The Yes Behind The No
Dear Aunty Empathy,
One of my oldest and dearest friends has been ditching me lately; even to the point of not showing up when we’ve planned to meet. I know she’s busy, and she always has an excuse, but I feel like I’m the last of her priorities. It hurts and it pisses me off. How can I bring it up without sounding like I’m whining?
~ Last and Lonely
That sounds really hard. Of course you are reaching for connection, and your needs for predictability and trust aren’t being met by her actions. And as you say, you’re feeling angry, too; maybe you want more respect and consideration. You also seem to be pointing towards some longing to be seen and understood accurately, and accepted, in your concern about “sounding like I’m whining”. Are you also worried about being judged? It would be natural to be, when those needs are not met. Most of us worry about being negatively judged; we are social beings, and therefore we all need acceptance.
Seeing your friend as having “excuses” is a symptom of the problem here. The concept of excuses is from a judgemental framework, where when reasons are judged as inadequate, they are called excuses. Whatever her reasons are, to slip into judgement about them is to step into quicksand. Judgementalness is contagious, and we have to be alert to avoid being sucked into it.
The compassionate alternative is to remember that every human behavior is an attempt to meet a natural, universal, human need. Given that, we can see that when your friend is saying “no” (verbally or nonverbally) to meeting with you, she is actually saying “yes” to some need of hers that is alive for her in that moment. Perhaps she is stressed, and needing ease; perhaps she is hungry, and needing to eat; perhaps she feels tired, and is needing sleep. By the same principle, when you say no to speaking up to her about this, perhaps you are feeling embarrassed, and needing reassurance and emotional safety. Marshall Rosenberg said that “No is a tragically expressed yes.”
By focusing on the feelings and needs that are alive and true for you, and those you can imagine being true for her, you can bring up your concerns with much less chance of being heard as criticizing, blaming, or shaming. “Ethel, when you miss our meetups, I wonder how you are — are you stressed out lately? Maybe needing something more relaxing? And, I feel hurt because I need more consideration. Would you be willing to sort this out together?”
Of course, compassionate communication is not a manipulation tool, so we can’t guarantee how someone will react. All we can do is offer empathy to ourselves and others, and hope for the best.