On Being Good with People

by Ron Kurtz

(Gratefully received from Bob Milone, Hakomi teacher and friend of the late Ron Kurtz)

Anytime a story is told, there are two more stories in the background. Beyond the story that the storyteller is telling, which is only the words, there’s the story of the storyteller’s intentions, conscious or not so conscious. In order to get this background story, we must sense it, often through very subtle clues. (Sometimes, not so subtle.) The second background story is the story of the storyteller’s history, the experiences that created his way of being. The intentions and the history, though background, are always present. It cannot be otherwise. Both exist before the storyteller even speaks. Both are embedded in the way the story is told and in the teller’s way of being.

To be really good with people, you must be good at unfolding the embedded stories of storytellers. You must be interested and motivated to understand people through this unfolding process. You must be willing and able to withstand the emotional buffeting that sometimes comes with powerful stories of intense experiences. You must focus on the storyteller, to see through what’s being said to the soul of the person saying it. You must be able to keep your distance from the details and complications of the narrative and any abstract questions posed. You must stay awake to hear the stories embedded and the one within, who has been waiting for a listener like you, whether such a one was ever expected or not.

Being ‘good with people’.

One of my teachers told me I was ‘good with people’. So, I thought about that. What does that mean? Well, I think it means that people feel better after being with me, especially if they’ve come with some kind of distress. Yes, I think that’s what it means. It could also mean I’m a good manipulator, that I’m skillful in ‘handling’ people, ‘difficult’ people. It could mean that kind of skill. Or it could mean that I’m a good teacher, or speaker, or that I’m a good salesman or politician, or all of these. But I want to believe my teacher meant the first one; that people feel better after being with me. That’s the one I feel best about.

Well, I thought, I’m a psychotherapist; I ought to be good with people. I’ve got a lot of experience with people in distress. Then I asked, what did all that experience teach me? I wasn’t always good with people. What is it that I learned that helps me to be good with people now? And what exactly does it mean to be good with people? That’s what I want to talk to you about.

Here’s what I think it means: when people feel better, they feel better about who they are and what’s possible for them. Meher Baba, an Indian saint, said, “I can love you better than you can love yourself”. I think one way we can be good with (or for?) people, is that we feel good about them and that’s the basis, the real basis, for their beginning to feel good about themselves. Whatever else we do, we must first of all learn how to like people, or if we can, to love them. I learned a lot about how to do that. I learned to look for and usually find something in each person that I can like, admire, appreciate and even love. I learned to ignore a lot of other stuff and to spend my initial time with the person doing this. After you’ve found that, your relationship with the person is built on this emotional base. Your actions and words very naturally support the person’s feeling better about himself. It’s effortless. And it’s different from listening to the person’s story and looking for problems to solve. It’s looking for what’s good about the person, not what’s wrong. This is not about solving the person’s problems. It’s not about being a psychotherapist, a medical doctor, a teacher, a lawyer, a manager, a financial advisor or a bus driver. It’s not about any of that. It’s about being good with people. In any of those professions, you may be very good at solving people’s problems and still not be very good with people at all.

So, that’s the first thing: liking people, which means having the habit of finding something to like and enjoy with each person you relate to. It’s a habit you can cultivate. There are a million ways to do it. I remember that on the day that my infant daughter died in my arms, as I was being driven home, looking out the window of the car at people going about their seemingly much more normal lives, I had the thought, “Everyone was some mother’s child”. I meant that everyone once felt a mother’s love and that love was the greatest experience of our lives. And that though we all share the fact of that experience, we may never once have spoken of it. Remembering this is one way that I do it.

To be good with people, one needs what I would call, a ‘spacious attitude’. One needs an openness to being with, to spending time, to giving one’s attention to another. One needs a willingness to loosen one’s attachments to agendas and outcomes. One needs to be able to be comfortable in uncertain and undirected situations. If you’re too attached to controlling your world, you’ll not be good with people.

Perhaps you can see a connection here between a spacious attitude and the practice of meditation. In meditation, one has “no intention of controlling what happens next”, says Stephen Batchelor, in his book, Buddhism without Beliefs. Or, we can see a connection to the perennial teachings about happiness. We are happiest when we are serving others and not addicted to self-centered cravings. For this, particular combinations of qualities need to be cultivated. In the Buddhist tradition, the terms are wisdom and compassion: more simply, warmth and wakefulness. Open Heart, Clear Mind is the title of a book by Thubten Chodren.

These are qualities that anyone can cultivate. And this is part of the trainings I do, some of which are open to lay people as well as highly-skilled and experienced psychotherapists. Clarity, understanding, warmth and spaciousness are the results. I want to emphasize that anyone can learn these things. That, finally, is what I want you to know: that we can be good with people, good with each other.

References:

Batchelor, S. (1998). Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. New York: Riverhead.
Chodron, T. (1990). Open Heart, Clear Mind. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion