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

 

 

 

Left to Their Own Devices, People Will Not Get Along

Somehow I got elected to Church Council. After agreeing to serve on the Nominating Committee, I was told people thought I’d be perfect for Council. Damn, upsold by my own church. There should be a law.

“Okay,” I said in a weak moment, “As long as everyone knows going in that I’m skeptical of a lot that people accept as the status quo.” “That’s great, that’s exactly what we’re looking for.”

Add that to the Good Shepherd Lutheran things of which I’m skeptical. In large part because at the first (monthly) meeting in early June there was no opportunity to pose questions let alone offer alternative viewpoints about anything of substance. It was, in essence, a long business meeting.

Even more concerning than that though was how the meeting began—with quick approval of the previous minutes and summary reports from some subcommittees. I only knew half the people, and even the less introverted* didn’t know everyone, still there were no introductions, not even names. In 36 meetings over the next three years** we’re going to have to work together to make some difficult decisions on behalf of the larger community. Like a farmer mindlessly heaving seeds on the ground, the working assumption seems to be that everything will be okay because everyone will get along fine. Like that’s the natural order of things.

I know the opposite to be true because I’ve worked in an intensely interpersonal field for three decades and The Good Wife served on Council during a particularly tumultuous time in the church’s recent past. When two people or organizations with two hundred plus people do not build in mechanisms for preventive problem solving and the cultivating of mutual respect, dissension will be the default. Family members won’t speak, married couples will divorce, work teams will fragment, and antipathy will rule the day.

So I wrote the Council President and tactfully suggested that if we don’t have time for any team building, we at least introduce ourselves at the start of tomorrow night’s meeting. He said it was a good idea and then asked if I’d lead a 15-20 minute team building activity, which translates into 1m per person after this planned intro:

One thing I’ve learned as an educator who emphasizes small group cooperating learning is that when it comes to effectively teaming with others in families, in schools, in the workforce, or in other contexts like church councils, many adults have more negative than positive frames of reference. Put differently, when they think about all the teams they’ve been a part of, it’s easier for them to identify what went wrong with them than it is to explain what went right. That’s because we’re not nearly intentional enough about the ultimate litmus test of a team’s effectiveness, which is whether the sum is greater than the individual parts. Meaning, at the end of the team’s time together, do the individual members have a sense that by themselves they never could’ve accomplished anything close to what the team did.

Then I’m going to ask them to think for a minute about a positive team experience, where the team they were a part of clearly accomplished more than they would have left to their own devices. And then to briefly summarize one thing that contributed to the team’s success.

How would you answer that? How easy or difficult was it to come up with a list of positive team experiences? And the single most positive team experience? And the key take-away that partially explains the team’s success?

In thinking about what I’m going to contribute I thought of a five faculty Guilford College team I worked on in the mid 1990s to help the college redesign it’s general education program. I was the junior faculty representative and was blown away by my older colleagues smarts and interpersonal savvy. I had fun riding their coattails as we lead the 100 person faculty through the difficult process of updating the college’s course requirements***.

Then I thought of the cycling team I am a part of most Tuesday and Thursday nights. Or take Saturday’s 94-miler around Capitol Forest. Left to my own devices I would’ve averaged 18mph not the 20mph that five of us managed. But aerodynamics are more physical than interpersonal, so I kept exploring the hidden recesses of my pea brain.

Eventually, my positive team experience that most clearly embodies the “sum being greater than the individual parts” bubbled up. “Team Lynn and Ron Byrnes” whose primary project the last 25 years has been to raise two children, now young adults. In all honesty, a quarter of the time I wish The Gal Pal was more like me, meaning a quarter of the time her differences drive me cray cray. Three-fourths of the time though I know for a fact that we parented much better together than I ever could’ve myself. Her different ways of thinking and being made us way more thoughtful as we did our best to find our way absent any Parenting Manual.

Sometimes we’ve been more intentional about teaming effectively than others. When we don’t schedule time to talk and purposely work through simmering resentments, both of us end up racing to have OUR feelings understood, which is another way of saying we argue. When we’re intentional, meaning we take turns listening to, and empathizing with one another, we’re a pretty darn good team as I hope our daughters would attest.

Tuesday is the second Council meeting, but also Lynn’s and my thirtieth anniversary. I’m not just a better parent, but a way better person because of her. I look forward to teaming with her for as long as possible.

* Since I’ve kept a really low profile at church, I agreed to serve in large part to get to know a few people better. The thinking being that I’ll like it more if I have more friends.

** After five of us were elected together, we learned that to create a proper balance of term lengths, only four of us would be able to serve the whole three years. In my first act of amazing selflessness, I kinda quickly volunteered to serve only two years.

*** The one exception to the fun being when one of my noon basketball acquaintances, a Religion professor in desperate need of mindfulness training, lit into me for something our group had proposed. If memory serves me correctly, I felt better after dunking over him during that day’s pickup game.

Addendum: Turns out some regular readers of the humble blog are questioning my dunking ability. Calling it fake news.

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How to Find Your Soulmate

Apparently, the first all important step is to figure out the single most consequential thing you want in a partner. For example, maybe they HAVE to be devotees of Ayn Rand, or farm for a living, or be gluten-free. As detailed in a recent Wall Street Journal article, there are dating websites for each of those interests. Soon there’s bound to be meta-websites where someone could zero in on their dream gluten-free, Ayn Rand loving farmer within 100 miles of Cedar Rapids.

The Journal article was nice because it featured people who weren’t terribly optimistic about finding love, but were finding it thanks to these “niche” websites. They were getting along with their newly found partners, marrying, and starting families. Tough read for a tech skeptic like me.

A noteworthy paragraph:

Relationships often work best when people share similar core values and lifestyle goals. The online dating site eHarmony, for example, matches users by personality traits. Yet if two people are too similar, doesn’t the day-to-day relationship suffer from a lack of fun tension and fresh ideas?

I bet that’s a likely unintended negative consequence of delegating dating to computer algorithms.

Besides the fact that she was fine, a large part of my falling in love with Betrothed was the realization that she brought out the best parts of me. Put differently, I was a better person as a result of our friendship. Specifically, her kindness, her compassion, her social conscience, her generosity, her human decency, superseded my selfish, apathetic self. No computer could quantify that instinct.

I think she’d say I’ve enriched her life too. As a team, our sum is definitely more than our individual parts. But it hasn’t been a walk in the park, in part because we’re so different. Now, twenty-six years in, we’re starting to realize maybe our differences are strengths. Instead of failing miserably at changing one another, we’re learning to appreciate what each person contributes to the relationship, the family, the world.

To find your soulmate chuck the lengthy, hopelessly unrealistic check-list and replace it with one two-part question. Will this person bring out the best of me, and together, will we make a more positive impact on the world than we would apart?

Good and Bad News—Your Life Experience is Unique

No one has followed your exact path. No one has grown up in the same family, attended the same schools at the same time, read the same books, worked the same jobs, traveled to the same destinations, settled in the same place. Ever. Your unique life path is a wonderful strength. As a result of it, you “get” the specific people you grew up with and you’re an insider at the places you’re most familiar.

But your unique life path is a serious limiter too. One that inevitably handicaps you at times. It’s the reason you struggle to understand people and places with which you’re unfamiliar. Clearly, seeing the world from other people’s points of view does not come naturally. More specifically, we routinely fail to adjust for other people’s different life paths. Which is why there’s so much interpersonal and intergroup conflict.

A close friend attended a mostly white, mostly upper middle class liberal arts college. By most conventional measures, she received an excellent education. But in some ways she was ill-prepared for an increasingly diverse world. At one of her first teaching jobs she had a militant African-American colleague who routinely ruffled her feathers. Deeply frustrated, she complained to me, “He’s racist!”

In college she had few opportunities to interact with African-Americans and never with militant ones. If she took the time to learn more about his life path she would have been much more sympathetic to his radical critique of the dominant culture of which she was a part. And consequently, she wouldn’t have taken his anti-white diatribes quite so personally.

Can you supersede your life path? Can I? Partially.

How? By purposefully seeking out unfamiliar people and places through literature, the arts, and travel whether near or far. And when interacting with unfamiliar people, substituting curiosity for negative preconceived notions. Asking, for example, why do you believe what you do? And then listening patiently.

The Inevitability of Interpersonal Conflict

One of the most depressing insights in Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower is that 9/11 would in all likelihood been avoided if key figures in the upper reaches of the FBI and CIA had respected one another more, communicated better, and in the end, just plain got along. Instead, the people entrusted with our security despised one another, purposely withheld information from one another, and didn’t do as good a job as they could and should have.

Recently a friend told me his pastor and the church’s worship leader don’t get along at all, to the point that it’s become a distraction for others in the church.

While reading on the couch the other day, a teenager approached me and said, “Can you go downstairs and read so I can watch t.v.?” “In ten minutes.” “Why?! Why can’t you just read downstairs now?!” Mind swirls, pulse doubles, beads of sweat form on brow, firey mini-lecture bubbles over. Teenager angrily retreats to bedroom. Once my pulse returns to near normal, I pursue my prey. She’s maimed and I’m going in for the kill. If she thought my original response was tough-minded, she’s about to be served a super-sized version of the same.

While approaching the bedroom door I worry it’s not going to go well. This particular teen, who will remain anonymous, is a digger-inner. Whenever there’s a conflict, instead of taking some responsiblity for it, she almost always defends herself.  So when mid-lecture, she quietly said, “I’m sorry,” she stopped me dead in my tracks.

Her apology immediately defused everything. I thanked her and later praised her maturity in front of her mother. It was a teachable moment, the lesson being, conflict is inevitable. Nobody is ever immune from it. Maybe “normal” or “natural” are even better words. Our challenge is to get more comfortable with it. And to figure out how we sometimes escalate it and other times defuse it.

The Relationship Conundrum

A few months ago I wrote that everyone in a committed intimate relationship annoys their partner in differing ways to differing degrees. Annoyance is a natural, common thread. Forget the “committed intimate” adjectives, people in relationships eventually end up annoying one another.

There are two contrasting approaches to this reality. 1) Change the person’s behaviors. Continually remind them to turn off the lights, teach them to listen more patiently, insist that they drive just like you. Or 2) Accept their differences. Come to grips with the fact that they’re most likely never going to change and that some of their behaviors are probably always going to be annoying.

I’m an educator so I’m predisposed to believe in the power of reason and the potential for change. But my experience muddies the water. For example, I’ve nagged Fifteen about turning off the lights in our house for years to zero effect. I finally threw in the towel a year or so ago, so now I just turn them off myself. A person complains that her partner doesn’t fully appreciate her Herculean efforts to work, take care of the house, and co-raise the children. Similarly, he feels she doesn’t fully appreciate his contributions to the family’s well-being. They’re playing the most dangerous of relationship games, the no-win “I’m out appreciating you” competition.

I vacillate between one and two depending on the conflict and the day, but if I had to choose, I believe “accepting their differences” mode holds more promise for minimizing interpersonal conflict.