Long since banished from most playgrounds, a teeter-totter is still familiar to many of us.
Two or more children sit on opposite ends of a long board attached to a triangular fulcrum. When the board is centered, and the children’s weights are evenly balanced between the two ends, they enjoy the up and down rhythm while their teamwork and balance are both strengthened. If the fulcrum is off center or the weights are unbalanced, riders at the long end of the board gain the ability to jerk or bounce their end of the board when touching ground.
Anyone caught unawares riding on the short end may fall off or faceplant forward. Not fun.
While differences in physical weight matter on a teeter-totter, differences in relational power differ between two individuals in conversation.
Relationships between parent-child, student-teacher, doctor-patient, woman-man, younger-older, literate–illiterate, able-disabled, mentor-mentee, or counselor-client can all involve a power differential.
The impact of our words is amplified, not only by the circumstances impinging on our lives, but also by this differential.
When used in the pursuit of excellence, criticism may serve a purpose in training for a job or in the classroom. However, in our culture of criticism, conversations can feel just as hazardous as a ride on an unbalanced teeter-totter.
Healthy relationships illustrate compassion, which means seeing a need for change to assure a fair result and considering how to make that change. Children who balance the weights on the ends of a teeter-totter illustrate compassion. Choosing a broader vocabulary, louder volume, stronger emotions, or more powerful logic may add weight to my end of the conversation.
However, healthy compassion is neither defensive nor offensive, neither self-serving service nor demanding control.
Just as the placement of a fulcrum is crucial on a teeter-totter, listening is vital in communication. Shifting the board’s position on the fulcrum to offset uneven weights is like patiently listening without mentally planning a rebuttal. Providing us with insight into others’ intentions, words denying their emotions, or their hidden needs, listening balances our understanding and can prevent our mercy from being contorted. This occurs when an unhealthy rescuer-victim relationship isaccepted through fear or demanded through entitlement.
The next time we’re facing a difficult or dreaded conversation, we have a choice.
Listening first can balance the interplay between compassion and power in that conversation.