Making Big Changes to Small Talk
"Words are seeds that do more than blow around. They land in our hearts and not the ground. Be careful what you plant and careful what you say. You might have to eat what you planted one day." -Unknown
Walking down a crowded street, looking for produce in the supermarket or sitting in a packed restaurant, it only requires a few seconds of focused attention before you begin to notice the sheer amount of negative words permeating the conversations all around you.
“Oh, I didn’t see you there; you just gave me a heart attack!”
“I was so embarrassed, I just wanted to curl up and die!”
“The traffic was terrible today, I hate city drivers!”
“People who behave that way make me sick!”
“Today was an absolute disaster!”
“My feet are killing me!”
Maybe you’ve even been in the middle of one of these conversations, participating with the easy flow that comes with endless practice. This is not a judgement on you. This is simply a result of social programing and it is the way we have been taught to behave and interact with others.
We know about the power of words. Each of us has experienced their physical and emotional effects. We have felt and sensed the way that words can make us stand taller with pride or shrink with shame. They can make us feel strong or sick, fearless or frightened, capable or unqualified. Words have the power to unleash our inner potential or cause us to doubt ourselves so much that we hide from the world.
There are some occasions when we become more aware, more intentional and more careful around the words we choose. We have an instinctual sense about when our words are going to truly matter to someone or significantly impact a life in some way. We tend to choose our words carefully when we speak directly to children, for example, or to people who are really upset, or to an authority figure like a teacher, boss, judge or police officer.
However, in the mundane, unremarkable, unmemorable, insignificant “small talk” conversations that fill our everyday lives, we tend to let our guard down a little and our awareness and intentionality tend to take a backseat.
Now this is certainly not every conversation that we have with every person, but it is interesting to notice the patterns that our interactions can take when we are only half-focus or not fully intentional about them.
Let me know if this pattern sounds familiar.
The conversation starts with a general greeting or question like, “Hey”, “What’s up?” or “How’s it going?”, which leaves the door wide open for first complaint about the worst part of their day or their disastrous home life or how much they hate some part of their body. This quickly and subconsciously turns into a few minutes of competition to see which person is going to win the ‘Worst Day Award.’
This winner is silently acknowledged when one person begins the next phase of the discussion…commiseration. Commiseration is defined as the “sympathy and sorrow for the misfortune of others”. In conversation it’s the, “Yeah man, I hear you, that sucks!” or the “Wow, I’m so sorry, I have been there too.”
Is this conversation pattern WRONG? No.
Does it empower us to create fulfilling, purposeful or happy lives? Also No.
When we compete for the ‘Worst Day Award,’ and make negative hyperbole a standard part of conversation, we inadvertently engage our Confirmation Bias. This means that our mind will scour all of our experiences, searching for negative data, in an effort to validate what we claim to believe about ourselves or the world.
Little things, gone unnoticed, tend to add up to big things.
Think about the number of unconscious, formulaic and generally negative conversations you have like this per day, per week, per year. Think about how much effort your mind goes through to support those negative claims or beliefs! Before you know it, those seemingly harmless conversations and “I almost died!” comments, can add up to an unintentional life that feels mundane and stagnant at best and hopelessly negative at worst.
Why do we do it? Why do we compete and commiserate in the first place?
As harmful and dis-empowering as these types of conversations can be, they are also comfortable. They lie safely in the realm of what is normal and known. These patterns of conversation and interaction give us easy rules and directions to follow. They tell us exactly how to behave and what to say, no guessing, insight or intention required.
Yes, we want to be supportive of other people who seem to be hurting!
Yes, we want to validate the feelings and choices of others.
But on some level, many of us also want to feel supported and validated in the unempowering choices we have made for the sake of staying in our own comfort zones. We don’t want to be challenged or triggered. We don’t want to look deeper into who we really are, what we really want, how we really feel, or think deeply about what we really mean to say!
We have been taught that being happy in the same room as someone else who is feeling sad is insensitive. That it’s polite to ask questions about someone’s feelings, but not polite to “waste someone’s time” with an authentic and honest answer. We have learned that commiseration is a safer bet than risking insensitivity or breaking social protocol.
“If commiseration isn’t a good option, what do we do instead?”
Before we address the possible action steps, there are a few foundational concepts we need to review.
1. Human Beings Are Powerful!
We are more than our minds, our emotions, our bodies or our words. We are the consciousness capable of observing and analyzing all aspects of itself.
This self-awareness is inherent in every human being and gives us the power of choice! The power to choose how we want to think, feel and react to any given situation. However, choice requires both a dedicated awareness practice and the unwavering desire to change.
2. We all have the right to FEEL!
Emotions themselves are neither good nor bad. Emotions exist to guide our thoughts and actions towards health, happiness and alignment with our limitless, loving selves.
When we put our hand on a hot stove, we experience the uncomfortable sensation of pain and are guided to choose to act differently. Similarly, when we feel uncomfortable emotions, we know that something about our actions, or thoughts needs to change in order for us to feel better. Alternatively, comfortable or pleasurable feelings, let us know that we are on the right course.
It is not wrong for someone to feel bad, discomfort allows us to learn! Therefore, it is important to acknowledge other people’s feelings without judgement (although this does not mean we have to feel the same way).
3. We only have control over ourselves!
We cannot change the way other people think, feel or act, we only have the power to change ourselves (which is a mighty power indeed!). It is certainly within our power to provide a positive example, or offer different perspectives and solutions, but ultimately, the other person must choose how they want to feel, act or react to the people or environment around them.
Sometimes, people are simply not ready to change their perspective, they are not open to a solution and they are not ready to feel better! When this is the case, it is important to not assume responsibility for what you cannot control. This simply leads to your own suffering and helps no one.
4. There is a difference between Commiseration and Compassion!
“You can’t get sick enough to heal the sick or poor enough to help the poor become prosperous” ~ ~Abraham Hicks
The idea behind this quote is that energy and emotion matter. Despite the fact that the dictionary claims that commiseration and compassion are synonymous, I would strongly argue that they are very different!
Commiseration is when we become attached to, or try to match, the energy, or dis-empowered emotional state of the person you are interacting with in an attempt to help them. We attach ourselves directly to the other person’s suffering and sink into co-misery with them.
The intention behind act of commiseration may be benign, but the outcome is ineffective. We can’t attract or observe the solutions when we are laser focused on a problem. This is like trying to help someone out of a deep pit by jumping into it yourself. Not only was your attempt to help ineffective, but now both of you need help and you better hope the next person to come along refuses to commiserate!
Compassion gives us a more effective alternative for supporting or assisting someone who is having a hard time or who is just habitually negative. To further the analogy compassion is staying up on the ledge and offering a rope rather than jumping into the pit. To be compassionate, we must release our attachment to the other person’s suffering enough to maintain a positive or neutral energetic or emotional state. This allows us to observe the situation without judgment, remain open to solutions, and extend kindness and support to the other person.
So Now What? Three specific tips you can experiment with!
How do we avoid commiserating with the negativity or “worst day award” competition in the first place?
How do we acknowledge another person’s pain and compassionately offer support?
So far, we have been discussing theories, generalities and ideas, and by now you probably want to know what you can do about it?
1. Begin conversations with a positive focused intent!
Start the conversation off with asking a question that guides the other person towards positive thinking and engages the person’s Confirmation Bias in a positive way.
Instead of starting the conversations with a general “Hey, what’s up?”, try leading with a positive question, statement or even a genuine complement, such as “Hey, what’s good?” or “Awesome day right? I love the rain!” or “Your coat is amazing! I love that color.” Even just a genuine “Good morning” can suffice.
This type of conversation starter does require that we maintain your own positive emotional state and give your full attention to the interaction. When you are focused on what is good, you can find a positive conversation starter that fits the situation.
If it feels awkward at first…GOOD! You are breaking old patterns of social convention.
Be brave and make change!
2. Unapologetically acknowledge and accept what is.
Remember that emotions are not inherently good or bad. Everyone is allowed to feel the full spectrum of emotion. Try your best to not judge other people’s feelings, pretend like their feelings don’t exist or expect them to change the way they feel so that you can feel more comfortable.
This does not mean that you need to feel sorry for a situation that you didn’t cause.
How often do you say “I’m sorry that you feel that way” or “I’m sorry that happened to you” when you’re not at fault for the feeling or situation? I understand that the English language is limited and that saying “sorry” it is just a way of expressing sympathy or empathy, but in the spirit of being fully intentional with our language, the misuse of the word “sorry” needs to be addressed.
It’s always good to question whether you really mean what you say.
When you say “sorry” do you really mean it? (and sometimes, it’s okay if you don’t!)
Saying “I’m sorry” implies that you’re not only taking responsibility for causing the other person’s feelings, but that you are in that moment truly experiencing the emotion of sorrow. This is a very subtle and tricky form of commiseration that we may not be fully aware that we are doing on a regular basis. How many times do you misuse the word “sorry” on a daily basis in speech or writing? It might be interesting to find out!
So how do you acknowledge without apologizing?
Sometimes, just looking them in the eye and fully listening is enough acknowledgment. If not, you can also check to see if you fully understand how they are feeling.
“It seems like you are feeling _______, is that right?” or even just a “I see that you are feeling and dealing with a lot right now.”
3. Offer support or resources
Healthy boundaries are super important so always check in with yourself before offering direct support. Do not offer direct support for someone if you don’t actually want to give them that support or if you feel like supporting them would conflict with your own health and well-being.
If you want to offer support do so simply.
Remember, humans are powerful, and it’s important to recognize and acknowledge the other person’s innate power to change and to find the solution that is best for them, instead of assuming that you alone have the perfect solution.
Ask how you can best support them, or if they would even like your support in the first place. They may not. Sometimes people don’t want to change in that moment and sometimes they don’t want your help, and that okay. Don’t take it personally!
Offering direct support could look like this…
“I seems like you’re having a rough day, is there any way I can support you?”. Notice the difference between that statement and “I’m sorry you’re having a bad day. How can I make you feel better?” The desire to help is similar, but the concepts they are based on are very different.
Other options might be…
“I have some resources that helped me out a lot, would you like me to share them with you
Simply wishing them well:
“I hope you are able to find the support you need!”
Asking if they are interested in advice:
“Do you mind if I share some advice?”
“I’ve been in a similar situation and it taught me a lot, can I share a little about that with you?”
Always give them the opportunity to refuse, because if they don’t want to change your solutions will go in one ear and out the other and may fuel some resentment in the meantime.
The moral of the story is…
Sometimes intentionally listening and offering support allow us to stray away from the standard patterns of conversation enough to interrupt social conditioning and shock people back into a more objective awareness of themselves.
A little rebellious compassion may just cause others to reflect on the words they are using and might even prompt them to question whether sitting in that traffic jam was really that “horrendous” after all or if that situation was really embarrassing enough that they would rather “die” than repeat it.
Honestly, all solutions begin with an awareness of the problem. Remember that you control your thoughts, feelings and words. We need to practice building awareness of our emotional state and being more intentional around the language we use in the mundane conversations of daily life.
Just imagine what could happen if it was the social norm to ‘say what you mean’ with authentic compassion and negative hyperbole was the weird, awkward thing to do.