Dear Amy: This summer, I chose to invite lifelong friends for a week at a mountain cabin.
Knowing that they are ultra-conservative and evangelical, I decided to keep my mouth shut and listen.
Listening became difficult when I was sitting at a table in the main room and the other two, not far away in the sitting area, engaged in a critical dissection of a former neighbor’s marriage to another woman (and their new son).
I said nothing, but I found it puzzling, as well as offensive, since the woman discussed happens to be my cousin.
Why would anyone do such a thing? I was sitting six feet behind them. I said nothing. It still upsets me. — Puzzled in North Carolina
Dear Puzzled: I support your idea to engage in some active listening, which can help to promote tolerance and understanding.
The “shutting up” part of your program makes no sense to me, however.
Your scenario presupposes that remaining silent while overhearing people critically “dissect” a family member is somehow worse than passively listening while the same people express bigotry toward strangers.
Why didn’t you speak up? Why didn’t you ever speak up?
“Ultra-conservative and evangelical” people are tasked with the same duties, burdens and privileges as you are: to love and respect fellow human beings. If your friends choose not to recognize, love and respect the basic humanity of people they disagree with, then they should be called out and challenged on their beliefs and behavior.
Plus, gossiping about and armchair-critiquing others while lounging in comfort in someone else’s vacation home is bad form. They don’t sound like good or gracious guests but — because of your silence — they’ve been denied access to your point of view and a possible course correction.
Dear Amy: I’m having trouble figuring out how to proceed in my relationship with my uncle’s widow, “Barbara.”
I like Barbara and have found her to be an interesting and intelligent person.
We didn’t see a lot of them because we all live quite a distance away, but in the past couple of years we visited them several times.
Barbara always seemed to welcome our visits, and sometimes it was phone calls from her that led to our choice to travel to see them.
Yet at the same time, she often seemed to read ill intent where there was none, and sometimes made rather cutting remarks aimed at me.
This happened again after my uncle’s funeral. I know that she was under a great deal of stress and sadness at the time, but I’m wondering if she would rather discontinue our relationship now. She has a lot of family around her who seem very supportive, so I don’t think she really needs us to visit, and it seems like quite possibly now that my uncle is gone, she really would rather we didn’t.
Do you have any suggestions? — Wondering
Dear Wondering: I don’t think it’s wise, or helpful, to ask your uncle’s widow outright if she would like to abruptly and completely discontinue this relationship with you and your family.
Instead, you should behave as you always have, and watch and listen for cues from her. You should contact her and say, “We’d like to visit, but we understand that you are going through a challenging transition. I hope you don’t feel an obligation, but please understand that if you’d like a visit from us, just say the word and we’ll jump into the car. Regardless, we want you to know that we care about you and would like to keep in touch.”
Dear Amy: The note from “Seen it All” centered on how to respond to irate customers.
Many years ago, while working for the nation’s largest airline, all public contact managers and frontline customer agents were provided with several training sessions, which focused on the difference between sympathy and empathy when responding to difficult, mishandled or irate customers. This also applies to everyday staff interactions within a company ... or even at home.
For example, a sympathetic answer would be, “I’m sorry you were asked to do that.”
On the other hand, an empathetic response tends to calm things down before asking, “What would you like me to do?”
Here’s an example: “I don’t blame you for feeling that way. I’d probably feel the same. How can we resolve this to your satisfaction?” Or, “How can we handle this differently in the future?” — Steve in Tulsa, OK
Dear Steve: I agree that these approaches would work well at home, too. Thank you!