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Leaning in…

March 17, 2012

I was listening to a Hazelden webinar on adolescent suicide.  The presenter talked about the importance of engaging the suicidal teen, encouraging them to talk.  She identified the three most important words to say when you’re the one being told, “Sometimes I feel like killing myself.”  What were the words she thought had such power to connect? “Tell me more.”  Three small words with the potential to change the course of a person’s life.

“Tell me more.”  Three words that invite someone to share their pain and confusion.  Why are those words so often left unspoken?  Perhaps because encouraging someone to hand us their pain may be the right thing to do, but it is rarely the easy thing to do.   In fact the willingness to stand and hold another’s pain often leaves us facing our own discomfort.

“Tell me more.”  I replayed those three words as I went about my day.  I thought about how they fit other situations.  How powerful those words could be with those who grieve.  How in the midst of grief we long for someone to ask us to tell them more about who and what we have lost.  How holding the pain of someone else’s loss feels uncertain and uncomfortable, and so we hold back.

I was still chewing on the benefit and difficulty of “Tell me more”, when my weekly dose of Modern Family came on.  It is Phil Dunphy’s favorite day, leap day.  He has big plans to do something out of the ordinary to celebrate.  But as the day continues, things begin to fall apart.  Phil pulls the two boys, Luke and Manny aside in an attempt to salvage their celebration.  He leans toward them and says in a low, somber voice, “I have a plan.”  The boys just stand there.  Phil adds, “It’s kind of traditional to lean in when someone says they have a plan.”  Both boys immediately lean into the circle.  No hesitation. Focused.

That’s when it came to me.  What Phil Dunphy had to say was important.  And when someone has something important to say, we need to lean in.  To lean in and embrace what is being said, giving the words, the feelings, and the person our presence. Perhaps no territory feels more uncertain and overwhelming than the landscape of grief and loss.  When we find ourselves in the presence of wounded travelers and their story, needing to lean in, our first impulse may be to just stand there.  Sometimes we even step away.

Forty five years ago, John Drakeford wrote a book titled, The Awesome Power of the Listening Ear.  It was a book about the “power of simply listening to others”.  I think Drakeford’s intent was to help us push past discomfort to a place of leaning in.  A place of inviting others to tell us their stories.  What if in the presence of grief and loss, we begin to lean in, and quietly say “Tell me more.”

“Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness blow the rest away.” ~ George Eliot

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 17, 2012 6:56 pm

    This was wonderful. How much better we would all be if we would just “lean in” and listen. I think because we are so used to being “doers”, we are not comfortable with just being with and holding someone else’s pain and accepting that we cannot “do” anything with it.

    • March 25, 2012 12:27 pm

      Thank you, Cindy. I agree that we are much often more comfortable with “doing” than “being”. Doing feels so much more visible, measurable, controllable. How do we measure being? It feels a lot more uncomfortable when there aren’t minute by minute updates on how effective we are. I think the power of “being” gets measured across a lifetime, and often is something we have to trust in even though there is no immediate, concrete evidence of its value. You said it, “accepting that we cannot ‘do’ anything with it.” The gift is in holding their pain anyway. ~ Paulann

  2. March 17, 2012 7:07 pm

    I will remember this…thank you. Leaning in seems to make people talk even more it seems. So important.

  3. March 17, 2012 8:58 pm

    I don’t just like this post I love it ! I took the Dale Carnegie Course some years back, and one of the basic tenets is to be a good listener. And I practice, practice, practice. I manage a team of 9 people and there are many others I deal with day in and day out, and I arrange my office so it is inviting, so others will come and talk. I have very few formal meetings, but always know what is going on. The other three words — is it true? How often do we start believing our thoughts when it turns out if we asked the question is it true? We’d learn there is a lie in believe ….

  4. March 18, 2012 11:46 am

    Great post, and I love the image of leaning in – and the words, tell me more. Very important. I was blessed with people who were willing to listen when I shared my pain. Made a difference and I’m alive today to tell about it. Have a blessed day.

  5. Carol Lang permalink
    March 19, 2012 1:31 pm

    These are three tiny yet hugely profound words, Paulann. You motivated mindful images about speaking them and “leaning in” even during everyday conversations. Today I ponder if common straighted posture might also convey unintentional rigidity. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a day’s video of one’s interactions? Life is fragile and beautiful, and we often never know when our words are the ones that made a vast difference to someone. Thank you for your insight!

  6. CarolWiebe permalink
    March 20, 2012 5:28 am

    I feel as if you are leaning in, on a daily basis, and that is why you have such timely and important lessons to share with the rest of us.

  7. March 21, 2012 12:13 am

    I am leaning in

    I am SO leaning in!

    Thank you Paulann for this…

    Xo Jen

  8. April 13, 2012 5:35 am

    Excellent post, Paulann. It’s amazing what volumes it speaks – volumes of caring, value, empathy, love – for one person to listen to another.

    • April 18, 2012 4:06 pm

      Thank you so much for your thoughts, Rebecca. I place a lot of weight on your response, knowing that your words don’t come from a detached, philosophical position, but from one who has wrestled with this life in the most personal, “in your face” way possible. Thank you again for sharing yourself, Jason, your experience, and your understanding.

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