Conversation Clutter: Tangled Emotions

July 7, 2011

“Tell me what to do!”  I heard this directive three times, each time shouted with increasing furiousness.  That’s when I started eavesdropping.  My client was in a room across the hall from where I was working.  A representative from the company whose security system protects her home called to discuss using their system.  The heated pitch of her side of the conversation continued for a couple minutes and then slowly died down.

Once I figured out the particulars of the conversation—who was on the other end of the line and what they were talking about—I began to empathize with the recipient (or is victim more apt?) of her angry demands.  I asked myself, “Why would I want to help anyone yelling at me over the phone—especially a stranger?”

Everyone Has a Story

Then I stepped back and thought about my client.  Let’s call her Joan.  You see, Joan lost her husband of 30 years to cancer six months ago.  In her eighties Joan is showing early signs of dementia.  She suffers from deep grief now that her husband is gone.  Even though she is the mother of three adult children, her raison d’être was her husband.  He’s the one who had the security system installed.  He’s the one who knew the code to activate the system.  Now she needs to know how to use the darn system and the code, but it’s just too complicated for her to figure out.

Frustrated that she must now learn something she believes she needs to learn but doesn’t want to, she engages in conversation, one she didn’t initiate, and thus, couldn’t initially control.  Her anger is displaced.  After all, her husband abandoned her.  The sharp acumen she used as a lawyer in earlier years has dulled.  Her cognitive skills are challenged.  She doesn’t know the code and activating the system is just too daunting for her to make the effort to learn it.  She wants the company to send a representative to her home and demonstrate the system.  Guess what?  They only do that when they install the system.

Getting What We Want

During the conversation she keeps repeating that her husband died and he’s the only one who knew the code.  This fact, she believes, makes a plausible case for why she can’t operate the system at least at the moment, but digging deeper, I think her angry repetitions are a ploy to gain the sympathy of the representative and to cover up her inability to navigate the system and her desire not be bothered with it. 

This is just one conversation, but look at the tangled emotions it piques and the veiled manipulations it evokes.  I never learned how the conversation was resolved because I had to leave.  Nonetheless it gave me pause.  We don’t always know what is going on during a conversation.  In this case, Joan struggled to make sense of her security system, but it was complicated.  She didn’t really want to figure it out but felt she must.  Why didn’t he share the security code with her?  Most of all, she was mad that she finds herself alone, abandoned by her husband. 

Bev Hitchins © 2011

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