The Stranger in the Room
By Tim Clark
“I’d like you to get into pairs and take ten minutes to reflect on the questions on the screen.”
It was the second day of a thought-provoking psychotherapy conference and I was flagging.
A woman in front of me turned around and made the ‘d’you wanna pair up?’ gesture. In my flagging state, I was grateful to her.
I volunteered Steph1 to go first and she began to discuss the questions as we had been instructed.
She spoke sporadically, pausing to think through her responses. I listened, nodding and maintaining eye contact, at the same time processing the questions for myself. She looked at me a few times, expectantly, perhaps waiting for me to say something, and then continued. I didn’t want to interrupt. She repeated the same idea over a few times, apparently unsure about where to take it.
“Are you even listening?” she exclaimed, sitting back in her chair. “I feel like you’re just going, ‘yeah, yeah, let’s get this finished.’ Actually, I’m feeling quite pissed off.”
My throat sank into my stomach. I blathered, “Oh, no, oh, um, oh, my gosh, if that’s the impression I’ve given you then it’s the absolute opposite of what I would have wanted.”
“It seems like I’m boring you.”
I was mortified. My hands started trembling and my heart thumped in my chest. I tried to explain that I had indeed been listening and thought that was all I was expected to do. But the damage had been done.
My inner critic chimed in: You’re not allowed to piss people off, Tim. How could you! Even worse: Maybe this is what everyone is thinking while you’re thinking you’re listening to them. Have you been misunderstanding everyone all this time?
I sank into shame. When the exercise was over, I fled from the classroom and sat outside in the quiet, gathering myself and processing what had happened.
At the afternoon tea break, I was chatting with another lady when Steph sought me out. “I notice you left the room,” she said.
I explained my need to get myself together, determined to take responsibility for my own actions.
Steph proceeded to tell the other lady what had happened between us, only checking halfway through that I was happy for her to do that. I added that I had interpreted the instructions for the task very literally.
Steph agreed and went one step further: “I have a theory about that, and maybe it’s a bit far out, but I was thinking that sometimes autistic people can be very literal and maybe you might be on the autism spectrum.”
In the roughly thirty minutes I had known her, Steph had formed a judgement of me as insensitive, apathetic, a poor listener and, to some degree, autistic. If there has been a time in my life when I’ve felt less understood, I can’t remember it.
In a strange twist of fate, it was in that very workshop that I first heard the term ‘discursive empathy.’ I was familiar with Carl Rogers’ definition of empathy as: the capacity to sense someone’s private world as if it were my own, without ever losing the ‘as if’ quality (1957). I knew it involved more than just reflecting back to people what they said they were feeling, that it involved constant checking to ensure accuracy, and that I didn’t need to disconnect from my own reality to be able to empathise with someone else’s reality.
But this word ‘discursive’ added a new element. It suggested that real empathy includes the ability to tap into the ‘discourses’ that inform another person’s perspective: in other words, the context they exist in, especially their culture.
My encounter with Steph is a perfect example of what can go wrong when we don’t attempt to understand the contexts in which other people exist. What I haven’t told you about Steph is that she had lived most of her life in a country and culture different to my own. English was her second language. It’s entirely possible that in her culture or in her family, it is unacceptable under any circumstances to remain silent when someone speaks to you. Maybe she was uncomfortable with silence? It can be scary for a lot of people for a lot of reasons. Maybe silence had been used as a punishment against her by a loved one? Or maybe it was something to do with my face? Perhaps I made an expression that, in her context, would indicate boredom or arrogance. (I sometimes think I have ‘resting vague face’.) Whatever it was, I failed to read the signs that I was frustrating her. I can see only them in hindsight.
But she also failed to attempt to understand the discourses that informed my response. Having been a teacher myself, I was operating on the belief that the teacher’s word was gospel, that it was important to follow instructions so I could learn well. And in my family, even as a kid, I had often adopted the role of quiet mediator. I learned early on that voicing my own feelings could make fiery situations worse. My approach to being a counsellor and massage therapist, therefore, was based largely on careful listening and a reluctance to impose my interpretations before I was confident of being really tuned-in. I know how valuable it is to speak and be heard without being steered by someone in any particular direction. I had thought that I was providing an opportunity for Steph to do that, yet my good intentions could hardly have been more poorly received.
By chance, I had just finished reading2 Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Talking to Strangers. Whatever you think of Gladwell, the book offers some compelling and surprising insights about what can go wrong when strangers meet. He puts a lot of it down to our inability to do what he calls ‘coupling’, which is similar to discursive empathy. We struggle, he suggests, to understand that strangers are ‘coupled’ with their context. We’re often not familiar with the social, cultural, spiritual and other contexts in which people have been brought up and continue to live in. The examples in Gladwell’s case studies have far more tragic consequences than my tiny collision with Steph, yet the principle remains the same.
‘Reading’ strangers without considering their context leaves us only with the personal information we have: a tone of voice, a facial expression, a word choice. Steph very quickly took the information she had and formed not only an impression but a diagnosis and even reflected that diagnosis back to me. For a short time, it left me feeling ashamed and deeply unsure of myself. Rather than refuting her assertions, I let them sit, and eventually I was able to take myself through a process of empathising with her. In doing so, I could at least imagine some of the reasons she might have had for interpreting me the way she did, like those I listed above. I don’t know if any of them are accurate but wondering about her story helped me to return to a stable self-image, to remember all the evidence I had that suggested her interpretation of me was not accurate, and to be okay with myself again.
Gladwell suggests that to avoid harming strangers with our misinterpretations, we need to do two things.
- ‘Default to truth’ i.e. to assume that other people’s intentions are good. “To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society,” he asserts. “Those occasions that violate our trusting nature are tragic, but the alternative – to abandon trust as a defence against predation and deception – that alternative is worse.”
- Accept the limitations of our ability to decipher strangers: “What is required of us is restraint and humility … There are clues to making sense of a stranger but attending to them requires care and attention.”
As massage therapists, we deal with strangers all the time. We search for clues about what might be causing them pain or discomfort. We listen to their words and ‘read’ their bodies. And sometimes we reach conclusions quickly. But we need to accept that these conclusions will not always be correct, and we can usually do more to understand our clients’ experiences and contexts. It’s not nice to think that we might be misinterpreting our clients, or that they are misinterpreting us, but the reality is that it happens more often than we think. The challenge is to keep an open mind with strangers, to remain curious and humble and, when it feels like a misunderstanding has occurred, to chalk it up to human nature.
And Steph, if you’re reading this, no hard feelings.
1 Not her real name. But the rest is real.
2 Actually, I listened to the audiobook, which was fantastic, with lots of recordings from Gladwell’s interviews as well as archival audio. Highly recommended.
About the Author
Tim Clark is a Melbourne-based psychotherapist and massage therapist. His approach is person-centred but he hopes one day to be able to minister equally to animals, plants and inanimate objects.