Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tell Me About It

Working in the year-round office of a summer camp, you can have some interesting conversations with parents. Whether they’re trying to convince you that the well-established rules should not apply to them, or they’re complaining about their little Timmy not having enough hot water in his shower last year, they all have a story.

So it was no surprise when this mother called in to pay off her account balance – then began grumbling that, given these difficult economic times, camp was too expensive. We went back and forth for a minute, as I tried to ease her concerns and remind her how valuable the experience would be for her child. Once she agreed, I thought I was finally out of the woods.

But then the call took a most unexpected turn…

“I recently separated from my husband.”


“Oh, no,” I muttered, clueless as to how to respond. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

She then proceeded to go in-depth about the situation, how the marriage had ended not due to a lack of love, but because of financial problems. With the uneasiness slowly enveloping my body, I realized I had to quickly transition the discussion back to camp business before she got the chance to reveal something really inappropriate – like why her ex-husband preferred Cialis over Viagra.

Don’t get me wrong…I did feel bad for her. But I was not interested in going above and beyond the standard customer service relationship to create a sing-it-sister connection.

I didn’t want to be her Dr. Phil…I just wanted her credit card number.

I was dumbstruck that this woman would share her deepest, darkest thoughts with a complete and total stranger. Maybe it was like confession for her, and she felt a protected comfort in talking to an unseen, anonymous voice.

Or maybe she had been keeping this bottled up inside, and she just needed to get it out. Coming out of a failed marriage, maybe no one had listened to her in a long time, so she jumped at the chance of having someone’s ear.

After all, everyone has a desire to be heard. We all want to express a thought or an emotion and know that it is getting through to the other person. We don’t need them to agree with us…we just need them to understand and recognize where we’re coming from.

Like the lawyer in court, it doesn’t matter whether an objection is overruled or sustained, as long as it’s noted on the record.

Unfortunately, this seldom happens in everyday life. Buoyed by our specific agendas and shaped by our own biases, personal interaction often resembles a UFC cage fight, with each participant striving to gain the upper hand. We end up having parallel conversations, where nobody truly hears what the other is saying.

To quote ‘The Living Years’ by Mike and The Mechanics, “We all talk a different language…talking in defense.”

When I was a waiter, I once had a table of a mother and her five children. Swamped and scrambling, I greeted them, filled their plastic cups with Shirley Temples and patiently stood there as they took, oh, 15 minutes to order.

(Hey, take your time…it’s not like I have other customers – who I won’t have to work as hard for – whose bill is going to exceed $17.)

Seeing that their food had arrived, I checked in to make sure everything was okay. That’s when the mother went off on me, explaining that she had ordered a corn dog for her youngest, NOT macaroni and cheese.

Now, had Billboard rated the world’s worst servers, I would have frequently appeared on the weekly Top 40, but I know I got this order correct. To this day, I still contend this woman ordered macaroni and cheese.

So that’s what I told her, and, not surprisingly, it didn’t go over well. She got mad, my manager got apologetic, and all I got was a shriveled 10% gratuity.

Maybe it’s my perfectionism, but few things bother me more than someone blaming me for something that is not my fault. It eats away at my insides, and I can’t let it go. I am not a confrontational person, but when I know I’m right, I do not back down from an argument. There’s even a part of me that takes pleasure from proving my case.

Of course, that approach has rarely gotten me anywhere besides the wrong end of a $2 tip.

Luckily, I now have a better way to handle these types of situations. A few years ago, my mother-the-therapist taught me a secret weapon that, if used properly, can not only help diffuse a majority of disagreements, it can also improve your communication skills, making you a better partner, spouse, friend or – yes – waiter:


To validate someone’s feelings is to let them know that you hear what they’re saying…you value their appreciate their circumstances…you understand what they’re going through.

It’s a show of respect.

Validating comes in handy in any interactive setting: a dissatisfied restaurant customer…a friend complaining about a thoughtless boyfriend…a husband whining to his wife that he doesn’t want to sit through an American Idol marathon.

Most of the time, the person isn’t looking for advice or solutions or for you to make it better…they just want to vent. So it’s typically a waste of time to dole out any wisdom, because they’re probably not ready to hear it anyway.

Instead, you can put your energy into validating, which can be very simple to do. The bare minimum only requires you to say three words at a time:

“I’m really sorry.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Must be awful.”

To take it up a notch, listen to what the person has to say, and then reflect back to them what you heard:

“Colonel Jessup, I know that you have a responsibility that is greater than I can possibly fathom. I understand that we live in a world that has walls, and those walls need to be guarded by men with guns. And since neither Lieutenant Weinberg nor I is going to pick up a weapon and stand a post, you had to order the ‘Code Red,’ because Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives.”

What you don’t want to do is immediately follow this validation with a “but,” as in, “I really do apologize for the miscommunication, but your son should eat that macaroni and cheese before I pour it down your blouse.” It’s like hitting the “backspace” key, erasing all of the hard work you’ve put in, because the only thing the person will hear is what is said post-but.

That doesn’t mean you can’t express your opinion. Once you have made it clear that you’ve really heard what the other person is saying – that you empathize with them – you can then give your perspective, focusing on how the situation makes you feel (if you’re in an argument), or how you have handled similar predicaments in the past (if you’re serving as a sounding board). Just be sure to use “I” statements – I think, I feel, I believe – to prevent the other person from instantly going on the defensive.

Since my mom taught me this technique, talking to her about my problems can be a predictable experience, as she almost always responds with one of her go-to validation moves. But even though I’m aware of what she’s doing, I still end up feeling better, because I know she’s listening.

And just think how much better the world would be if we all took the time and energy to do that. Not only would we make each other feel more cherished and valued, but we’d step out of our own cocoons and see things in a new light. The level of respect would go up. Divorce rates would go down. Who knows…maybe there’d even be peace in the Middle East.

Of course, if guys listened all the time, what would women have to complain about?

(On second thought, don’t answer that…)

About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?