Becoming a better listener with negative people
May 9, 2020 1:46 PM   Subscribe

How do you manage to be a thoughtful, empathetic listener when your interlocutor primarily wants to put others down, complain about other people, and cast blame?

I think everyone has a story to tell and deserves your attention. I also think that when you listen thoughtfully and empathetically, you can have a meaningful interaction with others whether it lasts for a moment or hours. This is a good thing for everyone involved. But I'd like to get better at having meaningful interactions with people who are primarily negative about others. How do you do it? What has helped you become a better listener in that specific way?
posted by mkdirusername to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Recognize that there's a certain point at which someone will get into a loop. They just circle back around and repeat the same things. I find redirecting to their experience can sometimes derail the external focus. "Oh wow you must feel really mad at so-and-so for doing such-and-such. What are you doing to take care of yourself?" (or whatever language would work for them)
posted by kokaku at 2:12 PM on May 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

Is your goal to be an ear to let someone vent about whatever they need to vent about? Well then I think just asking some open ended questions to help that person process their feelings is enough.

But if your goal is to deflect, redirect, or help the person move out of such a negative frame of mind then I think it's okay to acknowledge the other person's feelings (I can see how that would be upsetting/annoying), but then pivot to sharing a more positive take on the situation or the way you reframe annoying behavior (yes, So-and-So is often annoying when they do such-and-such; I have found it helpful to do X in that situation).
posted by brookeb at 2:22 PM on May 9, 2020

I'm assuming here there's a reason you want to stay engaged with this person.

You can listen for the underlying theme and ask about it. For example:

Phyllis the Coworker gets away with Bad Stuff! I hate Phyllis! --> does your friend perhaps feel unappreciated at work? Does she not fit in there as well as she wished she did? Does she not get enough privacy or quiet in her office setup? -- even if you're not spotting it right, just asking deeper questions here can help your friend feel seen.

Other Volunteer is a lazy hypocrite! They said they would Do the Thing and they didn't! --> does your friend feel taken advantage of? Overworked? What do they get out of the arrangement?

Neighbor is awful! Neighbor makes noise all the time when I am watching TV! --> is your friend bored/lonely? Are they wishing they could afford to move but they can't? Or is this a COVID crisis situation?

do you see what I mean? Listening to someone bitch is annoying, and in a casual relationship you can just hang up the phone or wander off, but for someone important in your life, it can be an opportunity to have a deeper conversation.
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:16 PM on May 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

Why? Unless you’re getting paid to interview these people or they’re ancient relatives or your boss, I’d not bother.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:31 PM on May 9, 2020 [6 favorites]

listening to other people complain or put others down is a DRAG. I steer clear of that vibe if I can. But if I can't.. I try to detach emotionally from the conversation and try to, as empathetically as I can, try to figure out what's really going on... ask questions... and then listen. ('Why do you feel that way?' .... Empathize 'oh that must hard for you...'

There's usually some deeper wound there... and if the person is willing to go down that path... the conversation can get pretty raw.. in a good way.. and you can connect with them.

I also suppress the urge to give MY reaction... MY point of view.... MY experience... let them talk.

meditation helps me to be able to 'detach' and not become so identified with emotions that come up... or when other people are in a charged (negative) state.... It also helps me not to have a need to talk about myself all the damn time.
posted by mrmarley at 6:47 PM on May 9, 2020

Try limiting your time with this person. If you currently see them 4 x/week and they are negative for an hour each time, try cutting that in half and see if that helps renew your resources of empathy and human kindness.

Also, if there is a thing you share with them, like an activity or a favorite
piece of entertainment or a family member or friend in common, try to center that thing or person when you are talking with them. Build in a core of mutual enjoyment to your time with them.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 7:28 PM on May 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

NVC, Non-Violent Communication, has a method to accomplish this.
posted by dancing leaves at 7:47 PM on May 9, 2020

If the discussions are related to something you also experienced, you can try to reframe the event from your perspective. I deal with some people who put everything in the worst light, so I listen, then offer my take. "I hear what you're saying, but I took that statement to mean [this]."

Being a passive, attentive listener to a negative person 1) drags you down, and 2) reinforces their negative worldviews. That's not helpful or healthy for either of you.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:34 PM on May 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

This is an interesting and compassionate question. I don't agree that you should just not talk to people like this- especially as you have expressed an interest in being better at it and learning from them. Very admirable! We all have pain we carry around, some of us are better at hiding it or better at discussing it in more "positive" ways, but people who complain and are negative are equally just people in pain, and who possibly need more sympathy and kindness because they haven't worked out a way of metabolising their pain in a more fruitful way than just blaming others.

Obviously you can't be a therapist to everyone you encounter who has this negative conversational stance. But to try to get somewhere else that isn't just "So-and-so is such a drag/so incompetent/so noisy/so selfish/etc", I think it might be worth trying to redirect the conversation back to the interlocutor's own feelings. This way, you're not getting dragged into a bitch-and-moan fest, but you're also not invalidating the real feeling of grievance the person is experiencing. You can do that by simply echoing what you hear- "Your neighbour plays TV really loud late at night. That sounds hard."

You could maybe also share similar things that you've been through, depending on the person; sometimes people like to hear that others have also had e.g. noisy neighbours, and what they did in that situation. Some people do just want to list their own litany of complaints though. That can be ok if you don't feel dragged in to it. It can be powerful to be able to hold someone else's pain and grievance without feeling personally involved in it. You can also then have the capacity to end the conversation when you need to, not to become just an ear for them to bend.

In some situations radiating your own sense of peace and equanimity can rub off on people. But on the other hand, talking about the grievance with a sense of fairness or seeing both sides of the story can really piss off the grieved party.

Perhaps a genuine neutrality is all you can aim for, combined with a genuinely heartfelt "I hope this situation improves for you soon, and I hope today is a good day for you".
posted by Balthamos at 1:21 AM on May 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Thank you everyone for your answers, they're much appreciated.

From my perspective, there's a few answers to the question "why bother?"

--Sometimes, because of circumstances outside your control, you'll have to interact more than you'd otherwise choose with people with have a negative viewpoint.

--Over your lifetime, you will have someone in your life as a colleague, boss, client etc. who you struggle with.

--There's value in avoiding living in an echo chamber; people who you don't naturally lean towards might share perspectives you'd otherwise miss.

--As Balthamos said, we all carry pain around and we deserve sympathy and kindness.

--Just as I might find someone difficult or negative, at times others might have felt this about me. I try to extend understanding towards others, because I'd like them to do the same towards me.

--In my opinion, treating others with as much empathy and understanding you can muster is intrinsically valuable and worth cultivating.
posted by mkdirusername at 4:35 PM on May 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

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