The Art Of Conversation

In the middle of day three of the Central Oregon 500 last week a lethal trifecta of The Varsity, a headwind, and rollers popped a few of us hacks off the back and we formed a mini peloton of the Truly Spent.

Now that we had sufficient oxygen to talk a bit, Boeing Ed from Seattle said that Boeing was requiring employees to take some forced release time. From the context, the fact that he lives on Mercer Island, already has 32 days off a year, and knows what the CEO paid for his road bikes, I deduced that Ed is upper management.

“Is the forced release time due to the 737?” I asked, before adding, “That seemed like a real clusterf$ck.” I anticipated a spontaneous reply along the lines of, “Yeah, we need to own those very unfortunate mistakes.” Instead I got a one second pause, which was more than long enough for me to realize I had unintentionally offended him so I instantaneously inserted a comma in the conversation before adding, “Or has the press mischaracterized things?”

What a recovery, because BE said something to the effect of “Yeah, they do, if you don’t make safety you’re most important priority you don’t even have an airlines.” I immediately thought about how work cultures can become all encompassing, making employees susceptible to groupthink.

Had BE been a friend I might have busted his balls a bit, asking for specific examples of hyperbolic or inaccurate coverage of the problematic plane, but as an acquaintance I lobbed him a slow pitch right over the plate. Which he clearly appreciated.

Why did I wuss out? Because we have no foundation on which to dig deeper. No shared history meaning insufficient trust that despite awkward differences of opinion, there’s still ample respect for one another. That’s the difference between talking to acquaintances and friends. With acquaintances, who we see only sporadically, we often need to finesse things, to keep things copacetic. In contrast, conversations with friends should be characterized by more honesty and depth.

My split second salvaging of that brief conversation at 20 mph had nothing to do with our current preoccupation with analytics and algorithms. It was based entirely on intuition and feel. Art not science. I was able to quickly rebound because my preferred teaching methodology is discussion leadership and after three and a half decades of leading group discussions I’ve learned to read not just people’s spoken words, but their pauses, sighs, eyes, body posture, and general frames of mind.

Can that sort of thing be taught? I’m not sure. If someone were serious about seeking feedback they could definitely improve at it, but it innately comes more easily for some than others.

I Have a Theory

How are two people supposed to peacefully co-exist given their different childhoods, insecurities, unique worldviews, and imperfect listening? How given all the uniqueness and flaws each brings to the equation?

We’re often surprised by people we know, or think we know, who decide to divorce, but maybe the more pertinent question is how does anyone stay together long-term?

Why are the Good Wife and I getting along better than normal these days? Because the kitchen is clean and clutter free a majority of the time. I have decided the foundation of successful long-term intimate relationships is a clean and clutter-free kitchen.

Being on sabbatical, I am spending a lot more time in our kitchen than normal. It’s a very nice kitchen and I like spending time in it doing dishes, emptying the dishwasher, cleaning the espresso machine, putting groceries away, preparing food. The GalPal always pitches in too. The twenty-three year old temporary resident, no so much, but our games are so strong, we compensate for her twenty-three year oldness.

Eventually, the sabbatical will end, and my time in the kitchen will be drastically reduced. At which point, all bets are off.

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

 

 

 

Commas Are Killing Your Relationships

It took a long time, 56 years to be exact, but I have mastered human relationships. Picture me taking a bow.*

Harmony depends upon your ability to apologize to whomever you offend or hurt. When in the wrong, which in my experience is most of the time, there are two ways to apologize, one wrong, one right.

The wrong way is to say, “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, but . . . ” The “but” completely cancels out the original sentiment.

To the other person, everything that follows sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher or an unintelligible foreign language. Commas are sly bastards which we wield to say, “You’re overreacting.”

To review, when you say “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, but whah, whah, whah,” what you’re really saying is “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, but you’re overreacting.”

Always choose periods over commas.”I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”

*somewhere, The Good Wife just spit her tea all over her screen :)

What Everyone Needs

A sense of purpose. Of being needed.

That’s what my mom struggled with the last several years of her life. Her family that had needed her for a long time, was grown and gone. Her husband, who had needed her and provided companionship for even longer, was gone too. Be especially kind to older, single people.

Teaching has always been fulfilling in large part because it has provided me with a clear sense of purpose. Administrative work I’ve learned, not as much. Having done more administrative work the last few years, I confess that I’m in a work funk, probably the result of a less tangible sense of purpose.

That’s why I did something I almost never do, saved a student’s end-of-class “thank you” from mid-December. Despite telling her in a follow up message, I don’t think she had any idea how moved I was by it.

Hello Dr. Byrnes,
Here is my final paper. I have thoroughly enjoyed your class and am very sad it is over. This class was one I could consistently look forward to every week. It was one where I could wake up on a Tuesday or Thursday morning and say, “I GET to go to Writing 101 today!’ This class greatly increased my knowledge, view and perspective of the world. It challenged my beliefs and opened my thinking to accept new ideas. Thank you for leading so diligently and kindly as you did. I count it an honor and blessing to have taken this class. Thank you.

The honor and blessing was all mine.

Like my student, take a few minutes today to tell someone how they enrich your life in small or large ways. Remind them they are needed and that their life has purpose.

The Cold, Hard Reality of Teaching’s Artificiality

Yesterday a colleague said she thought about “just canceling everything” this week, the last of the semester before final exams. “I thought I’d just tell them we’re through. That’s it. That’s all there is.”

That brought “I feel you” laughter from others. So when I told another colleague that today was the last class session of the semester, she said, “I bet you’re happy about that.” “No,” I explained, “I’m going to miss this group.”

My thirteen first year writers this semester were amazing. They were from Hawaii, Alaska, California, Oregon, and different parts of Washington State. They were funny and kind and they listened to whomever was speaking. They thoughtfully embraced the questions inspired by the course theme, “The Art of Living”. They shared their differing perspectives on the need for a philosophy of life; on gratitude and empathy; on money’s relative importance; on friendship, family, and romantic love; and on spirituality’s relative importance. They liked one another, they liked the course content, they tolerated their teacher.

Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve had a group of randomly assigned students gel with one another and me in unexpected ways so I have a feel for what our future holds. I’ll see them in a few months or years somewhere on campus, probably walking across Red Square. And a fair number will pretend they don’t see me. I have a sophisticated phrase for this phenomenon, “That was then, this is now.”

I remember the Good Wife experiencing this her second or third September of teaching. Much to her dismay, her third graders whom she had poured her soul into, quickly bonded with their fourth grade teacher. She was lucky to get sheepish hand waves when she wanted hugs of continuous gratitude. Their subtle head nods conveyed “That was then, this is now”.

This semester I instituted a social psychology experiment of sorts. Mid-semester, after bonding with my thirteen writers, I explained the “That was then, this is now” phenomenon. Of course they didn’t need it explained, but my figuring them out brought smiles of appreciation.

Then, occasionally, I would begin class by reporting on brief interactions with former students elsewhere on campus. “Saw three students on my way to and from the pool at lunch yesterday, two made eye contact and said ‘hello’.” They enjoyed my scorekeeping.

So today, my parting words were a request, “When you see me on campus, don’t look past me, say ‘hello’.” They said they would, but I’ll settle for subtle head nods.

 

 

 

 

The Art of Getting Along

It’s irrational given my fitness mindedness, but I think of parking as a zero-sum game. It’s important to me that I get spot “A1” way more often than you. Towards that end, over the years, I’ve developed amazing brake light antennae and unparalleled, cat-like reflexes. In short, I have mad parking lot game.

Rewind to last week when I pulled into our local grocery store and saw car “A1” begin to back out. As I waited, I noticed a vehicle coming towards me from about 75 yards away. The evil driver timed it perfectly, used A1 as a shield, looked down to avoid eye contact, and swooped into MY spot.

No. You. Did. Not. I honked a couple of times to get her attention before slinking to the back of the lot, my reputation and psyche in tatters. Maybe I should let the air out of one of her tires I thought to myself.

Upon entering the automatic doors, I shot her the evil eye. “Are you mad at me?” No shit Sherlock. “Yes I’m mad at you. I was sitting there waiting for the spot and you didn’t even look at me as you pulled into it. I was waiting for it LONG before you.”  “We we’re both waiting for it,” she replied, which made me chuckle. And then I walked away. Only to have her pursue me into the produce section where she said, “I’m sorry for that. I don’t like when people do that to me, so I’m sorry.”

Well shit, I never could handle curveballs! Totally disarmed, I calmly said, “Well, I appreciate that. Thank you. Forget about it.”

A few days later at work, I watched one colleague totally lose it while interacting with another while we worked through a vexing problem. I mean totally lost it. In terms of the substance of the debate, she was mostly in the right, but I realized that didn’t matter one bit, just like when I walked into the grocery store and overreacted to a lost parking spot.

Our anger was so disproportionate to the situations that we became more than half responsible for the conflict. The take-away. Careful consideration of peoples’ feelings is more important than being in the right.

That’s what I learned last week. This week I’m going to try applying it.

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Maybe I’d have better luck running errands on my bike. Photography by JEB.