The fire is burning nicely in the cauldron on the deck. Rain is not likely for the next three hours, so perhaps you will join me for the evening.
We enjoy a beer, cheese and Lancaster pretzels. The conversation meanders comfortably — hummingbirds, FedEx planes, the rapidly growing grass in this wet spring, oak leaf hydrangeas, Lowe’s water gauges and the Pacers versus the Knicks.
Then at a pause you say, “Dan, I’ve been feeling somewhat depressed lately.” While I would not have anticipated that sentence, I could well suppose that our friendship and this setting would not only allow but also suggest such sharing.
“Dan, I’ve been feeling somewhat depressed lately.”
Good conversation is a give and take, back and forth. Person A and Person B in co-orientation, that is, with a degree of attraction to each other, perhaps very strong, perhaps weak. Nonetheless enough magnetism to propel a conversation.
The conversation between Person A and Person B is about xs. The hummingbirds, for example. Or the FedEx planes overhead. Each is an x that Person A and Person B are directed to in this conversation.
The x has unexpectedly turned personal, pertaining to emotions, troubled emotions apparently. A somewhat depression.
Come to think of it, Person A was rather courageous to direct Person B’s attention to this X. We don’t often say to another person, even a confidant, “I’ve been feeling somewhat depressed lately.” Nor do we say things about our low bank account, or the less than satisfactory job evaluation report, or our malfunctioning bladder.
Thus I am called to attention. Person A confides in me. What shall I say in return?
In real conversation we don’t have the privilege of extended time to think through each contribution to a conversation. Often we say things that later we regret. If we had had more time, surely we would have done better.
But here by our fire in this hypothetical conversation, I do have time to think about my response. What comes first to my mind is what I hope I would not say.
I hope I would not say “Ah, get over it.”
I hope I would not say “I’ve been depressed during some parts of my life” and then go on to tell the specifics of anxiety attacks and counseling and medications, etc.
I hope I would not say “I’ll tell you five sure things that will help you get over your depression.”
I hope I would not say “What counselor are you seeing?”
I hope I would not begin to play the role of counselor.
I hope I would not change the subject.
I hope I would not allow the sentence to change my esteem for my friend.
Rather, I hope I would note that the conversation has taken a shift, a turn in the road, or, in the communication model introduced earlier, a leaving of rather small xs to a larger X. I hope I would attend to that X even as I give attention to my friend.
So often in our conversations, we provide a quick “authoritative” answer, or we refuse to engage, or we pass off the declaration as of no consequence. Sometimes Person B responds so inappropriately that Person A decides to change the subject.
You know what I think I would say? “Tell me about it.” And I would then become an engaged and empathetic listener. Perhaps I’d restate something he is saying, just so he could hear it and perhaps add to it or amend it. Perhaps I’d nod my head, give some audible sounds, place a question on my face. Perhaps I’d ask a question, only to help him work through his thoughts and feelings.
So very often Person A will come to a decision about his next step, not from a verdict handed from Person B, but from his own clearer understanding of his depression.
Conclusion: they also serve who only sit and listen.