The Listeners

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So I get this rather strange call from my Dad the other night.  But first you need a little background information.  In ye olden days, when you called someone and they were on the line, you’d get a busy signal.  The more modern phone system that Dad has includes a voice mail feature and if you call when he’s one the phone, it goes directly to voice mail without ringing.

This is something we confirmed when I was up at Thanksgiving.  The other thing that can and does happen is that he forgets to hang up the phone or presses the wrong button which gives you that annoying sound but it also acts like the phone is engaged so someone calling in goes right to voice mail.  These are not symptoms of a problem.  This is the normal functioning of the phone.

Except that he does not seem to accept this.  In Dad’s world, things should only work as he thinks they should.  Anything else is a problem.  I’m not entirely sure what he would like – maybe it would seem less problematic if people heard the phone ring before it went to voice mail.  But that is not how it works.  So, whenever someone tells him that they tried to call and it went directly to voice mail, this must mean that there is a problem with the phone and a problem is something that can be fussed about.

People have offered to get a new phone – I think the neighbors assume he’s not finding the disconnect button so they want to get a phone with bigger buttons.  But, at this stage in his life, Pop does not deal with change easily and does not make instant decisions.  Even replacing a phone that he feels is faulty is not a snap decision because the new phone may not be a better option.

OK, the bottom line is that the neighbor brought over a new phone and Pop said he didn’t want it.  After thinking about it for a day or so, he changed his mind and asked the neighbor to bring over the phone.  I guess the neighbor had already returned the phone and there were words spoken in what Pop perceived to be not a nice tone.  So he calls me to discuss this and what he should do.  Also tells me he’s not planning on telling anyone else and doesn’t want me to as well.

Now, these are not the types of conversations I’m expecting to have.  I don’t know whether I was the first number he could find or if he thinks I would act differently than my siblings.  I don’t know.  I suppose there could be some truth to this.  I’m going to generalize her but my experience suggests there are three types of reactions people have when someone starts talking about an incident like this.

1. Some people instantly go into problem solving mode.  My wife is one of these and I’ll admit it makes me a bit cringy to listen to her because I’m thinking “they didn’t ask you to solve anything”.  Now, if someone asks for a solution, then you are free to launch into one.  But most of the time, people just want to relay the issue and not necessary how to solve it.

2. Then there are those who relate to issues like this by turning the conversation back on themselves.  Oh, you had a bad experience with person X.  Well let me tell you about something similar that happened to me with person Y.   Most of the time, these experiences aren’t all that similar and if the situation with person Y was never resolved, then this was not a helpful exchange.  Mostly it is a way to offer sort of false empathy – as in I don’t know what to say but I can relate it to a similar experience in my life so you get that I know how you feel.

3.  Then we have the listeners.  I am self aware enough to know that I tent to fall into this category.  Most of the time, it is not about solving a problem.  Most of the time it is just letting the other person vent a bit while offering little comments that basically absolve them of any blame for the situation.  For example, in this case, the neighbor brought over a phone that wasn’t asked for so Pop’s inability to make a decision should not have lead to any sort of rebuke from the neighbor.  When the conversation is right, you float little solutions but back away when you meet resistance.

That’s not to say I can’t go into other modes as needed.  You know so much of miscommunication involves people inferring intent without confirming anything.  Oh, this person was mean to me – they must hate me.  Did you ask them?  Well no.  Then you don’t know for sure.  Well they wouldn’t be that mean to me if they liked me.  Believe it or not, I deal with some of this stuff at work amongst people who are supposed to be grown ups but I guess we all never really left high school.  Anyway, so I can listen and be empathic and tell people that they didn’t do anything wrong but I can also call BS and tell them when they are engaged in mind reading and that they really don’t know how the other person thinks or feels or why they did the thing that irritated you so.

I’m not saying my approach is right and that the others are wrong.  It is just how people are wired.  I suspect though that those who like to complain and don’t like being judged tend to gravitate towards the listeners.  And that’s where my approach can really wear on you.  I’ve got all these judgy things popping up in my head.  I mean if you are going to constantly whine about your phone not working, then you have to expect people to offer solutions.  And you can’t change your mind 1000 times and expect everyone to have endless patience with you.  Then again, there is probably nothing to be gained by trying to make my father feel worse about this situation so I suppressed all those thoughts along with the ones about “why are you making a fuss over this”.

At the end of the call, he decided to just ignore it and move on.  Which is probably best.  I don’t know the neighbor all that well but I know the personality type that tends to have these little explosions when they get frustrated but don’t really mean anything by it.  So pretending like nothing happened is probably best.

A couple of my siblings are going to be there after Christmas.  I volunteered that they could help him get a new phone but I guess I’m the phone expert because he seemed to want to wait until I was available.  I know nothing more about phones than any of my siblings.  Maybe he assumes that I’ve got a degree in a hard science while my siblings were in the softer science/liberal arts type fields that must make me the expert in all things tech.

Or maybe I’ll get lucky and finally convince him that the phone is operating as it is intended to and that any new phone would likely work the same way.  Just hope nobody else decides to “fix” this problem without talking to him first.

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