It’s not about you, except when it is, sort of

April 21, 2011

I was lucky enough to attend a Readers’ Advisory workshop not long ago, given by the really fabulous Nancy Pearl, who is the only person (never mind the only librarian) I’ve ever met with her own action figure. In person, she is warm and funny, with this amazing quality of really listening to anyone she’s talking to and making them feel like they are brilliant and worthwhile and capable of changing the world.

Readers’ advisory, if you’re curious, is pretty much what it sounds like – talking with readers and suggesting books that hopefully they will enjoy based on the information they give you about themselves and their reading. It’s one of the more personal services libraries offer – kind of like matchmaking (and you know how dangerous that can be).

She gave two main pieces of advice for good readers advisory work, and the first one just sang in my ears. Here it is, paraphrased: You must remember it’s not about you.

I sat in my seat, listening to this uber-librarian, my eyes wide, and when these words came from her mouth I wanted to stand up and sing “Hallelujah!” Because “It’s not about you” is the most important practical lesson grief has taught me so far. I keep going back to it, keep reminding myself of it. What I think and feel is important to me, yes, but when I am listening to someone else’s story, attempting to provide comfort or to just let someone know I’m there, reminding myself that these moments aren’t about my stories or feelings is incredibly helpful. It’s very easy to fail at this, too, as was also noted by Nancy Pearl. It sounds simple and easy, but it’s not.

To focus on someone else, to truly listen and to respond to another person instead of to our own needs and desires that often make themselves known (Me, me! Me, too!) when we hear another person’s story, is a difficult thing, and I suspect it calls for years and years of practice and discipline. To connect our stories and experiences to those of others without shifting the focus back to ourselves – that seems to me to be a very high form of empathy and connection. I want to be good at it, though, not only because I think it’s an important skill for anyone in service professions, but because nothing really drives home how rare this skill is until you are grieving and suddenly find yourself listening to people who try to comfort you by comforting themselves.

But in order to focus on someone when you are doing readers’ advisory, it is helpful and necessary to know quite a lot about how you read and what you like and to be mindful of your own moods, because someone who loves the same book you do may love it for very different reasons and because many people will love the books you don’t. For that matter, you may love a book now that you couldn’t stand three years ago because the you that’s reading it has changed. And so you pay attention to yourself so that when someone tells you he’s looking for another good read like To Kill a Mockingbird, you don’t automatically hook the poor guy up with Faulkner just because you loved Mockingbird for its Southern setting and tone. He may be looking for a plot-driven book about lawyers fighting injustice or for more character-driven coming-of-age books, or for something else entirely. You know yourself partly so you can recognize that other people are not exactly like you, even when there are similarities.

This particular nook of the online world is full of people with similarities. Loss and longing have written on all of us, and here is where we can show each other the marks, can seek and give comfort, even if it’s just the comfort of  “you’re not alone.” One of the common similarities I see that warms my heart is the awareness that while we’re all coping (or not coping) with grief, it hits us in different ways. I appreciate that, I want to get better at recognizing this, and I want to take some of this awareness with me into the often less empathetic world of work, neighbors, friends and family.*

I keep working on self-knowledge, and sometimes it’s an uphill battle, but to start, here are a few things I know about myself:

  • I get into books mainly through characters and language.
  • I am shy. Not just introverted, but shy. Less so online, but still.
  • I avoid conflict whenever I can for as long as I can. Sometimes I can do this indefinitely. It’s hard for me to believe other people aren’t like this.
  • Sometimes others’ stories resonate so much with me that it’s hard to respond, even when I want to.
  • I can pick a sentence apart in a hundred ways, and often do.

I’m not big on “the silver lining” of grief, but do you feel your loss has helped you become a better listener, honed your empathy?

Edited to add: most of my friends and family are, in fact, very empathetic and caring. I’m lucky in that. But it’s not the same as this online community.



  1. I’d like to think I’m a better listener and more empathetic, but I fall too often squarely in the camp of “me too.” How often in responding to a blog post do I recount a story about Henry? I think sometimes I hold up these stories as a sign of solidarity—you are not alone—but yes, it takes me out of listening and into my own head and wounded heart. I know too that despite knowing that I can’t make it better, I want to and so try to offer advice or hope in the dim guise of my own experience. And sometimes I fumble with words when I really just want to reach out and squeeze a hand or give a hug or sit with the story between us.

    What grief has done is make me want to reach out more, even if I am still clumsy in how I do it. And recognizing how bad I am sometimes in how I reach out, fumbling for words, perhaps inserting myself where I shouldn’t, I am more forgiving of others who stumble when responding to my grief.

    P.S. I need a new book recommendation, or I will soon. I’m loving Spencer-Flemings books, but I’m almost done with them (just got the notice that the latest one is ready for me at the library).

  2. A librarian action figure – that is too cool! Was she wearing that outfit at the seminar?

    This has given me much to think about. Maybe I should get a book on empathetic listening… not a skill in my family, so I really have no idea about it. And where do you draw the line – ie, I am saying this example from my life to commiserate with you, how I dealt or whatever. I do try to keep my conversations two-way. But I think I have way more improvement to do!

    Thanks for sharing this!

  3. I think it has, but in other ways I think it has made me worse. Especially when the friend or family member in question is trying to talk to me about problems that well, frankly, I don’t see as huge problems. I know this isn’t a great attitude, but I do tend to rank my suffering amongst those I know in real life, and I very much know I shouldn’t. But I think when it comes to “strangers” such as yourself, I’m not too bad.
    I’m here. I’m listening. I care. And you’re not alone.

  4. It’s a balance – there are times when it really is all about me (or you). I sometimes think that one of the reasons babylost people are better at real, empathetic listening, at least in our corner of the internet, is that we’ve had so many really good examples of what NOT to do thrown at us from the outside world.

    I’ll try to come up with some book suggestions soon!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: