On showing up…while leaving space

Several months ago, my nephew and I were talking over breakfast.

He was addressing pictures hung on my apartment walls, looking at images of his cousins.

He wanted to know if his cousins still lived in the area because he hadn’t seen them in a while.

I thought about deflecting his question and caught myself.

“You know,” I started before pausing, “grief affects people really differently. Sometimes you can’t be around other people while it feels like you’re mad at them.”

He didn’t read too much into my words, he accepted the explanation and nodded before changing topics.

The topic of grief isn’t far removed from most discussions, though we move past it easily.

It’s easier that way in a lot of moments.

And yet it finds us again, in questions from children trying to understand family dynamics, community dynamics, emotional responses in others, emotional responses in themselves.

November 20th is the day we uplift the resilience of the Trans Community.

Community events often name the individuals who have lost their lives due to transphobia and hate crimes in the last year, explicitly drawing our attention to the harm that is happening.

And yet we are invited to contextualize the space we leave for grief within the continued lack of investment we’ve made into the wellbeing and safety of the trans community.

Dissonance is punctured, even if we miss it.

Being told something that we’re not present to hear is the dynamic that most gets my attention.

The pattern of mismatch between what is said and what is heard.

The disconnect between what is offered and what is absorbed.

The emotional labor that isn’t respected or supported.

The story telling that we attempt to shrink into a day.

I’m grappling with two separate skillsets — one of listening and one of speaking.

I’m grappling with the disservice it is to only have competence in one of those areas at a time.

I’m grappling with the story telling that is called for, and the pattern of not being able to respond.

I’m grappling with the stories we hold in because they can’t be heard amidst anxious silences.

I’m grappling with the stories screamed into the abyss of indifference.

I’m grappling with how to answer questions in the moment about dynamics we are seeing.

I’m grappling with how to listen and speak well, and how to recognize that dual ability in others.

With that on my heart, I offer two sets of questions for reflection.

You can hear these questions multiple ways; for giving and receiving disclosures, for navigating relationships in crisis moments, for constructing events that include bereavement, for opening difficult conversations or conflict.

What I hope we hear though is that being able to listen and to speak are not random capacities that are always available to us. They take nurturing, and self-awareness, and inventory that is not solely spontaneous.

Being a good listener won’t be true in every circumstance, and established boundaries won’t cross over into every circumstance. For us to create communication and consent scripts that take harm seriously, we need to have ways to be responsive to changing and layered factors.

All the more so when harm has already happened.

And all the more often when the experience of what happened is more distinct than shared.

Things to ask to determine if I’m in a place to listen:

1) Am I able to draw boundaries?

2) Am I able to hear and respect boundaries being drawn with me?

3) Do I have an outlet for my emotional responses?

4) Am I able to take breaks?

5) Do I know what the other person(s) expect(s) from me?

6) Can I hear criticism? Can I hear feedback?

7) Can I accept unanswered questions?

8) Can I manage my physical responses to what’s being said?

9) Can I acknowledge ambiguity and not resent it or ignore it?

10) Can I self-correct if the response I have isn’t compatible with what’s asked for?

11) Can I respond to body language and words being said?

Things to ask to determine if I’m in a place to talk?

1) Can I leave this situation?

2) Do I know what my red flags are that signal I need to stop?

3) Can I give guidance to the person(s) I’m speaking to about what I want and don’t want?

4) Do I have outlets for my emotional responses?

5) Can I mange my physical responses to what’s being said?

6) Can I allow my boundaries to fluctuate?

7) Can I articulate what I’m afraid of? Can I handle the harm that is both theoretical and possible in this interaction?

8) Can I navigate a negative reaction to what I have to say?

9) Can I hold a boundary when it is not well received?

10) Do I have support people available to me?

11) Can I control ongoing contact or exposure with this person, setting or experience?

These lists are not exhaustive, and there are questions missing.

My purpose in posting them is to help us visualize support of each other more practically.

While interactions may be time limited, our relationships with each other make those interactions linked, and therefore harm carried over.

There is room to acknowledge patterns so we have opportunities to do things differently.

There is room to set conditions for how we share our stories, and there are ways to become more consistent in responding supportively.

Get over your desire to simplify.

Get over your sense that this is easy.

Sit in your angst, whether that’s as someone who isn’t supported, who feels defensive about criticism you’ve received, who feels tension over boundaries that are at odds, who wants more clarity.

Grief is the backdrop these questions are situated within.

Alienation, Isolation, Anger, Indifference. It’s all here.

Focus on building up your skills, and getting to know your own patterns.

We have to show up accurately before we can show up consistently.

We have to reckon with how we are showing up presently.

We have to grapple with what is, not just what could be.

Resilience is what comes out of our emotional labor, and it needs space and support to develop.

Consider how to give it the space it needs through your listening and speaking, not only one or the other.