Since I was young, people seem to be compelled to tell me their problems. The first time that I really remember this happening was when I was 6 or 7 and my step-great-grandmother Ida decided to share the VERY personal problem of “prickly heat” rash that she was experiencing in the swamp of humidity that is summer in Alabama. Mind you, her sharing was more of a visual than a verbal kind–and it still haunts me today.
The next time I remember someone over-sharing was in 5th grade when I was spending the night at my future best friend’s house. Anna (name changed for privacy) and her mom had just moved to town and we had been thrown together through a mutual friend of our moms. Anna was not a night owl like me and had fallen asleep fairly early; this left me alone with her mom. That night, I came to learn that Anna’s father had committed suicide and they had moved to get away from the past. Looking back, Anna’s mom Sue was perhaps trying to get me to understand that Anna really needed a friend; I think that Sue needed one also. Over the next few years, I learned a lot about Sue and her struggles to pick up the pieces of their lives.
I certainly heard lots of stories while working nights in a diner during my college years. The diner was across the street from a popular strip club in Kentucky. We would watch as patrons would bring their “date” for a “bright light test.” Sometimes, we would hear their tales of woe due to alcohol loosening their tongues.
While shopping at a big box store a few years ago, a woman unloaded all of her fears about her son who had just been arrested. All I really wanted to do was get my supplies and head home, but I was unable to walk away.
My job at a local sheriff’s office required frequent ride-alongs with the deputies. Almost without fail, victims at calls would turn and talk to me rather than the deputy. This would irritate the deputy beyond belief of course, but I understood.
Perhaps the reason that people talked to me when I was young is that I was desperately shy and sat mostly in silence as they spoke. (Does that count as being a good listener?) Maybe it was that they thought I was giving them my full attention when it was really more like staring at them like a deer into headlights. Whatever the reason, the phenomena continues to this day.
Over the last few months, as people have come into the office looking for help, I have heard way more information about their situation than I should. A few times, the managing attorney has come to my rescue (or to chasten me?).
In fact, just today, a client came in to drop off paperwork. As I gathered the information that was needed, she began to describe a personal situation. Of course, I stated that we couldn’t get into the details of the case, but each time I tried to redirect her, she told a bit more of her story. When she finally turned to go, I could tell that she felt much better for having voiced her concerns. (I, however, felt much worse due to worries of hearing the information). But it made me realize that, sometimes, our clients need more than a lawyer. Sometimes, our clients need us to be a sympathetic listener.
I guess the moral of the story is that I should not be assigned to work in the reception area of a law firm.