Uh-Huh, Bummer, Wow

A spiritual leader once confided that you can handle just about any conversation–with anyone–by using these three responses. I found this disturbing, at first, because one of the most difficult tasks spiritual leaders must perform is listening to those who are confused, in pain, in trouble, afraid, dying or uncertain if they will help pay the spiritual leader’s salary.

Then I tried this and discovered how well it works.

I’m one of those shy people who deals with his fear of social situations by talking. After thirty years in journalism I have developed some techniques that gently control conversations.  When I’m in a conversation I tend to want to share experiences or information, so when someone says this happened, I come back with what happened to me. This tendency is often misjudged. People tell me later that I shouldn’t have “topped” the other’s experience. “It’s not supposed to be about you,” I hear. If I mention a fact or bit of knowledge I find interesting and relevant, I’m told I’m too much of a “know it all.”

The art of conversation is now taking place mostly in cyberspace, which has its own rules, morals and manners. Many people find “face time” conversations that don’t involve an aim (a journalistic interview) or an anticipated outcome (“Excuse me, but can you show me where I can find frozen peas?”) difficult. I’m one of them.

Now that I am old enough to be never mistaken for young I’ve discovered that, on the whole, older types are not that important to our youth-oriented consumer society. We are not that interesting and are too eager to offer advice about things we couldn’t possibly know, or that, because of our age, are buried in our past and obviously irrelevant.

But every so often younger people occasionally need, or want, our approval, permission, resources (typically money but also emotional support, or a vote of confidence) and, when they realize how scary the world can be, comfort.

If we older types just say “uh huh” more often, we appear to understand everything. We are suddenly up-to-date and relevant. We get it. We are woke.

Too much human interaction involves being manipulated by social media protocols, phone trees, machined responses, unanswered e-mails, voice mail boxes that become catacombs for our hopes and fears.

So, when people talk about themselves, more often than not, they want is to feel as if someone is listening in a manner that connotes less comprehension than respectful attention. When you say uh-huh repeatedly, you’re not merely showing the talker that you agree. You’re also encourage people to keep talking until they run out of energy or they begin to repeat themselves and then run out of energy. You may not understand everything they’re saying, but, having sat through a foreign movie with hard-to-read subtitles, you get the gist eventually.

Use “wow” and “bummer,” or some similar colloquialism, to show sympathy. “Wow” is not just surprise at what this person is telling you. It shows that you feel the delight, shock, indignation or amazement that your speaker experienced. You may have done something similar. You may have climbed the same mountain and want to show that you share the experience in common.

But your speaker doesn’t want to feel a shared bond. Your job is to not to speak and, thereby, validate that person’s need to speak.

“Bummer” says, yes, that wasn’t good, or it should have been better, and–necessary for spiritual leaders–indicating little about fault, blame or responsibility. A bummer is a cloud without a silver lining, a bad thing that crosses our path, the yucky stuff that hits the fan. Some bummers make us turn to God and ask why. We don’t always get an explanation and some explanations only make a bad situation worse.

So the fact that another human being is listening, without judging (or appearing to judge) the speaker’s life, can take that speaker away from the bad feelings that accompany bummers. Psychologists call this release of buried, suppressed or overwhelming emotion through conversation, abreaction. It isn’t the only benefit of therapy, but it can be the moment when healing begins.

I’m not so old that I’ve forgotten what it is like to need a parent to hug you and say let you cry, or laugh, or merely feel safe. Words can do that.

Words like words uh-huh, bummer, wow.



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