Recently a wonderful friend of mine (be sure to check her out), Kellie Frazier raised the question on Facebook:
Spoke to a friend who said he ran into a pal who asked him the American “How are you?” question. The “I’m fine, thanks” is a norm response. Instead he chose truth, “I’m sad today because…”and took 2 mins to say why.” When finished his buddy said, “Dude, you need therapy!” he rolled his eyes, shook his head and left. Imagine how relationships could grow if instead we asked, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
I found myself thinking about this for a while and discovering I had more to say than the Facebook platform was designed for!
Another of Kellie’s friends replied with:
Kel, I’d like to hear your thoughts on tying this in w/ being positive. It’s so important to be honest about what’s really going on inside but no one wants to listen to a “downer” all the time either…
Below is my reply to both. This is exactly some of the interactions I’ve been searching my own heart about and doing a lot of reading about. I’ll write a blog post later on the book, 7 Levels of Intimacy, that some of this came from!
I totally understand what your saying, Kellie. Yet I find I’m a little torn on replying to this. I’ve also been doing a lot of reading lately on the value of the cliche dialog as “level 1 intimacy”.
Just like a ladder, intimacy (including emotional intimacy) may be thought of as having rungs that when one is skipped leave the interaction feeling odd.
There’s a lot of variables in cliche of course, and they fall apart rapidly when they are not shared by the two interacting. (Conversations between people from different cultures tend to bring cliche into glaring relief because cliches are rarely shared exactly between cultures yet exist in most of them.) It’s often this “cliche level one”, that gives us a bridge into “factual level two” interaction, which bridges into an “emotional level three”. So there’s a lot to be said about how well these two individuals knew each other and what prior dialogs had been had.
I too have previously really fought against cliche dialogs, but now I’m coming to see that they can be a bridge between two people with no prior interaction or with not enough connection to feel comfortable stepping all the way to level three immediately.
The real question is why so many let conversations drop at level 1 and do not “dig deeper”. Why do we accept the surface answer instead of reaching to see whats below the surface. Its the same question, though a different interaction pathway.
I was explaining this to a friend and we both jokingly agreed its a little like verbal foreplay, interactions and connections must be warmed up before we’re willing to share (or be shared with!) at an emotional level by someone else.
I agree do agree with your friend though, there is some real challenge in coping with extended emotional down phases. Choosing who we tell what when we go through these phases can be a challenge! Brief emotional down phases everyone understands, but extended downs are very real, and yes can be annoying for the listener if there does not seem to be progress. There are choices here. Choices in if we chose to vocalize those things, choices in if vocalizing those things helps us process and change them, choices about who we won’t tell, choices about which friends we’ll reach out to repeatedly even when we know they’re on an extended down, choices about how we will assist a friend on an extended down, choices about how long we will provide the much needed listening ear before turning to provide suggestions that the person may or may not be ready for.
The real “crime” if you will in this original interaction between these two gentlemen was not in the use of cliches and was not in the emotional truth telling…. it was in the judging of the truth teller. It’s exactly this judging that makes so many of us skittish. Exactly this judgmental behavior that causes us to wall up and say “nice things” even when what we badly need is a listening ear. The fear of rejection played out in this dialog is so huge in so many of us that we often swallow our need for emotional intimacy in favor of our need for acceptance in the pack. Both are very important human needs, and wouldn’t it be nice if we could anticipate having both met instead of having to suppress one for the other?
Then there is also the flipside of the rejection fear. It’s the personal guilt associated with emotionally “unloading” our situation on someone. So often we see ourselves as a bother, a pest, a burden, and chose to suppress what we are going through in light of not bothering someone. This skill DOES have its uses, allowing us to dampen our own minor situations down so we can be supportive of a friend in crisis. However, too often we take it too far and suppress our own needs through guilt.
All of these interactions call for a subtle blend of authenticity, compassion, heart-work, vulnerability and personal understanding that are indeed incredibly difficult to put into words. All of them challenge us to make choices, time after time after time about what we will and wont reveal. It’s an interesting journey to look at these cliche interactions and evaluate both how annoying and tedious they can be along side the reasons they exist and in what ways they can serve our interactions with others. Cliche’s can build bridges to reach the other from. They also can help us “feel out” another person and determine through this seemingly pointless interaction what is safe to reveal and what will get us deemed needing therapy!
These are questions that puzzle me regularly of late. These are questions that are hard to answer because there is more than one reason for many of the interactions. I hope you’ll share your thoughts on this. I look forward to hearing how you’ve answered the questions for yourself at this time. I know my own answers have shifted over time. Won’t you share this part of your journey with us?