The Soul of Attentiveness
April 10, 2017 3:11 PM   Subscribe

"Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through." From Parker Palmer's "The Gift of Presence, The Perils of Advice," an essay for On Being. If you've ever tried to explain a difficult emotional situation and cringed at advice that begins with "Why don't you just...?"--or if someone has simply shown up and sat with you in the hard moments--then this essay may resonate with you. It's a lovely meditation for tough times.
posted by MonkeyToes (21 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
As a lifelong sufferer of severe depression, the number of times I've heard "Why don't you..." is incalculable. I know they mean well, but it's always so hard to handle diplomatically.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:33 PM on April 10, 2017 [12 favorites]

Agreed. I've been encouraged to join every church from UU to the church of Satan (not literally) and you get so much advice coming from various superficial resemblances to other people's situations and people's personal hangups, even if you could give it all serious consideration, you'd still have a nervous breakdown so much of it is contradictory or involves some personal projection from a position that over-generalizes and/or grossly stereotypes or misunderstands various mental disorders and what expectations about people living with them are or aren't fair and realistic. To manage, you've got to have understanding, well informed social support. Even just a little bit of ignorance or confusion when it comes to such complex medical problems can have devastating effects on people's lives. That's why I think destigmatization and responsible public discussion of these issues has to happen more frequently.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:59 PM on April 10, 2017

I have a friend who I used to get into sort of prickly fights with on a regular basis. They became much less common when I realized that, when she complained about something, she wasn't looking for help but an ear. Now I spend a lot of time saying "well, that sucks" which seems a little pointless to me, but it's what she wants/needs to hear. When she complains about something that's in my professional wheelhouse and then says she doesn't know what to do, that's when I ask her if she wants advice.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:22 PM on April 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

Thank you for choosing that quote. The whole thing is worth reading and witnessing, but those few sentences you quoted are essential.

Thank you for this.
posted by kristi at 4:38 PM on April 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was just composing a comment similar to GenjiandProust's above - fortunately I previewed first!

For some reason I happened to notice quite a few mentions of the "don't give advice, just listen" concept in various media (Google search examples) a few years ago...maybe because it was a lesson I needed! It definitely wasn't something I'd thought about before. It's easy to fall into the "advice" habit, because like many people I tend to be of a Problem Solving inclination and of course I want to help my friends!

Over the years I've really had to work to remember to bite my tongue and not just start trying to fix people's problems (with everyone, but even more so with my women friends). I've had to learn to trust that they'll ask for advice if that's what they're looking for. And the more I see that I've helped someone just by being there for them and listening, the easier it gets to remember to do the same thing next time such a situation arises.
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:40 PM on April 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

This concept has been more visible lately - I admit I learned it first from Parks and Recreation - and I freely admit, it is so helpful, both as a listener and as a venter. I'll be sharing this article freely - thanks!
posted by ianhattwick at 5:26 PM on April 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

As a lifelong sufferer of severe depression

Here, try these optimistic platitudes!
posted by thelonius at 5:39 PM on April 10, 2017 [10 favorites]

Now I spend a lot of time saying "well, that sucks" which seems a little pointless to me, but it's what she wants/needs to hear.

A lot of the time, what the person is actually asking is "I'm not losing my mind, right? This thing that happened to me actually IS awful, right? Like, can another human being confirm that for me that this sucks and is unfair and shitty, so that I can confirm for myself that it's not just because I'm a piece of crap that my boss/partner/friend/the universe hates me?"

If you think about it that way, it's easier to understand why essentially saying "actually it IS you, and here's how to fix yourself" is not generally all that well-received.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:54 PM on April 10, 2017 [68 favorites]

This is really very good, thanks for sharing it.

I have a colleague who works in a mental health field, and he said something similar to me that has stuck with me forever, namely that the best thing we can give to other people is our attention; as in, just making people our direct focus, without distraction. The thing is, our culture is setting us up for failure in this area quite a bit, with devices that suck our attention away from each other. In our house, I've lost count of the number of devices we have now because they are so cheap as to be almost disposable, and there are more entire seasons of things being released each week than I'll ever have time to watch.

I took stock awhile ago, and I packed up most of the things that have been distracting me, with good success. The sad thing is that you sometimes don't recognize absence until you start replacing it with attentiveness. That's the thing with devices, it isn't that we can't have connections with people on the internet, but they sometimes distract us from the fact that people who are around us are not experiencing the same level of connection vicariously through us.

I realize this isn't quite the same thing as replacing presence with advice, but I realized in this endeavor that by being more present, sometimes that's enough.
posted by SpacemanStix at 6:32 PM on April 10, 2017 [10 favorites]

I like getting advice because a lot of times I don't really know what to do and I do want someone to tell me. Only kind of advice I don't like is the kind that's so simplistic it seems to imply that they think I'm the worlds stupidest person. Show some evidence that you've met me before is all I ask.
posted by bleep at 6:33 PM on April 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's not about the nail.
posted by officer_fred at 6:51 PM on April 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

One of the best changes I've experienced in myself in twenty years of ordained pastoral ministry is learning to simply sit in silence with people, to be with them, instead of rushing in and trying to fix things. Learning to be comfortable in the silence took me a little while, but I am so glad I got there.
posted by 4ster at 6:55 PM on April 10, 2017 [16 favorites]

I used to do Judo recreationally. I remember one of the other club members, a cop who was a broken nose away from looking like he'd stepped off a recruiting poster, gave me some advice that boiled down to "cheer up, dress more normally, and get out more". It was the sort of thing that usually deeply annoyed me. But, I found myself thinking: "this is someone who is trying to help, take it in that spirit". Even if I had no intention of following a word of his advice, what did it say about me that I was taking concern and an attempt to do something positive, and turning it into negative feelings? It's something that's stuck with me for a while.

I think that maybe, if I'm not prepared to graciously accept what people give me, then don't make demands of them. If I start talking about a problem I'm having with someone else, and they're not a paid therapist of some description, then that's exactly what I'm doing. I'm demanding that they take some of their time, energy, sympathy and give it to me. I try to remember that to then get upset because what I demanded doesn't help me is at best, ingratitude, and at worst just self-destructive behavior.
posted by Grimgrin at 2:19 AM on April 11, 2017 [8 favorites]

It's really painful for many people to sit with someone as they are hurting. They give advice in an attempt to shut the other person up. And/or to shut the other person down.

Generally it has nothing to do with what the suffering person might want or might need. It has to do with the person who is "helping" the person who's hurting, it has to do with that helper not wanting to sit still in the pain with someone, because it makes the "helper" uncomfortable.

What's even *more* painful for many people is to sit with someone in silence. Just to be there. Silence in the presence of another -- or others -- it's really intimate, and very difficult for many to enter into, much less hold to.


I have a gift.

People feel safe in my presence. Even when they are at an extreme, or especially when they are at an extreme, they open to me.

Probably because I've been so beaten down myself so many times*, I have a really good lay of the land. I don't hold anyone in judgment about being blown apart and that comes through. I can get suicidal people to laughing, we're just having the best time, we'll be telling the blackest, horrible-est death jokes, regular people are all in a sweat about it but we're not, we're having a time. There can be 17,000 people in the room but when it comes to it they're all gone, everyone else fades out of focus, it's just me and the person on the ledge. I really love it. I'm really good at it and I really love it. I'm positive that it's when my eyes are most alive, making that connection is just the best.
*I'd have a nervous breakdown except I've been through too many breakdowns to be nervous about it.

Matthew, who is probably my best of all friends, he tells me that I just gravitate toward the person in the room who is hurting, like I get caught in a gravitational field and just head to them. I don't notice that but Matthew tells me that's the best piece of it, that it just is how it is.

Matthew, probably 10 years ago he got into some hugely deep legal shit, he called me up and told me about it. Everybody was all serious and gaseous and solemn and frowny and whatnot, I know exactly the look that Matthew had on his face as he laid it all out -- Matthew also was all serious and gaseous and solemn and frowny and whatnot. Out of all of the people he told, I am the only one that laughed about it. He couldn't believe it, still mostly can't. I told him "Hey, try being dead." I'd had a bunch of heart attacks and died and stuff, and it's not like I haul that out as a trump card or anything but it just seemed the right thing to say at the time, and it *was* the right thing to say at the time, too. It got him to laughing, about what a total, outrageous asshole I can be and also about the fact that I was right, and that he'd not laughed once since this shitstorm had fallen on him, it got him to laughing and it still does.


I've had so, so many people open to me. It's actually sortof unreal; there is a tremendous amount of love running around out there and if you learn how to look, plus if you get lucky, you can even find a tremendous amount of unconditional love running around out there. And then there is also psychotherapy, I've spent so many hours in various psychotherapists offices, I've learned from their example, good ones and bad, learned some things to do, some things to not do. Easy to think that since you're paying for it then it's not real love, but a competent, caring therapist will sure give a lot. So, I call it love. I pay my cardiologist, and I sure love him, and what he's given me, and he loves me, too -- we really do have a time. I call it love.

But all of the love that I've gotten has not been from a therapist, a lot of it from family members, a lot from people in my social milieu. I have a mentor, I mentor some younger men. I keep my heart open to others, within reason; I can't help everybody and I'm not supposed to, but I am honor bound to try to give back to Life as much as has been given to me, and is given to me.

The best piece in it all is that I get back way more than I give out. When I'm sitting with someone, I damn sure do what I can to make it a safe place, a good place. And if it's done right, the person who I'm sitting with, they do get a lot. But -- I get more. I always walk away energized, happy, smiling.


Roger, a great friend who lived here in this condo complex, when I was in a terrible place, locked down in deep depression, pretty much unable to move, Roger would come over and knock on my door. (Which was the right thing to do; had he called and said "Hey, let's go for a walk." I'd have said no.) But he came over, knocked on the door, since it was him I answered the door, and he would basically take me for a walk. Maybe half hour, maybe more; he had a rescue dog -- Kemah, found wandering the streets of Kemah Texas -- and Roger and Kemah would get me out. Some social contact. It was before I'd finally found medicinal armistice with this son-of-a-bitching manic depressive jive, I was remarkably down, one of the blackest black times in my life, and I've had more than a few. Roger knew the state I was in, he never asked about it; we talked about the walk, we talked about Kemah, we talked about this, we talked about that, we talked about the other. If I brought it up, then we'd talk of the hell of depression. He took me for a walk many days in that black, bleak period. A real friend; Roger knew how to be a friend.
posted by dancestoblue at 4:45 AM on April 11, 2017 [11 favorites]

Thanks Monkey Toes
posted by DJZouke at 5:39 AM on April 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

A bit different, I suppose, but I have a chronic illness and a lot of people tell me to "take better care of" myself. They are not exactly wrong: I should take better care of myself, but I am a human and I do human things. I am not neglecting myself; I am living, sometimes, like I'm not chronically ill.

Being given the advice to do better? It smarts. It makes me feel like a child, like someone who doesn't have full autonomy. I do not need advice about how to make my body break down just a bit less: it's breaking down. It's failing. This is my lot. To me, being able to live like a person, to make occasionally foolish choices - this matters. I do not need judgment from those who love me, I need empathy.

Thanks for the post. Gave me a lot to chew on.
posted by sockermom at 6:36 AM on April 11, 2017 [18 favorites]

I knew a married couple; he was very analytical and she was very emotional, but they got along really well, each adding something to their relationship. One thing that they'd come up with was that she would tell him up front: "I need to have a 'feelings' conversation now." or, "We need to have a 'solutions' conversation." If she forgot to say it, he'd ask her, "Is this feelings or solutions?" Having that framing was very helpful. I use that with folks who come to me to talk about serious issues--it reminds me that sometimes listening and empathy are all that are needed--I don't need to fix something to help.
posted by agatha_magatha at 9:18 AM on April 11, 2017 [8 favorites]

My roommate and I almost snapped and broke our relationship because the impact of that advice giving, from her in her position in my life, has had the impact of psychological abuse. Reading this gave me a tool, another critical piece about communication, that may help us heal a broken friendship. Thank you.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 11:32 AM on April 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Reminds me of one of my two favorite Quaker jokes:

Q: What do you get when a Quaker knocks on your door?
A: Someone who stands there and listens at you
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 1:52 PM on April 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

Thanks for this, a lot.
posted by old_growler at 8:07 PM on April 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is something I'm in the process of recognizing right now. This essay was perfect. It really helped me solidify my own thoughts in this direction. Thank you for posting!
posted by WalkerWestridge at 2:22 PM on April 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

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