Don’t Just Do Something—Stand There

 

I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen.  Just listen.  Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.  And especially if it’s given from the heart.  When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them.  Just take them in.  Listen to what they’re saying.  Care about it.  —Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom

 

A few weeks ago, I met with a group of students who had some legitimate concerns about the way they had been treated at the university. It was an uncomfortable meeting but a necessary one, and by the end of it I was ready to get to work. I told them that I would fix everything—we would create some student organizations, incorporate new material into our core curriculum, revise our conduct code, and take care of the problem once and for all.

“You are missing the point,” one of the students told me when I announced these plans. “We don’t need you to fix all of this today. We need you to listen to us. We need to know that we are being heard.”

They could not have asked me for anything more difficult. I am a stuff-doer. I like doing stuff, and this is a big part of my professional identity. I’m the guy who gets things done, moves agendas forward, makes difficult things happen. You can count on me; I’ll do it. And I want everybody to know that I will do it. Telling me that I am not supposed to try to do things comes very close to telling me to suppress the most essential feature of my being.

But this situation required something far more difficult than simply doing things. It required stillness. I needed to sit there and understand that people were in pain and that my inability to see and hear them had contributed to that pain. I needed to listen to that without becoming defensive or trying to demonstrate my virtue and purity. The logic of that moment required me to shut up. It required me to just stand there.

The impulse to “do something”—to act immediately when we see a problem that we think involves us—is ultimately a selfish one. We do it because problems make us uncomfortable, and we don’t like being uncomfortable. And we don’t appear to care very much whether or not the “something” that we do actually helps anything or anybody.

I have written in the past about what I call the “Elevator Button Principle of Urgency.” Researchers have found that, when people have to wait a long time for an elevator, they will keep pushing the buttons to call the elevator, even though they know perfectly well, intellectually, that absolutely nothing can be accomplished by pushing it more than once. I do this myself. I push it over and over again, knowing that I am not accomplishing anything, because standing there and doing nothing just seems so wrong.

But at least pushing elevator buttons doesn’t do any harm. That is not always the case with the buttons attached to people’s lives. When we rush to fix someone else’s problems with indiscriminate action, we risk doing real harm in order to calm our own anxiety. The overpowering urge to do something prevents us from standing with the people who, more than anything else, need to be stood with.

As Latter-day Saints, we are often called by our baptismal covenants to stand silently with other people when they are in pain. We pledge to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort, but these are not the same thing. Those who mourn often do not need comfort; they need people who understand why they are mourning, who stand with them as they mourn, and who care about them enough to share their grief.

What they especially don’t need is somebody to explain to them why they shouldn’t be mourning at all—why whatever they are going through is all part of God’s plan of eternal happiness and there are good reasons for their suffering. Mormsplaining is not the same as mourning. Remember Job’s comforters: “they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great” (Job 2:13). Then they opened their mouths and ruined everything.

Doing something is often the easy way out. It feels good. It signals our virtue to the world, and it satisfies the deep human need to look busy. Standing there while someone expresses frustration or pain is hard. But it is how we give the gift of attention, which may be the most valuable thing that we have to offer.

Comments

  1. Not a Cougar says:

    Amen, amen, and amen.

  2. Maybe the institutional problem is that bishops, stake presidents, etc. do hear victims, and then do nothing.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I could relate to this, as I often have the impulse to do something. Another context where this arises is within marriage; it drives my wife nuts when she tells me something and I jump to trying to fix it, and that is not at all what she wanted from me.

  4. My mother was the best at just listening. I know from sad parental experience that just listening is harder than it looks. The temptation to solve a problem is so great because the faster you can solve a problem, the sooner it will go away. Sitting with a problem, and not knowing when or if it will go away, is the hardest thing I have to do.

  5. I first heard the wise council to “Don’t just do something – Stand there” from a great mentor and professor in my medical residency training. It has served me well through the years and it made me smile and think of him when I saw this at the top of my reader page. Thank you.

  6. Kristin Brown says:

    One of my favorites. Thank you for posting. Hopefully we recognize the need to change and do better. Earth life is a gift, a space of time to get things right.

  7. I really like this. The memory that came to mind on reading it was several years ago, when a therapist put me on what’s called in California a 5150 hold (it’s to have you involuntarily committed to a psych ward). I’d never been to a psych hospital before, and in addition to the distress that had led to this happening, I was terrified. It was all very surreal. I had to go wait in a small room with a security guard while everything got processed and they sent an ambulance. It took several hours for that all to happen. My therapist could have just filled out the paperwork and sent me off–she’d done what she needed to do, and she was busy. But as much as she could, she came and sat and waited with me. I don’t even remember if we talked. We might have. I know she wouldn’t have said anything like, this isn’t that bad, because clearly it was that bad, and she wasn’t one to not acknowledge realities like that. But I remember how much it meant to me that she was there.

  8. This is great. Thanks, Mike.

  9. I often need to be reminded of this lesson. Thanks, Mike.

  10. FlatStanley says:

    This is one of the most basic requirements of membership, yet perhaps the most overlooked (said by one who always interrupts others with his “insights”).

  11. jpv has a point. Your post makes it sound easier than it is. Knowing when be silent and when to act is tough. There is opposition in all things.

  12. Yes, perfect. Like Kevin, I go through this with my husband. I want to be heard, and he wants to “fix it”. Sometimes, what needs to be fixed, is that fact that I just need to be heard!

  13. My experience is that most of us most of the time need to listen more. Therefore, “stand there” is a good reminder. However, the gift of attention–which is the real thing, i.e., not silence but attention–is an active energetic gift. And attention can and does lead to action.

    The way I’d put it is that doing “something” in order to avoid paying attention or to feel good about oneself or in place of the right thing is to shirk one’s responsibility to life. Rather, doing the “right thing” is what it’s about. And that right thing might be absolutely nothing. But it might be an arm around the shoulder, or a quiet word to an antagonist. It might even be to raise an army.

    It does seem true to my experience that (anything that might be labeled) “explanation” is almost always satisfying the ego-centric need to act and to avoid. Explanation is almost never the right thing. But there are some seemingly close analogues that sometimes *are* the right thing, including “you make me feel/remember/think of” (reflective listening) and “there is a third option, and a fourth and a fifth” (because false binaries are both common and damaging).

  14. Thank you, Michael — and Christian. The OP and Christian’s comment are both useful reminders to me. There are, however, sometimes other contributors to the problem: (1) the person who expressly asks for advice on or action toward fixing something, but in fact just wants to be listened to, (2) the person who takes so long formulating, mentally revising, and expressing thoughts, and so long pausing between sentences, that the listener believes the thoughts have been expressed and that a response is desired, and (3) the person who stores up years of irritation with allegedly not being listened to, only to explode much later. For some of them, even the question “what would you like me to do” or “do you want me to just listen” is too much. Not listening may sometimes be a mutual problem.

    It’s hard to know whether it’s really not about the nail: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4EDhdAHrOg

  15. Really helpful reminder, Mike. This is an area I definitely need to work on–in the presence of someone telling me about hard things, my mind starts picking through possible actions, and I want to be on my feet ready to go work on whatever-it-is before the speaker has gotten thoughts sorted out.

  16. This is a great reminder. Thank you!

  17. Jack Hughes says:

    Excellent post. In these observations about the innate reaction to “do something” when confronted with crisis, I see a connection with our cultural discomfort with silence. It’s not uniquely American, nor uniquely LDS, but seems to exist at the confluence of both. You can feel it in an F&T meeting, in those times when no one is eager to get up and share a testimony and 30 seconds of waiting feels like an eternity, while anxiety washes over the congregation. You can see it in the bishop who attempts to counsel a distressed ward member by dispensing platitudes like “trials happen for a reason” or “God will make everything right in the end”. Or from the stake president who, at the funeral for a 3-year-old, takes it upon himself to make closing remarks that assert the importance of a funeral being a missionary opportunity and for teaching the gospel and not for honoring or celebrating the deceased (yes, this really happened), when it would have been better for him to stay seated, mouth shut, and let the service end there. Why are we so bad at this?

    Oftentimes, the right way to practice empathy is to listen intently and be willing to hold space for someone else’s pain–and embrace those moments of silence wherever they may occur.

  18. If I never have to see the “It’s Not About the Nail” video shared again so long as I live, I will be measurably happier.

    I deeply appreciate this post. It’s not a man thing to compulsively (and uselessly) “fix” emotional issues, it’s a human thing. I like that the original post acknowledges that fact. Other people’s pain makes us uncomfortable, and we can do and say some stupid things not knowing that they’re manifestations of our own tendency to emotionally stuff our fingers in our ears and sing instead of sitting with pain. I do think that women’s likelihood of having more emotionally close relationships throughout their lives means that they learn earlier not to do this, and they’re less likely to subject their husbands to it as a result. I also think there’s a possibility that some men never learn how difficult it is to be on the receiving end of this because they largely share emotionally sensitive information with their wives, who again have often learned how not to do this way before they got married.

    Additions: it reminded me of this quote from a different blog post – “Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through. – Parker Palmer”
    https://upliftconnect.com/hold-your-tongue-and-offer-your-heart-instead/

  19. The following article about holding space for those who are grieving is also relevant: “When she began to share her raw emotions, I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to say, so I defaulted to a subject with which I was comfortable: myself… Shift responses are a hallmark of conversational narcissism. They help you turn the focus constantly back to yourself. But a support response encourages the other person to continue their story.”
    https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/how-to-help-a-grieving-friend_us_5aa9801fe4b0004c0406d2fb

  20. KLN, Sorry to have contributed to your unhappiness. Incidentally, the persons in my life most strongly exemplifying the types a mentioned who make it difficult to listen were men, not women.

  21. Thank you. I’m not surprised – like I said, it’s not a man thing, it’s a human thing. If I had to guess, I would estimate that men struggle more with this on a population level, but I also believe that even if that’s true, that majority is still small enough for anecdotal exceptions to be common.

  22. John Mansfield says:

    Stand there like Zack was? link to LA Times photo

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