Thursday, August 8, 2013

Missed Opportunities in Active Listening

Almost by Lauri Rantala, cc license
Last weekend, Jason and I held our first ever yard sale. What an interesting experience! There was one interaction I found to be particularly instructive for me on the importance of active listening in everyday life. I thought I'd take this week to share that, before getting back to the primer.

I wasn't expecting just how good it would feel to pass on an item to someone who was excited to give it a new home. One such item was my first sewing machine, which my mom got for me when I went off to college. We (the machine and I) had more than ten good years together, but a month before I got married, the machine jammed while I was hemming a dress and I couldn't get it to work. I had a list of wedding projects that needed immediate attention, so I decided to buy a new machine rather than taking the time to fix the jammed machine. It was moved to the basement where it sat, unused and mostly forgotten, for four years.

I was thrilled when a fellow hobby-sewer decided to buy it at the yard sale. One of her husband's hobbies was fixing sewing machines - what a match! I was so happy that the machine was headed for a new life that the buyer easily talked me down to five dollars (it was also her birthday - what can I say?).

If only the story ended there. Unfortunately, the woman came back the following afternoon to return the machine in exchange for her five dollars. Her husband was with her and explained that he couldn't fix the machine. His assessment upon looking inside was that the machine had been dropped from a great height. Also, in his estimation, the machine was brand new - barely used - and he was surprised that I had parted with it for so little. He suggested that I sell it for parts, most of which were in excellent condition.

I was fairly taken aback. His assessment didn't match up at all with what I knew. As I shared my history with the sewing machine, it quickly became apparent that convincing him of any story that contradicted his own conclusions was fruitless. To be clear, this wasn't an angry or heated exchange. To the contrary, they were both very pleasant - I had the urge to invite them in for tea. It was all very odd and I couldn't quite wrap my head around it in the moment. I returned the five dollars, took back the machine, and that was that.

Once I closed the door, I felt...just...bad. Tearful, even. I tried to brush it off, chalking up my reaction to pregnancy hormones, and then tried reframing (some quick research revealed that the machine was worth much more than five dollars for parts). However, I couldn't shake how upset I was feeling, and I bit Jason's head right off when he asked what he could do to help.

After letting me be alone for a while, Jason bravely approached, again. This time, he opened by saying that it kind of sucked, the way the buyer's husband had basically accused me of misrepresenting the sewing machine. This caused me to begin sobbing anew, but this time there was some sense of relief. It was suddenly clear that I wasn't really upset about the sewing machine or dissatisfied customers. What was really tearing me up was having my truthfulness called into question, especially when honesty is something that I value so dearly. That small act of reflecting, on Jason's part, was incredibly helpful.

What I wouldn't give to have another go at that conversation with this clarity! Here's the kind of conversation coaching I would give myself:

  1. Stay in touch with feelings - your own and those of the person you're talking to. Especially in these kind of awkward conversations, where everyone is on his or her best behavior, the emotional disconnect can be downright confusing. By staying in touch with the way you're feeling about the conversation and staying aware of the other underlying emotions coming into the interaction, you have a better chance of addressing what's really going on. 
  2. Change the conversation when it's not moving forward. When it became clear that the buyer's husband wasn't interested in my side of the story, it may have been more fruitful to address why that was rather than redoubling efforts to assert my truth and then just dropping it. 
  3. Clarify what is actually being said. More than anything, I wish I had had the chance to clarify whether what the buyer's husband was saying was that he felt I had knowingly misrepresented the sewing machine's condition. It certainly seemed that way (to at least one casual observer) - but it would have been better to have it out in the light, rather than shrouded in the kind of politeness that leaves one feeling icky. 

I'm aware that even if I had rocked out my active listening skills, the general outcome of the interaction would have likely been the same. I think I would have felt better about it, though, and wouldn't have spent the rest of the day feeling emotionally drained. (Yeah, emotional drain I'll chalk up to the pregnancy...)

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1 comment:

  1. Well done Jason! To pick up on that and help you find the trigger in the situation. It's never a good feeling when you feel like a key value like honesty has been called into question.

    I assume he was able to put his head back on, then, after the unfortunate bite? ;)