Safe Places

Being a “safe place” is hard.

In two separate topics in the last year, I’ve been confronted with discovering that I had not been a “safe place” for others to talk about their real and personally-lived experiences. Both people are very close to me – much closer than an acquaintance, with whom I have regular conversations, sometimes about very deep things.

And yet I discovered, much to my surprise and dismay, that I was not hearing their whole story – or in fact, nearly anything – about the one topic that mattered to them more deeply than nearly anything else in their life.

I discovered this: that when the topics first came up in conversation, my response was dismissive. My own worldview didn’t allow me to accept their experiences as valid. So naturally, they clammed up, and everything about the topic was glossed over. “I’m fine, thanks.” They only shared about easier topics, and never circled back to those things again, so I had no idea there was anything deeper, or causing them pain. And my own personal echo chamber was reinforced.

I have subsequently discovered that becoming a safe listener, and having any chance at really hearing a person’s true story, is incredibly hard, and frequently requires me to confront the fact that my own experiences are largely irrelevant to their story. One of my main conversation tactics has often been to go back and forth with our stories, learning from each other. But when it comes to a point of pain or hardship, that back-and-forth feels like argument, like dismissal of their experience, like I don’t think it’s real because it’s different than mine.

Why would anyone share their heart if I told them their experience was invalid?

So I have to shut up and just hear them. Truly hear them. Stop trying to analyze the validity of their story, and just hear it. All of it. Even when I can’t understand it, and even when I think they are wrong. Because they’re not wrong, they’re different.

There’s a whole world of experiences out there that starkly differ from my own, and if I’m not careful, I’ll miss most of those stories because I’m sending a message that I can’t be trusted to hear them.

In finally hearing those starkly different stories, I discovered that my view was deeply lacking context and fact. That was painful to discover – but the experience cracked the walls of my echo chamber, and gave room for me to grow. I’ll gladly accept that pain, for a chance to truly understand life’s complex issues.

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