Attention ≠ respect

Respect and attention get conflated a lot. They’re not actually the same thing.

When someone isn’t paying attention, it’s often assumed that they are either intentionally avoiding listening, or refusing to put any intentional effort into listening. And that, if they just respected the speaker more, they’d be paying attention.

Sometimes that’s true. And sometimes, the reason someone isn’t paying attention has nothing to do with respect. Often, it’s a neurological, psychological, or psychiatric issue. Or the result of pain or fatigue.

For instance, respecting a speaker and wanting to listen to them doesn’t cure ADHD. Cognitive attention problems caused by ADHD have to actually be accommodated and worked around. (For instance, taking medication, learning organization techniques, using captions to focus attention, collaborative note-taking, etc.)

Addressing values only helps when the problem is values. When the problem is disability; you have to address and accommodate disability in order to make progress. No amount of education in respectful attitudes will help if respect isn’t the issue.

Short version: Please stop assuming that failure to pay attention is always a sign of contempt. Sometimes it’s just a sign of an attention problem.

Safety vs making people feel safe

There are all kinds of affective things and cognitive tricks you can learn that make it more likely that people will trust you and feel safe.

It is possible to get really, really good at that without actually learning how to be trustworthy. You can be really, really good at making people feel safe, and still be a danger to people who trust you.

Sometimes it’s not a good idea to focusing on trying to make people feel safe.

Often, it’s much better to focus on learning how to be trustworthy. Two major components of being trustworthy are paying close attention to practical safety; and listening to the people whose safety might be impacted.

For example:

If you want to know what’s dangerous, it’s important to seek out the perspectives of people you’re trying to create safety for. This isn’t something you can do completely on your own.

Part of this is seeking out writing about danger and safety by members of the affected group, or advocacy organizations run by members of the affected group. Another part of this is listening to the individual people who you are actually interacting with about their needs.

It’s important to communicate effectively about the things you are doing that might make trusting you a good idea.

It’s important to talk about safety improvements to make sure people know about them. (Eg: if you fixed a dangerous ramp, people need to know that it has been fixed). It’s also important to communicate your willingness to listen to people about their needs and fix things that are endangering them. It has to be true, and you have to do things to communicate that it’s true. It does not go without saying; willingness to listen and address safety issues in practical terms is actually fairly uncommon.

If you focus on practical safety through proactive research and listening to affected members of your community, you can get very far in building safe and welcoming community even if people do not feel safe.

Some people who do not feel safe still care very much about being there, and are willing to take risks in order to participate. It’s important to honor and accept that.

Some people aren’t ever going to feel safe. (And some of them will be right.) It’s important to accept them as they are, and not make feeling safe a prerequisite for participating.

Short version: “Making people feel safe” is often the wrong approach. Focusing on being safe often matters a lot more. Some people don’t believe that they are safe, and are willing to take risks in order to participate. They should be allowed to have that perception. They should not be pressured into feeling safe as a prerequisite for participation.

7 second rule

If you’re leading a group discussion or teaching a class, it’s important to pause for questions periodically. Part of pausing for questions is giving people time to react before moving on. People can’t respond instantaneously; they need time to react. If you don’t give them time to react, it can give you an inaccurate impression of their level of interest or engagement.


  • Leader: Does anyone have any questions?
  • Group: …
  • Leader: Ok, moving on. 

When this happens, it’s not usually because no students had questions. It’s usually because the teacher didn’t give them enough time to process before moving on. It doesn’t actually take a huge amount of time, but there has to be some. A good amount of time to wait is seven seconds. If you wait seven seconds before moving on, someone will usually say something.

Seven seconds can feel like a really long time when you are teaching. It can feel like an awkward empty space that, as the teacher, you’re supposed to be filling. That can lead to interactions like this:

  • Leader: I just said a controversial thing. What do you think of the thing?
  • Group: …
  • Leader (immediately):… none of you have opinions about this?
  • Group: …
  • Leader: (immediately):… Really? No one?

When this happens, it’s usually not that no one had anything to say. It’s usually that the leader or teacher kept interrupting them while they were trying to get words together and respond. It’s easy to inadvertently do this, because it feels like you’re supposed to be doing something to get your students to respond. But, often, the best thing you can do to get them to respond is to wait and give them space to do it in.

It helps to remember that as the teacher or leader, you shouldn’t actually be taking up all of the space. You should also be offering your students some space and listening to them, and allowing them to ask you questions so they can understand. It’s ok if that space isn’t immediately filled; no one can react instantaneously. 

Short version: If you wait seven seconds every time you pause for questions/responses, it gives people time to process, and some people will become capable of participating who weren’t before.

Not everyone is mean

Mean people take up a lot of space.

Mean people often make their voices heard the loudest.

If you are around a loud mean person, it can be hard to remember that kind people exist.

It can feel like the world is all mean people, and that they’re all yelling at you.

But, not everyone is mean. A lot of people are kind and caring.

When you notice the kind people, and make an effort to listen to them, it’s much harder for the mean people to drown out their voices.

Using your experiences to support someone else

A reader asked:

People often say that when you’re comforting someone else, you shouldn’t mention your own similar experiences. I understand that making the conversation entirely about you is rude and imappropriate, but isn’t it ok to at least briefly say, “yeah I can relate” and then continue with “that sucks a lot” etc?

realsocialskills said:

Bringing in your own experiences can actually sometimes be a good thing. There’s a specific way of doing it that’s bad, but you are entirely correct that showing ways you can relate can sometimes be good.

I wrote a post a while back about listening to someone who is facing a bad situation that talks about good and bad ways to relate your own experiences.

And I want to add to that: You’re probably seeing a lot of people vent on the internet about thoughtless or otherwise bad things people said to them. That could make comforting someone who is struggling seem very intimidating; it could make it seem like you have to be sure you’re going to say the right thing before it’s ok to talk to them.

And it doesn’t work that way. You don’t have to be perfect to comfort someone. Sometimes, you’ll say the wrong thing. That’s ok. Everybody does, sometimes. It’s good to work on knowing what to say and how to say it, but be careful about worrying too much about that. You can really only get good at this through practice, and you can’t get practice by waiting until you’re absolutely sure you know the right thing to say before you offer anyone support.

Suffering can be very isolating, because people are often afraid of seeing people suffer in ways they can’t fix. Sometimes things aren’t ok, and aren’t likely to be ok any time soon, if ever. And if someone’s in that situation, chances are they’re surrounded by people who are trying to get them to feel better.

If you’re not trying to make them feel a different way, you’re willing to acknowledge that things are hard, you’re listening to them, and you’re treating them with respect, you’re probably doing fairly well. Even if you sometimes say the wrong thing.

Marginalized people are not revolution objects

So, here’s a thing I’ve seen happen:

  • People get really into social justice theory
  • and then they read a lot from people who all agree with each other
  • and then they assume that everyone in that group agrees
  • and then, when they encounter someone in that group who doesn’t think that thing, they don’t know how to deal with them
  • or they’re rude and condescending

For instance:

  • Someone who reads a lot of disability theory is excited about the idea of acceptance
  • And, in particular, the reasons that mobility equipment is liberating and wonderful
  • And they encounter someone who is enduring considerable pain rather than use a wheelchair
  • And then they talk at them about how they just need to accept themself already, without listening to where they’re actually coming from
  • That is not respectful. It can sometimes be ok to express an opinion or offer advice (emphasis on offer; people can say no to hearing your advice), but it’s not ok to try and run someone else’s life, or to take control of their self image, or related stuff
  • Respecting someone has to start with respecting them as people who think for themselves, not trying to make them do what you think self-respecting people do

keep in mind that:

  • No matter how much you’ve read, you’ve never been the person you’re talking to
  • That goes double if you’re not a member of their group, but it applies even if you are
  • Having read a lot of social justice theory, or even being part of that group and having found that it described your experience, does *not* mean that you know better than someone else how they should be living their life
  • Don’t try to take people over, and don’t talk down to them
  • The last thing marginalized people need is yet another person trying to run over them for their own good. They get that enough already

People are complicated, and you are never the expert on someone else’s life. Reading social justice theory, and even being really insightful about what’s wrong with our culture, does not make you an expert on someone else’s life. Their life is for them to live and make decisions about. Marginalized people are not revolution objects.

Listening to people who have disability accents

People with certain disabilities often have heavy disability accents. Their speech can sound very different from the way most nondisabled people speak.

People with disabilities that affect communication are often pushed into separate programs, particularly in adulthood. Even when they are in the same classes in the same schools, there isn’t much of an expectation that any peers listen to them. This was even more true a generation ago. As a result, most people without disabilities are lousy at understanding people with disability accents, and don’t understand that this is a glaring hole in their social skills.

Many unskilled people tend to maybe ask people with disability accents to repeat themselves once, and then they get frustrated and start ignoring them. Sometimes they pretend to understand, and smile and nod rather than actually listening. Sometimes they hang up on them. Sometimes they pass them off to another person, who also doesn’t bother to actually listen. Sometimes they hang up. If they are medical workers, sometimes they write on a chart that someone is impossible to understand or has no communication (particularly if that person also has an intellectual disability.)

Do not be this person. If you can’t understand someone with a disability accent, the problem is your skills, not their voice. (If you have a receptive language disability that prevents you from learning to understand accents, then it’s no one’s fault and you need an interpreter to communicate. Neither their voice nor your brain is wrong. In that situation, the skill you need to develop is finding an interpreter.)

If you listen, and make it clear that you are listening, you will learn to understand, and you will be able to communicate successfully with more people.

An important phrase for this is “I’m having trouble understanding what you’re saying, but I care what you are saying.”

Make sure it’s true, and keep listening. The more you listen, the easier it will be to understand. Understanding . And practice. You get better with practice.

Too many people are ignored because others can’t be bothered to understand their accents. You can make this better by listening (and by insisting that people you supervise listen.)

Thoughts on listening to marginalized people

Marginalized people are, first and foremost, people.

Marginalized people are not a hive mind. Not as a whole, and not by group, either.

Listening to marginalized people means listening to actual people who you encounter.

That means listening to what people tell you, even if it’s not what social justice theory or any other ideology told you that they should think. Listening means listening. It doesn’t mean you have to agree. In fact, you *can’t* always agree since people who experience the same category of oppression believe contradictory things about it).

What listening means is understanding what they are actually saying, without talking over them with your theories about what their life means. Talking over people with social justice ideology is just as bad as any other form of talking over people.

It means, also, acknolwedging that margianlized people don’t all agree with one another, even on really important things. And that, sometimes, you have to take a position. And you have to evaluate what you think, sometimes. But, you never have to be a jerk about it.

And it starts with listening to the person who is actually before you, and assuming that they understand their life better than you do.

Getting people to explain things

If you don’t understand something, it helps to say so explicitly. 

One phrase that helps is “I don’t understand; can you try using different words?”

That helps because you’re saying that:

  • You don’t understand
  • You want to understand
  • The things you’re saying are not arguments or responses, they are requests for clarification
  • If they explain in different words, you might understand

Even if all of that is obvious to you, it’s not necessarily obvious to the person you’re talking to. Often, people do not consider the possibility that what they are saying might be confusing, even when they are entirely willing to explain differently when you ask.

Listening to Someone Facing a Bad Situation

I have a question and don’t know if you already answered something like it. How can you show support for someone without making it about yourself? like *someone talking about a crap thing that happened* *I answer with how a similar crap thing happened to me or someone I know* I just don’t know what to say other than “well that sucks”, but I always feel like that comes across as not caring (and so does my other approach tbh…)
realsocialskills answered:
It depends on the situation. What you’re describing sounds like the kind of situation in which listening might be the most important thing.
Sometimes what people need is not for you to say things. Sometimes, what people need is for you to listen to them. It can feel like you’re supposed to be filling the conversation with helpful words – but often, it’s much more helpful to create space that they can fill with the things they want to say. Often, it’s important to listen more than you talk.
One way you can create space is by saying things like (depending on the situation):
  • “That sounds hard”
  • “It sounds like things are really hard right now”
  • “It sounds like a lot of people are hurting you”

Another way you can create space is to just sit with them. There don’t always have to be words. Sometimes, pauses are important. Don’t try to fill all of them.

Another way you can create space is by listening to what they’re saying, and repeating part of it in a tone that indicates that you’re asking about it:

  • It’s somewhat hard to describe how to do this
  • Because formulaically repeating everything someone says is obnoxious
  • But if you choose well what to repeat, it can indicate that you understand what they’re saying, and that you want to listen to more of what they have to say
  • And then, you can respond with your own words when you have things to say that might help


  • Susan: The crap thing happened to me *again*.
  • Debra: Again?!
  • Susan: Yes. The people who do that thing always do the thing!
  • Debra: They always do it?
  • Susan: Yes, they do that every single day. Sometimes multiple times. I can’t get them to stop because they outrank me and if I complain I’ll be fired.

Sometimes, people want more from you than just listening. Sometimes, they want advice or practical support. It’s ok and good to offer it, but bad for you to try to take over the conversation with it.

For instance, say the conversation continued:

  • Debra: You’ll be fired?
  • Susan: Yes – the last five women who complained all got fired last month.
  • Debra: I know a good lawyer who does that kind of work – would you like their contact information?
  • Susan: Maybe. I’m not sure it would do any good though. I really can’t afford to lose this job.

Debra here thought that she knew something that might help, and offered it to Susan. Debra didn’t try to force it on Susan. This was a good way to offer support. Here’s a different way the conversation could have gone:

  • Debra: That’s illegal! You should totally sue them! I’ll tell my lawyer about this, they’ve done a lot of this kind of work.
  • Susan: I don’t think that’s a good idea – I REALLY can’t afford to lose this job.
  • Debra: Don’t be silly. The law is on your side. Don’t you want to protect other women from the crap thing they do every day?

Here, Debra isn’t listening to Susan. She thinks she knows best, and wants to push Susan into doing it. That’s not a good way to support others. Push come to shove, people need to make their own decisions, and trying to control them causes a lot of problems.

Sometimes it can work to relate things to your own experiences, but in a way that doesn’t take over the conversation. For instance:

  • Bob: This crap thing happened to me!
  • James: That sounds awful.
  • Bob: Yes, it is awful. And on top of that, they made it even worse by ___.
  • James: I think something similar happened to me last year.

Here, James waits to see if Bob picks up that line of conversation, and reacts according to what Bob wants to talk about. Eg, say it went this way:

  • James: I think something similar happened to me last year.
  • Bob: What happened with you?
  • James: Related crap thing happened.
  •  Bob: Huh. What did you do about that?
  • (and then they continue the conversation, and talk about their shared experiences)

Another way this could have gone:

  • James: I think something similar happened to me last year.
  • Bob: Huh. Well, and then I yelled at them for doing the crap thing, and then I got in trouble for yelling!
  • James: You got in trouble for yelling at them?
  • (here, the conversation continues based on what Bob wants to talk about. Since Bob wants to talk about his experience and not James’, James shows support for Bob by dropping it and listening to him)

In short:

  • When someone wants to talk to you about something awful that happened to them, make sure you’re listening and not taking up all of the space.
  • If they want advice or practical help and you have some to offer, offer it. Don’t try to take over and tell them what to do.
  • If you have shared experience, offer to talk about it if it seems possibly welcome. Drop it if they want to talk about their own experience and not yours
  • If they just want you to listen, listen.
  • In any case, follow their lead and make sure it’s about supporting them.