By Bob Mueller
In my school days, sarcasm was the standard mode of getting along with each other. No one thought sarcasm was unkind. Rather, it was a sign of wit and engagement. It was how a person fit in. By the time my schooling was over, sarcasm was imprinted on me and leaked out in many things I said.
Out in the real world, I discovered that sarcasm as a method of communication rarely accomplished what I thought it would. It did not break the ice, it did not defuse tension, it did not make a point well, it did not always win a debate, and in most cases, it did not unite me with others. Instead, sarcasm damaged my ability to connect with others because many folks didn’t understand my sarcastic comments.
The Greek word that is the origin of our word sarcasm means to tear flesh, and generally, definitions of the word point to the intent to hurt. Sarcasm brings tears to my eyes now and a dull, sick feeling when I witness other people using it, or when I sense it wanting to heave out of my mouth again after all these years of turning my back on it. I read comment sections on the Internet where sarcasm and blatant rudeness seem to be the typical way people who don’t know each other engage. I withdraw from adding my comments and remain quiet, not because I have nothing to say, but because I have not yet found a way to express myself that is consistent with kindness. Until I can say what I want to say kindly, I try not to say anything.
Years ago the emotional support service that hospice provides for people facing terminal illness paired me with a vibrant, opinionated, sarcastic, boisterous man whose diagnosis threw his life into chaos. At our first meeting he pulled out all the stops and started sharing sensitive information, asking questions, making plans, and discussing problems all at once in a jumble of disconnected sentences.
I sat quietly taking it in, not so much because I had learned that skill, but because it was one of my first assignments, and I was terrified. I sat still and quiet because there were no openings to speak, and I didn’t know what to say in response to the largeness of what he was dealing with. Later he reported to my supervisors that my skilled listening made him feel supported because I clearly had confidence in his ability to work through the messy emotions at a time when he lacked confidence in himself. His review of my service was astounding to me because after meeting with him I was plagued by the thought that I had failed to say anything useful at all.
It turns out that my steadfast eye contact, although inspired by insecurity and inexperience, was communicating something to the patient, and there wasn’t anything more meaningful I could have contributed. He said he felt supported by the presence of someone who listened steadily. He later shared with me that typically people found him overwhelming and intense and that my ability to stay with him through his volcanic, eruption-like emotional expressions helped him immensely.
Good, compassionate listening, it turns out, is patient listening. People in distress may take a while to find appropriate words to describe their experience. Their emotions may be moving faster than they can find words to attach to them. Patience can help us to wait for them to sort it out without interjecting suggestions or cutting them off. Good listening is attentive listening in which the one listening abandons their smartphone and does not glance down to read a text message. A good listener renounces the world for the moment and focuses wholly on the person with them.
I have found great value in becoming aware of my listening style. I have discovered that there is a relationship between the way I listen to people and the way I listen to life and its intuitive prompts. Like the notes of good music, our thoughts ought to have lots of spaces between them, places to breathe, to receive and to listen.
When I step away from the stimulations of life and close my eyes for a moment, I discover that my mental noise reduces also, and the conversations in my mind slows down. It gives me a chance to catch my breath and turn my attention kindly to the world within with the same compassion and attentiveness that I have used when listening to people.