Taking up space
the shadow side of being a "good listener"
Stepping outside my comfort zone
“I want all your messages. Send me everything. I'll read and listen to them when I have time,” my boyfriend Jesse said when I mentioned I was having trouble not inundating him with messages while he was away co-hosting Vibehole.
I wanted to give him space to focus on the event instead of the non-consequential happenings in my inner landscape. But not sharing felt torturous—it's like I needed to send him my insights so we would both be running the same worldview version.
When he seemed to genuinely not want me to hold back… I didn’t. I sent him walls of voice messages, which felt edgy to say the least. I was unrequitedly taking up space, a deep taboo in my psyche.
Givers and Takers
I read a blog that talks about how people tend to orient to either being givers or takers in conversation. Givers offer attention and ask questions to give opportunities for their conversation partner to share, and generally hold space and listen.
Takers are those who gravitate towards being the fire in a campfire: they tell stories, they share; they are the attraction that the conversation revolves around. Takers often don't need to be invited with a question—they can be perfectly happy to share unprompted.
When Jesse asked that I spend days sending him message after message un-prompted, he was asking me to take up far more space than I, a giver, felt comfortable with.
Somewhere in my development, I decided that I needed to wait for someone to invite me to share, and otherwise assumes the person isn’t interested. I've spent many a conversation waiting to be asked about my thoughts or experience. "Just ask me! Just ask!" I'd silently think while continuing to politely ask them questions and nod attentively.
If this sounds ridiculous, that's because it is. It's like being a guest in someone's house and waiting and waiting and waiting for them to offer you a glass of water. Don't do this! Just ask for the damn glass of water! Your host is not a mindreader!
I was also committing the fallacy of wanting the world to be according to your preferences, which is a fine recipe for suffering. After all, I was waiting for someone to ask me a question, but some people never learned to ask questions, or they have a worldview that’s something like: "Everyone shares whatever they want to share. Why would you make the other person ask questions to guess at what you want to share?" This worldview is actually pretty logical, I must admit.
As I've gained awareness around my illogical behavior, I've slowly learned to take up conversational space without waiting for an invitation to do so.
The shadow side of being a "good listener": one-sided vulnerability
By asking questions and listening, I thought I was being generous and loving. Often people tell me things like, “Wow, I usually don’t talk much, but when I’m with you it seems to pour out of me.” Being curious about others' worlds and holding space for them to reflect on their experience is my love language. And I (usually) like listening. I know my own inner world so well—it's more exciting to visit someone else's!
But I've come to realize that being a giver can be ungenerous in its own way. My friend Simon reflected that if someone is just asking questions and not sharing much in return, you feel unbalanced. And actually, it's a bit rude to ask someone to share vulnerably and not reciprocate.
My shadow in always putting the other person in the spotlight is that I could hide and not fully participate in the conversation. It's vulnerable to share your full self. It's safer to show just a little bit, or just the part that you know someone will agree with. I've had whole relationships where I only shared the parts of myself that I knew the other person would approve. They were pleasant relationships, but they were not satisfying.
Like Michelle says above, pretending not to have needs—like being seen and listened to—is a form of emotional unavailability.
By taking attention and being seen, you risk being seen—and that could include being judged and disagreed with. These might seem like scary possibilities, but actually they’re good! In the worst case you might discover that you don’t resonate that well with this person. But most likely there will be a generative friction in the meeting of different realities. If nothing else, you will be allowing yourself to authentically meet someone else—the only way genuine,satisfying relationships can form.
Giving attention to “be nice” is anything but
Another shadow of the giver role is asking questions you're not interested in because you're being nice. Being nice! As if it's nice to pretend to care when you don't.
If you're bored in the conversation and can’t think of anything you want to ask your conversation partner, a better move is to take the attention. Share what is alive for you. You might be surprised—the conversation partner that you found boring a moment ago might turn out to have great reflections once you step into the spotlight.
Taking up space in group conversations
While I prefer the intimacy and depth of one-on-one conversations, I’ve found group conversations more rewarding as I’ve leaned into taking up more space in them. If I don't like a group conversation, instead of zoning out or quietly tolerating it, I’ve learned to occupy the conversation more.
There’s multiple ways to take up space in group conversations:
The obvious way would be to talk about something you do care about, or provide an alternate view. But you can also take up space as a giver: you can posit a question to the group—something you’ve been thinking about and want people's reflections on.
One of my favorite ways of taking up space in group conversations is by asking quieter members of the group for their thoughts on the discussion, or a question that feels alive. Often engaging quiet group members will make the conversation far richer than had it remained dominated by those who gravitate toward the mike.
What I learned from sending a wall of voice messages
Sending Jesse a lot of messages while he was away felt scary. I had to risk that he might find me inconsiderate, or self-absorbed, or too much. I had to trust that if he did find my messages overwhelming, he would let me know and we would work through it. It seems better to be my full authentic self and troubleshoot as needed than for me to try to control a situation by withholding and getting smaller out of fear.
By leaning into my discomfort, my psyche is slowly learning that it’s safe to take up space.
Tell me: What are your thoughts?
Well, that sure was a lot of talking on my end! 😅
I’m curious—what’s your perspective?
How do you navigate the give and take in conversations and relationships?
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