Thursday, April 29, 2010

We Need Less Sharing

Dear Jocelyn,
I seem to have the rare gift/curse where perfect strangers feel comfortable telling me their life story. While sometimes this trait can be advantageous, other times it is just awkward. Over the years, I have heard some very interesting and strange stories, as well as some stories where people desperately need some help. Not being a counselor and having no background in such a field, how should I handle these types of situations in the case of perfect strangers I will never see again and those acquaintances I occasionally run into again?
-A Worn Out Ear


Dear Worn Out,
Ah yes, I have run into that situation before also - although now I can send them a bill after our conversation. One thing you did not say is whether you mind hearing these stories. If you do not want to be a dumping ground for people's problems, then perhaps learn to look busy all the time. When someone approaches you and you sense they are going to open up, cut them off with a polite "I'm so sorry, but I need to finish this report/paper/crossword puzzle." Then return to what you were doing and do not feel guilted into listening. Remember, you are not obligated to listen while a perfect stranger spills his guts.

However, if you do not mind hearing some strange tales occasionally, here is my advice. Realize that people sharing their life story rarely expect a stranger to have all the answers - so do not feel pressured to fix their life after a conversation on the bus. Usually people are looking for sympathy, and simply listening and nodding is enough. For those who need more than a sympathetic ear, tell them, "I am so sorry for what you are going through. I think a pastor or counselor would really be able to help you with this problem. I will pray for you." This is all you can do. Since you are not a trained professional, feeling obligated to help them is like feeling obligated to remove someone's inflamed appendix: it is not your responsibility. For those acquaintances you encounter in the future, offer them a warm smile and do not ask them about their situation unless they bring it up.

Another tip: since you seem to have a face people can trust, perhaps be prepared and carry around a stack of a therapist's business cards. This will be an easy way to refer them to someone whose job it is to help.
-Jocelyn

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