loving uncle about a time in his life when he helped someone else with no expectation of getting anything in return. The exercise gives him a chance to see himself as someone who cares about other people. When he tells us about doing something for others, we can see him as someone who cares about other people. It moves Uncle FOX News to a more compassionate place. It also helps us to see him as a more compassionate person. When my Congressman, Mark Desaulniers, was my state Senator, I was lobbying at his office on behalf of my Union; I noticed a sculpture of an ear in his office. He told us a friend gave it to him to remind him to listen. He felt that he tended to talk too much and needed to listen more. As discussed in last week’s post, we need to come out of our mental frame to understand what others are saying to us. I want to talk about two techniques mental health professionals use accurate empathy and reframing.
Accurate empathy is the ability to identify the feeling that someone is expressing in a way that allows them to feel heard. For example, if someone says to you, “Things are changing. I used to know all my neighbors. I don’t have anything in common with my new neighbors. My kids can’t afford to buy a house in this area. I don’t know what they’re going to do.” They're sharing with you what sociologist Arbie Russell Hochschild calls their “deep story.” What you may hear is code for racism. You may be right, but that is only part of the story. If you stop listening at this point, you miss the opportunity to make a deeper connection. That connection is going to allow you to change or flip the discussion. So it is important to get it right. I like you to take a minute here and think about the deeper emotion this person is telling you about. If you’re willing to, write in the comments below.
This is what I hear: “I feel out of place. I used to think I belonged here. Now I just feel unwanted and alone. I’m afraid of losing everything I’ve worked for. I’m afraid my children won’t have the opportunities they were told they would have if they worked hard, were honest, take care of their families. They should be safe. Their future should be secure.”
They have come to believe that they are on the Titanic, and the ship is sinking. There are not enough lifeboats. If others get on the boat, they will miss out. The truth is that things are mostly fine. The ship is not sinking, yet. We have plenty for everyone. We also have real problems. We just need to work together to solve them. We can’t do that in a state of panic. But first, we must recognize the panic state that Uncle FOX News and his friends are in. He is identifying some real issues. Where he (or she) is off, is in identifying the source of these problems as immigrants, or minority groups, or some other group that Uncle FOX sees as THE PROBLEM. The problem is the financial inequity that we face. Financial inequity is a problem for all of us, no matter where you fall on the scale. Uncle FOX is not ready to hear that. Uncle FOX needs to get out from under his misconceptions. Before we can flip this discussion, Uncle FOX needs to feel heard and understood.
I know this, but the power of the reality is still difficult for me to trust. I talked earlier this week about talking to my sister about the health care issue. It was not easy for me to do. I spent time talking to her a week before and told her I was going to the March in South Gate. I did not ask what she thought. She called me again the next week. I had determined that I was going to ask her about her opinion. She had a good response. She thought Kaiser Permanente should provide service because she has had Kaiser health care for many years. She has seen an improvement in the last 20 years and felt it would be a good system for many people. She was not sure about funding. She does not think we should pay more taxes. I can understand that, but I don’t see how it can be done without taxes. She is not the only one looking to Kaiser as a model for health care services for all Americans. Her view comes out of her concern that all people get good quality medical care. It is certainly a start. I look forward to having more opportunities to discuss her opinions with her.
Listening is not something I struggle with professionally. If I am being paid to listen to someone's concerns, I have no trouble with accurate empathy. In fact, I’m good at it. Even with people I don’t know as well. I have more difficulty with family members with whom I disagree. I do know that it is difficult to engage in the conversation. If we start with listening, we will earn the right to talk. We earn the right to have our opinion heard.
That brings us to the second task, reframing. I will never forget the first time I did this. I was in my first class on how-to counseling 101 in my Master's program at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA. We were taking turns bringing a problem to class and practicing as the “counselor.” When it was my turn to perform the counselor function, my colleague and friend talked about her mother and a particular holiday. She was complaining about how she felt about the holiday and what her mother wanted. I reframed the issue to one of “what you want to do versus what you should do.” Well, let me tell you, I have not said anything that brilliant before or since. It flipped the way my colleague thought about the relationship with her mother at that moment. To examine how this is going to work in future endeavors, stay tuned. We will be discussing this in a future post.
For now, the challenge is to listen. If you have a chance to flip the conversation, go for it, but make sure that you have earned the right to be heard. Make sure that your family, friend, or other is ready to hear you. Calling colleagues, friends, and family members racists, chauvinists, or stupid is not going to help. I know that we do a lot of venting on social media, but it is important to remain loving. Please remember that others can read what we write.
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