Just Shut Up And Listen

In spite of the jewelry, the make-up, and my complete ignorance of anything sports-related, I often wonder if I have a surplus of male hormones floating around somewhere in my bloodstream. No, I don't have a mustache (at least not now), or an extra...um...appendage hidden somewhere. But I do seem to have some male traits, despite all that. People tell me things. Not just in the clinic; they always have. I am that person who will be standing in the shampoo aisle at CVS while some stranger spills their guts about their relationship to me. I can't tell you how many times I have been out by myself and gotten roped into very, very personal conversations with strangers. My close friends have told me that I exude a very obvious openness, which makes people feel comfortable telling me anything without fear of judgment. I have had mere acquaintances bring up blood-curdling confessions. I have heard things that are shocking, heartbreaking, alarming...you name it, and mostly from people I barely know.

It's strange, because I don't even consider myself a very good listener. Oh, I listen, and I hear what people are saying...but as soon as the words start coming out of someone's mouth, my mind instantly switches over to another mode, the "how can I fix this" mode. Even if I'm talking to a complete stranger, I start to obsess about how I can make their situation a little bit better, if only briefly. In short, I listen like a man. When I listen, I am more like a mechanic than a therapist.

Over the past few years, I have come to the realization that this sort of thinking is bad on both ends. Most people who want to talk about their problems only want an ear, not an opinion. They want someone who will sympathize and coddle them, not someone who will give them a list of ways to solve the problem. And from the other end, I am usually fairly powerless to solve whatever their issue is, so lying awake nights trying to find a solution to a problem only they can fix is a very draining exercise in futility.

Yet this pattern of listening is a part of me, and not easy to break. And I wonder if it has its place, as well. After all, the world needs mechanics, too. I sometimes think that being in this field has brainwashed me into thinking that I need to listen more like a therapist, since so much of what I do is based on the simple premise of making people feel better.

Question of the day: what kind of listener are you? And what type of listener do you prefer to encounter when you have a problem: the sympathizer, or the fixer?