Three Paths Diverge in the Woods

I know a lot about communication as it relates to interpersonal conflict. Problem is, I don’t always apply it. Which begs the question, what good does head knowledge do if it doesn’t make its way to the heart?

Case in point, last SatRun. Most every Saturday morning you can find a few of my ideologically diverse friends and me running 10 miles up, down, and around Olympia, WA. I’m the guy with the dorky calf sleeves.

While running, we share eventful stories from the work week, debate political hot potatoes, talk sports, and tell family stories*. The only thing all of us agree on is how fortunate our wives are to be married to us.

Last Saturday, I blew it. Despite just blogging about the futility of imposing one’s views on others, I entered into an unwinnable argument about the relative merits of our last president versus our current one. No argument is winnable when one or both participants’ contrasting viewpoints are based almost exclusively on emotion. No amount of reasoning; no matter how dispassionate, empirical, and persuasive; is any match for strongly held emotions. I forgot that I cannot alter my friend’s fundamentally negative feelings towards our previous president, just as there’s nothing he can say that will assuage my negative feelings towards our current one.

And so the “exchange” spiraled downwards so much so that one teammate purposely gapped us. The two us ended up much, much more irritated, than enlightened, about our differences.

So the first path in the interpersonal conflict woods, emotion-laden arguing, is not recommended. The second path, curiosity-based conversations, is a much preferred alternative.

Had I demonstrated just a touch of interpersonal intelligence, I would’ve asked questions to try to better understand my friend’s warped political perspective. Among others, WHY do you feel that way? Had I done that, two positive things may have resulted. First, he probably would have moderated his most outlandish claims, thus lowering the temperature of the entire convo. When agitated, it’s human nature to assert things much more intensely than necessary. In those situations, we in essence, surrender to negative emotions. Second, had I listened patiently enough; eventually, he probably would’ve asked me some questions in a similar effort to better understand me.

If I had gone full Socrates and focused on understanding my friend’s thinking, I probably would’ve kept my emotions in check. Meaning it could’ve ended up being a worthwhile conversation instead of the pointless argument paralleling the one playing out nightly on opposing cable news stations.

The third path in the interpersonal conflict woods is knowing the limits of one’s capacity for curiosity-based conversation. For example, I cannot practice curiosity-based conversation with anyone who looks passively at the continuous stream of mass shootings in the U.S., and repeatedly concludes, “We’d be better off if more “good people” had guns.” Just. Can’t. Go. There. Of course, there’s nothing requiring me to.

How much time do you spend on the three paths? Depending upon how centered I am, I see-saw between pointless arguing and enriching, curiosity-based conversations. A tiny fraction of the time, I opt out altogether. I hope to eliminate pointless arguing from my life by continuing to learn from my mistakes and living a long, long time.

Before next Saturday’s 10-miler, I commit to not just warming up my bod, but also my heart.

*or they bully the guy on sabbatical, the one with the humble blog

 

 

 

Preserving Privilege

According to the WaPo, several private schools in the D.C. area, including Sidwell Friends, are scrapping Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

The schools issued a statement explaining:

“Collectively, we believe a curriculum oriented toward collaborative, experiential and interdisciplinary learning will not only better prepare our students for college and their professional futures, but also result in more engaging programs for both students and faculty,” the schools said. “We expect this approach will appeal to students’ innate curiosity, increase their motivation and fuel their love of learning.”

There’s little educational value in the Advanced Placement program. It’s primary purpose is to give privileged kids a leg up on their peers.

The scrapping of AP classes is a smart move, but lets not kids ourselves, Sidwell Friends and company made this move not just to appeal to students’ innate curiosity, increase their motivation, and fuel their love of learning. No doubt they expect the new and improved curricula to do an even better job of preserving their students’ privilege. That’s the lifeblood of those schools.

Your Success at Work Depends Upon This

Likability.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

The ability to come across as likable is shaping how people are sized up and treated by bosses and co-workers.

Likable people are more apt to be hired, get help at work, get useful information from others and have mistakes forgiven.

More employers track employees’ likability on in-house social networks and chat services. They recruit those who are trusted and well-liked to spread information or push through changes. Some companies take these employees’ social clout into account when handing out raises and promotions.

Is this news? It’s always been the case, but maybe we’re not as cognizant of it as we could or should be. The middle and high school teachers-to-be that I work with sometimes talk about what makes them most anxious when they think about finally having their own classrooms. Most often it’s not knowing enough. When they toss and turn at night it’s because they’re worried about super intelligent students posing difficult, anxiety inducing questions. Inevitably, they find out that “students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

When teaching, it’s far better to know one’s subject matter inside and out than not, but classroom success most often hinges on one’s ability to create a rapport with students. More simply, to be likable, which you should never confuse with being a pushover.

Here’s how to be more likable according to the WSJ’s workplace experts:

• Be authentic—To be more likable, behave in a way that feels natural and comfortable, rather than stiff or self-absorbed.

• Be curious—Show interest in others, make eye contact and ask questions about others’ opinions and activities.

• Be expressive—Vary tones of voice and smile, and show enthusiasm about what you’re saying.

• Listen—Focus on what others are saying and show that you are listening carefully, rather than getting distracted.

• Mimic others—Mirror the expressions or posture of the person you are talking to, in order to create a sense of familiarity.

• Find similarities—Actively try to find topics of interest you share with a listener, rather than talking only about what interests you.

The experts contend that likability is learned, but I can’t help but wonder, when a work coach of sorts advises an employee to act more naturally, wouldn’t being conscious of that notion make it even more difficult? I’d be skeptical of any stiff or self-absorbed person were to suddenly say, “Okay, watch this, now I’m going to act more naturally.” I want to believe teachers in training and others can learn these skills, I’m just not sure how best to teach them.

What say you?

How College Changed Me For the Better

I guess it makes sense given tuition inflation, but today, nearly every “is college worth it” discussion revolves around one consideration—roi—or “return on investment”. More and more people worry whether a college education will lead to more secure, higher paying jobs.

In the last week I’ve been changed for the better by a movie and two books that I probably wouldn’t have seen or read if my curiosity hadn’t been jumpstarted during college.

The movie, Wadja, was an engrossing window into what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Wadja has grossed $1,346,851 as of January 17th. That means few people are curious about what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Had I not attended college, where I learned to like learning about other people, places, and time periods, I doubt I would have sought out Wadja. I’m a more informed global citizen as a result of having watched Wadja.

The books were Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Together, Cheryl Strayed and George Packer challenge my assumption that privileged people like me will never truly grasp what it’s like to teeter on the edge of economic destitution. Thanks to their story telling genius I have a much better feel for why some people struggle to feed, shelter, and clothe themselves. And more empathy, an attribute in shorty supply these days, for poor individuals and families.

I may not have been curious enough about the people’s lives in those books if three decades ago I hadn’t studied history in college and became keenly interested in other people, places, and time periods. Thanks to excellent professors, challenging readings, constant writing, and discussions with classmates and roommates, I became more curious, insightful, and empathetic.

How does one place a dollar value on that?

Losing Touch

Removed from the realities of other people’s day-to-day lives, we lose touch with them.

Politicians lose touch with their constituents all the time. Many have no idea what a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk costs. If our politicians had to do their own taxes, think they might get serious about tax simplification?

One recent afternoon, the Prime Minister of Norway decided he’d try to reconnect with common people by posing as a taxi cab driver. I’d give him more credit if he didn’t film it so expertly so that it would get reported on even by distant bloggers. The catalyst no doubt was the fact that he’s behind in the polls. Norway’s population is similar to Washington State’s, so for me, it would be like getting driven by our Governor.

Living through my daughter’s transition from high school to college has taught me I’ve lost touch with the first year college students I teach. Now days, I don’t fully appreciate how hard it is to leave home, live in a small room with a stranger, and have to start from complete scratch making friends.

Similarly, I’ve lost touch with the teaching challenges my grad students will inevitably face when they student teach in primary and secondary schools. Visiting schools is a poor substitute for teaching day in, day out.

Accustomed as I am to having a well-stocked pantry and fridge, I’ve lost touch with people who don’t have enough to eat. Make that the poor more generally. I wonder, what it would be like to not have any savings? Or be in serious debt? To feel like the hole is getting deeper and deeper?

Last week it was reported that 40% of whites have only white friends (and 25% of ethnic minorities have only friends from within their ethnic group). My hometown lacks ethnic diversity for sure, but thanks to the GalPal, I spent one evening last week at a nearby lake with family friends from Mexico. Their 12 year-old daughter taught me how to jet-ski. Despite occasional lake get togethers, I’m not in touch with first generation Americans who aren’t terribly comfortable with English, are supporting extended family members, and are no doubt worried about whether we’ll ever pass meaningful immigration reform.

My favorite People Magazine news story from last week involved Oprah, a $38,100 purse, and a Swiss shop owner who lost touch with the fact that non-whites can in fact be extremely wealthy. O made $77m last year. Oops.

The shop owner’s gaffe is a reminder that all of us live in varying degrees of out-of-touchness. All the time.

The only antidote is curiosity. We need to acknowledge the limits of our understanding and ask questions of others. And listen and learn.

Aaron Schwartz—What Made Me Different From the Other Kids

Via Ronaldo Lemos in Brazil.

When I was a kid, I thought a lot about what made me different from the other kids. I don’t think I was smarter than them and I certainly wasn’t more talented. And I definitely can’t claim I was a harder worker — I’ve never worked particularly hard, I’ve always just tried doing things I find fun. Instead, what I concluded was that I was more curious — but not because I had been born that way. If you watch little kids, they are intensely curious, always exploring and trying to figure out how things work. The problem is that school drives all that curiosity out. Instead of letting you explore things for yourself, it tells you that you have to read these particular books and answer these particular questions. And if you try to do something else instead, you’ll get in trouble. Very few people’s curiosity can survive that. But, due to some accident, mine did. . . . Curiosity builds on itself — each new thing you learn about has all sorts of different parts and connections, which you then want to learn more about. Pretty soon you’re interested in more and more and more, until almost everything seems interesting. . . . I feel like the only thing I’ve really done is followed my curiosity wherever it led. This isn’t easy. . . but it’s always worked for me.