The controversy about Vice President Biden giving unsolicited hugs reminds me of the importance of understanding what another person may – or may not – want. I, for instance, am a hugger, perhaps because I used to be in the theatre where a hug is as commonplace as a handshake. On the other hand, many people dislike being touched. One of my oldest friends is affectionate with me verbally, but all these years has refused to give or accept a goodbye kiss on the cheek.

What the Biden story should teach us is that we need to develop enough sensitivity to hear what that other person isn’t saying. How often has someone asked you, ”Tell me what you really think.” When asked that, I often fall into the trap, saying with misplaced honesty, “That color [dress, hair, tie, shirt ] doesn’t do anything for you.” This well-meant remark is usually met with resentment or a tearful reminder I’ve hurt someone’s feelings. The demand should have been: “Tell me what I want to hear.”

Another friend appreciates candor. Unfortunately, her daughter doesn’t. Recently she asked me to read a poem she’d written and to “be honest.” The poem was beyond rescuing. Straddling the truth I told her I found the subject “poignant.” Good enough. But then I added, “It’s helpful to read a lot of poetry.” In return I received an irate E-mail from the mother saying I’d hurt her daughter’s feelings. “She has always read poetry.” So if you’re going to venture into critiquing for friends, remember that evasion is the safest route.

This doesn’t apply, of course, to professional colleagues. I have a long- standing relationship with a gifted writer-friend. We exchange critiques within our writing group and outside of it – always confident we will speak and hear the truth..That’s because our mutual unspoken message is: Tell me what will make my story (book) better!

Sensing is especially fraught when it comes to someone going through loss. When a neighbor’s husband died I told her, “I know how you feel.” She erupted in understandable rage (anger is always beneath the surface of grief)). ”You don’t know how I feel because you’re not me!” She was right. Just because I, too, was widowed didn’t give me the right to presume I understood another person’s pain.

I’m busy sharpening my ability to hear with my heart – and to equally express what I need. Given our current environment I’m not too hopeful these messages will always get through!

BOOKS:”WIDOW’S WALK” – available through iUniverse: “TURNNG TOWARD TOMORROW” –; “TEN WOMEN OF VALOR” and “ROLE PLAY” – Amazon and Amazon Kindle.