We’re approaching the time of year when a certain question is inevitably asked when people need to make small talk. You know the one:
“How was your summer?”
This seemingly innocuous question can be distressing, making people feel uneasy if they don’t have something extraordinary or interesting to report.
However, since summer 2020 has been far from ordinary, I have a much different attitude about this question being tossed around in a few weeks.
This year, I think the question actually has great potential to connect rather than repel people, because it’s very likely that each person will have something of interest to share that the other can relate to, namely, some sort of dis-ease.
It’s unsexy, but the reality is that tales about our challenges, not tales of ease are what truly bind us.
Although it’s energizing and entertaining to hear the latter, the former tend to touch us more profoundly and by extension, they can more reliably help us meet our humanity.
Discussing the dis-ease in our lives certainly gets us beyond small talk, but like our seasonal question, it also raises the risk of people falling into the comparison game—“My challenges aren’t as severe as hers” (and all the [false] interpretations of worthiness that can follow from comparing).
When we remember the truth that each person experiences their suffering at 100% intensity (adapted from The Grief Recovery Method), then our capacity to actively listen and show compassion, rather than internally compare, soars.
That effect of sharing summer stories is nothing short of extraordinary!
Despite these wonderful possible outcomes of commiserating about dis-ease, for a variety of reasons many people will resist the vulnerability required to share their unpleasant goings-on.
In those situations, I believe that a simple, specific response also has the power to create understanding and deep connection, without sacrificing a responder’s need for withholding. It goes something like:
“[It’s been hard, but] I’ve been doing my best.”
I still get chills when I recall a moment when someone used this sentence and it literally shifted the energy in a room full of people in a heartwarming way:
About sixteen women were gathered for the monthly women’s group that I organize, and to close the meeting each woman was to share a “brag”—something in their life that we could celebrate with cheers and applause. (This clearly tests the importance of relating through personal challenges, but because women tend not to boast about themselves, it is another valuable type of sharing).
There was genuine, outwardly-expressed enthusiasm for all the brags, whether seemingly big or small.
Then, when it was Anna’s turn (not her actual name), she shrugged and quietly said that she couldn’t think of a personal brag. We wouldn’t let her off the hook though, believing that everyone has something that can be celebrated.
Anna paused for a moment, threw up her hands, and shared, “I’m just trying to do my best.”
The group erupted with praise for Anna (and likely for each of us who related)! With that sentence, she struck a major chord, revealing an unspoken truth that resonated with everyone.
Anna said she was floored by the response because she thought her remark was the least meaningful of all that was offered. It seemed to be the most potent, however, in part because each of us strongly identified with “trying to do my best.”
And that’s because…underlying the best effort that everyone is putting out is, each person’s unique brand of dis-ease.
So, in a couple short weeks when you’re engaged in post-summer small talk, I invite you to remember Anna’s experience and perhaps try your best to elevate to “medium” talk by sharing a personal challenge.
It may be distressing at first. But in the likely event that the dis-ease is followed by a sense of connection, you may ultimately find yourself laughing at our tendency to resist higher-level talk.
Coincidentally, that joyful response provides the answer to an important question that can be asked any time of year:
Q: What is the antidote to dis-ease? A: Laughter.
Do you or someone you know need conversations that always elevate beyond small talk and help support you through your particular dis-ease? Contact me and I’ll give you my best.