Posts Tagged ‘support’

When Our Responses Disenfranchise Others

November 13, 2017

It was a tiny incident, really. My wife Bernie and I were walking on the curving sidewalk behind the homes in our addition. A neighbor, let’s call him Matt, noticed us from his porch and asked, “Is this an anniversary? I saw a florist deliver flowers to your house earlier today.”

I looked at Bernie, who paused and then said, “No, not an anniversary. The bouquet was from our three grown children. I had emailed them this morning to give them the news: my retinologist just told me that my eyesight has become so compromised by my macular degeneration that I must now give up driving.”

Matt nodded, solemnly. “Oh,” he said, “but at least it’s not anything life-threatening.”

I know that Matt is a kind man. He would not intentionally do anything hurtful. And yet that’s what happened that afternoon. Bernie spoke her sad, fresh truth to him and he responded in a way that did not address the depth of what she was experiencing. She was in pain and he acted as if the pain wasn’t all that serious.

He made what I call a disenfranchising response.

The Old French word enfranchir means “to make free.” Put the negative prefix dis in front of it and it means “to make unfree.” When we disenfranchise someone, we deprive them, often unintentionally, of something that is rightfully and naturally theirs—in this case, a strong feeling.

Matt probably felt awkward that he was so mistaken about the reason for the flower delivery. He probably didn’t want to compound Bernie’s sadness by talking about it. He may have felt a certain helplessness, not knowing what to say that would make much difference. So he said, in effect, “Actually, this isn’t such a big deal; it isn’t life-threatening.”

We have all made disenfranchising responses through the years, probably more than we realize. Out of our awkwardness or ignorance or unintended insensitivity, we have downplayed another’s legitimate feelings. It happens all the time. When it does, people are not reinforced in their freedom to feel their natural feelings, whether those feelings are understood or not.

Knowing how easily this happens, I have put together a series of questions we can ask to help us determine if our responses are disenfranchising to a person who’s in a fragile or sad or painful situation.

Does my response invite comparison? In the freshness of the moment, one’s feelings are one’s feelings and no one else’s. To suggest quickly a comparison to a more dire situation, or a more unfortunate one, suggests that what the other feels is less important somehow, less valid.

Does my response refer only to the facts? Learning the particulars of a person’s situation can give that person the opportunity to tell their story, which can be helpful. Yet if the emphasis is only on the matters of who, what, when, where, and how, as a newspaper might report, then the significant issue of what’s going on inside, what this experience really means, is left unaddressed.

Does my response minimize feelings? The other person deserves to have their innermost self acknowledged and supported. Whatever they’re feeling, they deserve validation. They may have conflicting or unusual or inexplicable feelings—that’s okay. Feelings should be given their full due, not downplayed.

Does my response turn the attention back to me?   If the interchange concentrates on my story, my experiences, my advice, it leaves the other person feeling unattended. We may even subtly be encouraging the other person to give care to us.

Does my response change the subject? If the interchange is led in an entirely different direction, away from the person before us, they’re likely to feel left out in the cold. This may feel like a slap in the face.

Does my response rule out shared silence? Sometimes there are no words to say, at least not immediately. Sometimes our expression can say it all, or our tears, or our touch, or our embrace. When we are heart to heart or soul to soul, silence speaks eloquently.

Does my response try to delve too deeply? It’s best when we respond honestly and give the other person the opportunity to say whatever they wish in return. They may reveal a lot, or very little, or nothing. Yet to expect them to share personal details just for our own satisfaction or our own need to know is being less than sensitive to whatever is happening within them.

So how do I make an enfranchising response, a response that affirms this other person? I first listen carefully, using my eyes and heart and soul as well as my ears. I give the other person their time, not pushing them or rushing them. I do my best to understand what is going on within them, asking myself, “What’s it like to be inside their body, their mind, their heart right now?” Then I respond in a way that is most natural, sharing an honest feeling, validating their honest thoughts and/or feelings, and giving them the opportunity to say more, if they wish, while also being ready to take their cue if they have said all they wish. Then I remember them after this time together, carrying them inside.

In a sense being with others is simple to do, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to do. But it is doable. And it can make a great deal of difference in people’s lives.