Tell Me More

I would like to start today’s writing with some questions. When was the last time you felt deeply seen and heard by another human being? Relatedly, when was the last time you made another person feel deeply seen and heard? Let’s go with a recent survey in the United States. Chances are your response to one or both of the above-mentioned questions is probably something along the lines of, “I don’t actually recall a time when I genuinely felt seen and known or made someone feel that way.”

According to one survey, 54% of Americans say, “No one knows me well.” In addition, 45% of high school students also said yes to the question: “Are you persistently hopeless and depressed? This is not to suggest that these numbers equally apply to people who live in different parts of the world. But there is something to be said about our current world in which we are increasingly becoming “atomized and polarized” as Nicholas Kristoff put it in one of his pieces, and we are left to our own devices to manage the burdens of life.

If the quality of our lives is dependent upon the qualities of our relationships, then I believe it’s highly imperative that we all become studious students of how to forge and maintain healthy and meaningful relationships. Equally important, we could also spare ourselves from lifelong aches and trauma if we learned how to detect unhealthy and toxic relationships. As a clinical counselor, educator, and fellow human, this is a topic that I spend an inordinate amount of my time thinking and talking about.

So, what social skills can we consciously cultivate to make the people in our lives feel deeply known and seen by us? I will begin with just one. One virtue that I find immensely appealing and would like to see in myself and others is curiosity. Curiosity can be an asset not just to our relationships but also to our lives. If you have ever been in a conversation with someone who doesn’t possess an iota of curiosity, you probably have a first-hand experience of the feeling of being unheard and unseen — the exact opposite of feeling connected. What often occurs in these instances is that these people rarely ask questions, and even if they do, it’s often not to genuinely listen to what you say but rather to use your sharing as a springboard to talk more about themselves. Well, suffice it to say that I have had many dating experiences like this, and I don’t think I am alone in this. Political and cultural commentator David Brooks calls these people “the diminishers,” as opposed to “illuminators” who are curious about you and make you feel special and lit up.

When we ask questions, we are communicating to the other person: “I am humble enough to admit that I don’t know everything, and every person has a wealth of knowledge and experience from which I can draw and enrich my life.” This is why I always say that curiosity and humility are two sides of the same coin. Show me humility and I will show you a person who is not afraid to say, “I don’t know. Can you tell me more? Can you enlighten me?”

Sadly, this problem is even more pronounced when we are with people with whom we are closest. The more we think we know someone, the less likely we approach them from a place of openness and a not-knowing position. In other words, we aren’t as curious about their thoughts, feelings, opinions, and their lives in general. It’s called the closeness-communication bias, and according to Kate Murphy, author of the book, You aren’t Listening. Here is Why, “over time, this bias can strain, and even end relationships.”

As you may recall, I had shared about the loss of my beloved uncle, Berhan, in a previous blog. About a year and a half before he passed, Berhan and I began exchanging voice messages on Viber. We have always been really close to each other, but the voice messages took our connection to a much deeper place. At first, those messages were roughly ten to fifteen minutes long of check-ins but over time the lengths expanded to almost two hours, which he would record in one sitting while getting his chemotherapy treatment or during his recovery. This then became a sacred ritual to which we both looked forward. His messages became my workout accompaniment, and he often listened to my messages in the middle of the night since he was struggling with sleep. To our surprise, we both realized that we actually didn’t know one another as we had thought we did. It was through those messages that I learned about his deepest regrets and unfulfilled dreams, some of which I didn’t even know he had, and he was surprised to learn about different parts of me.

So, the next time you are in a conversation with someone, what if we all try the “tell me more” approach instead of the “I can’t wait for you to finish your talk so I can tell you my perspective or side of the story.”? And if after reading this blog, you realize that you have a long way to go in terms of listening and being curious, no judgment. We are all works in progress.

Just remember that the greatest gift you can give someone is your uninterrupted presence.

Photo credit: Karolina Grabowska

Feven Seifu is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota. If you have any writing ideas or topics you would like her to address, please feel free to contact her at

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