I always listen; I'm never heard

My friends pour out their problems to me, and I'm starting to feel used

Published August 31, 2009 10:17AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Maybe this is a feeling you get as an advice columnist all the time, but it's starting to become a problem for me.

I'm happy to have several close friends with whom it's a pleasure to spend time and who keep me content with life. Something that's common in a lot of those friendships is that I'm trusted to listen without judgment to my friends' problems and feelings. I'm very happy to do so, and I feel honored that they trust me enough to confide. And I think part of why many confide in me is that I listen without trying to insert my own problems into the conversation. I just listen.

However, the problem is that I'm beginning to feel used. I've had some troubling things happen in my life lately regarding work, relationships and other life issues. Nothing truly terrible, but when I try to talk about it with some of the same friends, it seems the conversations end quickly or move back to their problems.

I'm more than willing to listen without expecting anything in return; I think that's an important part of friendship. But I'm starting to feel used. Frustrated, too, because I have plenty of close friends but I don't feel like I have anyone to talk to. I guess that's why I'm writing you instead of discussing it with someone.

I'm not really sure what advice I need, because I want to remain a friend, and don't want to make demands. I'd like some way to deal with it without growing to resent people I care about.

Thank you for your time and input!

Want to Be Listened To

Dear Want to be Listened To,

So you don't want to make demands, eh? Well, let's put it this way: If you want to change the program, you need to make an announcement.

You've established a program. You've trained your friends. They think they're following the rules of who you are: You're the person who listens unconditionally. Intellectually, they probably know that they, too, should listen. But that's not the program they're used to. They've been trained a certain way.

It's like they have this restaurant where every time they walk in they tell the waitress a long, drawn-out story and the waitress listens with bright, sparkling interest. They figure that's the way she is. They don't know she's doing it on purpose because she thinks it's the right thing to do. So one day they walk in and the waitress starts telling a story and they kind of cut her off. They're not used to sounds coming out her mouth. It's not in their program. And she's like, Wow, what's with them? And they're like, What's with her? The program seems to have changed without notice.

So: You want to change the program, you have to make an announcement.

Imagine a phone conversation. "Here is what I propose," you say. "This time, for this conversation only, I'd like to talk and have you listen ... Yes, I know it's a big change ... Yes ... No, strangely enough I do have an emotional life separate from yours. Yes, it is odd, I know. Nonetheless, here is what I propose: For the next five minutes, you pretend to be me, OK? You pretend to be the one who always listens. And I'll pretend to be the clueless, needy one who always tells these long, drawn-out tales of woe that cannot be solved or concluded because she is unable or unwilling to let go of the current situation, no matter how intolerable or emotionally dishonest it requires her to be. OK? ... No, I love to listen, I do, but, it's just that ... Yeah, I am good at listening, too. You're right. Well, OK, I'm very good. Yes. And ... No, I do not have your problems, but ... Well, my problems may be small, but still ... What? He did what to you? Did you tell him what I told you to tell him next time he does that? ... What did he say? ... Really? OK. But like I said, for once, just this once, I need you to spend five minutes listening to my ... OK, I'll hold."

Under your breath: "I am going to kill myself, I am going to kill myself, I am going to ..."

"Hi. Yeah, no problem. I know. Moms always call at the wrong time. So. Just, all I'm asking, is five minutes. You see, my whole life is literally falling ... OK. OK. I'll hold."

"... kill myself. I am going to kill myself. I am ..."

And so forth.

Come to think of it, you might try finding a new friend who is a good listener, rather than trying to retrain your old friends.

And of course talking on the phone may not be the best way. You need to get this person where there are no distractions. Maybe put this person in the trunk of your car and drive out to the desert for a nice chat.

Bottom line is that you are changing the rules. So expect some bafflement and initial resistance. It's not that they don't want to listen. They've just been trained not to.

Got friends? Yep, there's stuff in here about that

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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