Tag Archives: listening

What Icebergs and Conflict Share In Common

News headlines are sagging under the weight and bulge of people in conflict. North Americans are conflicted over — well, I don’t need to list all we’re in disagreement about because it’s front and center stage global news.

It seems that, like South Carolina’s 1 in a 1,000 year rain, the U.S., if not much of the global community is journeying through an epochal period of polarization.

Given widespread conflict and disagreements of perspective, opinion, and value:

How can two or more people with significant dissimilarities attain a respectful, dignified and trusting understanding of one another?

Three days post-Umpqua Community College’s mass shooting I re-shared a Facebook posting of a picture of Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver with his hands out and his palms open, expressing what I assume is incredulousness. The caption above his head read, “One failed attempt at a shoe bomb, and we all have to take our shoes off at the airport,” and the bottom-concluding caption read, “31 school shootings since Columbine and no change in the regulation of guns.”

One friend decided this was an opportune moment to inject his opinion on this “stupidest of comparisons.”

Other friends weighed in, too, mostly anti his perspective. Wasting no time, I simply responded that his opinion seemed to derive from Fox News (“Bullshit Mountain” as Jon Stewart and The Daily Show re-named the network), and that he should practice his own advice on “thinking,” because all he seemed to be communicating was raucous vitriol.

An example of how not to develop trust and build bridges of understanding!

To my shame I singularly presumed ignorance and negative intent on his part, particularly given my past association. I responded only to his words and my perception of his attitude and intent; ignoring formative and unknown-to-me influences that most certainly shaped his worldview and values. And I sought to win the battle of opinion with minimal expenditure of effort and inconvenience.

Like icebergs, whose above water visibility reflects only one-ninth its real size, so, too, words, both in ordinary conversation and especially during conflict, reflect only a fraction of what co-antagonists think and feel.

As Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most demonstrates, people’s unspoken, invisible-to-the-eye feelings are “usually where the real action is. Difficult conversations do not just involve feelings, they are at their core about feelings. Engaging in a difficult conversation without talking about feelings is like staging an opera without the music.”

Conflicts or difficult conversations, therefore, are seldom if ever about “getting the facts straight.” They’re about differing perceptions, assumptions, interpretations, and values, with all sides each and on every occasion contributing something to the discord no matter who might legitimately be “most wrong.”

Conflict generates, perpetuates and escalates around accusations of blame, which in turn threatens punishment, which naturally, then, meets with save my (own) bacon denial and counter accusations.

Sadly we default to negative and embittered exchanges, rather than inquisitive discourse that seeks to imaginatively understand each other’s life story—aka, the formative experiences, persons and information that we don’t have access to, yet which shaped and influenced our antagonist’s worldview, interpretation of sensory input, and his/her subsequent words, actions or beliefs.

Funny story. When my middle child was six she shared a bedroom and a bunk bed with her older sister, “Mana.” One night she was lying on her top bunk ranting and wailing because of some disciplining “act of parenting.” After a prolonged period of wailing, their room went silent, after which a quiet, quivering, six-year-old voice asked her sister, “Mana, what was I crying about?” After her older sister reminded her why she had been crying, loud crying again ensued!”

Translated: Conflict and blame take on lives of their own, when, in fact, often times and over time the precipitating facts and feelings are forgotten.

To minimize conflict and difficult conversations, Stone, Patton and Heen argue that we should intentionally and by disciplined practice, move away from a “message delivery” (i.e., “I’m right and you’re to blame”) stance to a “learning stance”—one in which we “walk around the sculpture of our own feelings and observe it from different angles.”

That is, we need to become more adept at asking thoughtful questions when conflict occurs and emotions are heightened. Questions that seek to imagine oneself in the other person’s life story. Questions that seek to understand one’s own inner, vulnerable, and complex emotions and sense of identity.

Or as Chapter Two aptly summarizes it: “Stop Arguing About Who’s Right” and instead “Explore Each Other’s Story.” Regrettably, most disagreements—including that of my classmate—center on proving “I’m right and you’re wrong”; a heated exchange of conclusions, rather than an openness to hearing one another’s stories.

Listening and expressing feelings are critical tasks during conflict. When feelings are expressed, the urge to blame subsides. Ironically, an inability to listen well to one’s adversary is symptomatic of an inability or unwillingness to express one’s own feelings well. Why is this so?

“Good listening requires an open and honest curiosity about the other person, and a willingness and ability to keep the spotlight on them. Buried emotions draw the spotlight back to us. Instead of wondering, ‘How does what they are saying make sense?’ and ‘Let me try to learn more,’ we have a record playing in our mind that is stuck in the groove of our own feelings: ‘I’m so angry s/he treated me like that!’”

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On Loneliness & Listening | A Lesson From Nature

Given my bilateral, high frequency hearing loss I’m unable to hear alarms emitted by digital watches or small appliances. It’s ironical given my linguistic faux pas of 1990. In response to a question asked by a South African woman I mistakenly replied in my beginner’s Tshivenda, “I have big ears like an elephant.” So, despite my elephant ears I can’t hear the smallest of high frequency sounds!

Unlike me, you may not have physical hearing loss, but likely you have chronic deafness of another kind: to the invisible yet real words, conversations and anguished cries of people all around you.

Like the everywhere-yet-undetected airwave frequencies that cloak our lives, there are invisible-yet-real conversations that occur incessantly both in the human and animal worlds—if only, like science correspondents, Chris Joyce and Bill McQuay of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we had the willingness and imagination to listen when most people listen not and hear nothing.

This is the motivation for National Public Radio’s recent summer series, Close Listening: Decoding Nature Through Sound. Cara Philpin writes, “whether you’re a night owl looking to sympathize with those crack-of-dawn bird calls or a beach bum jolted by that brassy seal bark, it’s good to be a human who knows how to listen.” (emphasis added)

Are you a human who listens well?

Are you one prone to hear the anguished subtlety of words and emotions of those who occupy your daily personal space—your children, spouse, neighbors, employees, and colleagues?

Or do their fears and unspoken messages remain undetected because you, yourself, perpetually live your life running ten minutes behind schedule, too hurried, harried and worried to hear your own racing heart, let alone someone else’s troubled heart?

As newlyweds my wife and I lived with my grandfather for three years soon after my Mamaw died of cancer. I frequently and shamefully remember a conversation he and my 25-year-old self shared one evening. He was 83 and had begun dating a 59-year-old divorcee.

A fear of co-opted inheritance prompted his four, much-older-than-me children, to ask if I would confront him with his error of choice if not moral misstep. Regrettably my youth conceded to my elders’ request.

So one evening prior to my young family’s relocation to South Africa he was sitting in his favorite hunter green Lay-Z Boy chair peeling an apple, as he ritually did each evening before bed. I walked in to his room and shared his children’s misgivings with him, after which a deep silence ensued. Then, through a soft, tear quivering voice, this gentle, kind, simple but not simpleton blue-collar worker shared this—“All I know is that I don’t want to be lonely.

Air Supply’s 1982 hit song, “Two Less Lonely People In The World,” with lyrics “when dreams are wearing thin and you’re lost,” still speaks to human collective experience.

My granddad’s dreams were in the twilight phase, “wearing thin,” and the lostness he felt at the death of Mamaw, wife of 50+ years, and of my family’s imminent departure after three year’s of shared residence jolted his familiar life. Loneliness became his greatest fear.

An endemic, shared experience of loneliness in the twenty-first century is irony to the n-degree, given how social media connected we are. Individuals have hundreds if not thousands of Facebook “friends,” equal number of Instagram “followers,” and similar LinkedIn “connections.” Despite North Americans’ impressive “virtual connectedness” daily evidential experience indicates disturbing self and relationship disconnects—a pathology, of kind. No wonder at least 1 in 4 people suffer from mental health illness.

As Julia Cameron sadly observes in The Right to Write, “Ours is a perishable age. We have cup of soup meals and entire relationships. We talk on the phone. We say, ‘I love you. I miss you,’ but, as the truism correctly has it, actions speak louder than words. . . .”

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White Supremacy, Black Experience: A Lesson In Listening

“Americans make choices constantly as they try to navigate through the racial landscape. And their first choice is how they listen. Blacks and whites do not listen well to one another. They infer, assume, deduce, imagine, and otherwise miscommunicate. They give each other little grace and allow small room for benefit of the doubt. Dialogue is exceedingly difficult. Nor do blacks and whites listen well to themselves as they stigmatize, derogate, slur, slight, and otherwise offend. . . . It takes practice to learn to listen.”  (A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, by David K. Shipler, ©1997)

With 36 years Africa experience, most of it in a relatively volatile, post-colonial and post-apartheid context, you would think of all white males I would know better.

My wrong?

Among a diverse group of professionals I recently spoke analytically to the contentious topic of white supremacy, or its equally bitter-tasting kin—white privilege.

My cerebral statements understandably met immediate (black) resistance and reaction. Understandably, because my colleagues had been sharing painful personal and past experiences of racially tinged or infused injustices, and of a local city’s white establishment’s historical misuse of political and economic power in disenfranchising entire African-American communities.

Some of my friends contended that white supremacy, aka, institutionalized and/or racist white power structures will be eradicated globally within a relatively short time period.

Instead of simply listening to my friends’ pained narratives, or vocalizing my solidarity with them against past and present social injustices, I intellectualized what up to that point had been a mostly emotionally laden discussion.

At the time, my “invisible, weightless knapsack of accustomed white privilege,” as Shipler coins it, processed our dialogue with two rational thoughts—

First, “How can we talk of eradicating white supremacy, when it’s both a local and global belief that people hold, specifically, a belief that whites are superior to all others different, and therefore entitled—for the betterment of society—to control the mechanisms of power?”

And, secondly, “I agree. We can and should dislodge unjust white socioeconomic and political power structures, such as occurred with slavery America and apartheid South Africa, but we’ll never eradicate white supremacy, or any other color of supremacist belief, as my colleagues seemed insistent on.

Thinking the best of each other, I’m sure my black colleagues knew I wasn’t advocating for white supremacy or arguing against efforts to unseat bigoted power structures, just as I knew they weren’t naive to think supremacist thought could be annihilated.

Perhaps a greater sensitivity and awareness of our respective cultural differences might have mediated our group’s differences of opinion. At least for me, anyway.

How?

By reminding me that lack of passion on my part, or a mere intellectualizing or pondering of social injustices, will not communicate support or understanding.

Whether any part true or simply another racial generalization, I’ve read somewhere that passion, emotion, the ability “to stir up” are traditionally valued traits for many African-Americans—perhaps a survival tool during the slavery era—explaining in part, perhaps, the appeal of the rapper, the preacher, the impassioned politician.

Regrettably, only in retrospect did I see that my lack of passion, and my mere intellectualizing of an issue so close to many of my black colleagues’ life experiences, simply communicated (white) insensitivity to and self-denial of the persistent, everyday realities of scores of millions of historically disenfranchised and displaced people in the U.S. and around the world.

While I regret my misstep, I don’t lament risking encounter and dialogue. As Shipler rightly notes, “The journey does not have to be a (white) guilt trip; it is just an encounter with the facts of life.” Dialogue—talking and talking and talking—opens new “pathways to closeness” among people and cultures different. Each person must LISTEN to the other, however.

 

 

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4 Life Takeaways from “We Bought A Zoo”

If you can overlook that the actual zoo, Dartmoor Zoological Parkis in England instead of Southern California, as well as the fact that Matt Damon, aka Jason Bourne, is simply a widower with two young children versus a trained assassin or a futuristic car thief / Robin Hood, then you might (like me) agree with We Bought A Zoo‘s 3-star rating and enjoy watching or re-watching it.

DZP

I recently re-watched the last half with my two younger daughters, and took away 4 reminders:

1.  “Sometimes all it takes is twenty seconds of insane courage . . . And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

It seems that being human is to opt for the easy and convenient over the hard and difficult. What prompted you to read this blog? Its promised “4” takeaways?

If we resolve to lose weight, consistently exercise, run a marathon, climb a mountain, learn a language, become a millionaire, ace the SAT/GRE/or MCAT, or even something as mundane as cleaning house or “doing” the yard, we typically seek out the short-cuts.

If only we took seriously, were ever mindful of the residual power in seconds or small steps; especially those first few, which are critical in helping you overcome the inertia of inactivity and progress toward an established habit and discipline.

I don’t have a “Yard of the Month” yard, but I have succeeded in growing a healthy lawn and ten double knock-out rose bushes, which total strangers have been known on more than several occasions to stop their cars, get out, walk to our front door, ring the door bell, and ask what I did to produce such lush, green grass and beautiful red roses.

I have no quick-step answer other than a little bit of effort and a lot of sweat spread out over many days, weeks, months, and now almost four years. I don’t use weed killer. I simply am relentless in pulling up a few weeds each and every time I walk the perimeter of my yard. Truthfully? I think they (the weeds – especially the nut grass) are afraid of me! 🙂

Let’s view achievement / greatness as a series of small steps, or as the sum of many steps (small acts), and learn to silence the inner voice (demon) that insists we leapfrog ahead or use a cheat sheet.

2.  Like the animals but love the humans.

I grew up in East Africa and many of my happiest childhood memories revolve around animals, whether pets, such as our two Vervet monkeys, or family excursions to famous national reserves like the Masai Mara or the Serengeti to witness the annual 1.5 million wildebeest and zebra migration.

I still love animals, but like Fanning and Johansson, I’d choose people over animals if I had to.

If polled, I wonder if most Americans would agree?

It often seems that equally or more money, time, kindness, love and respect is shown to pets, than to children, the elderly, the immigrant, the unemployed, or the hobo.

Lately I’ve been struck by how many Austin drivers let their pets “drive with” them in the front driver’s seat. Meanwhile my kids fight over which of them get to ride in the front passenger seat, even if the distance to be traveled is less than one mile!

What about you? Do you give equal or more time and affection to your pet than to your child, spouse or friend or neighbor?

3.  “The secret to talking is listening.”

We’ve all read enough Dear Abby-type relationship advise columns and books to know that men are typically less verbal when it comes to expressing matters of the heart (emotions, vulnerability, et cetera), yet more verbose when it comes to fixing problems: your problem, their problem, anyone’s problem.

Wise men have learned that the way to a girl (Elle Fanning’s) or a woman’s heart (Scarlett Johansson) — or even in matters non-romantic, to achieving greater organizational synergy (defined by Stephen Covey as “valuing difference” or “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”) — is through more listening, less talking.

Many men simply don’t care whether their percentage of speech to listening is skewed, however, because they’ve either achieved some senior management position in an organization and can’t be bothered by any underling, let alone a woman’s suggestion or advice, or because hearing the sound of their own voices and perspective has become habituated over time, in large part because men traditionally have held the monopoly on positions of power.

Now, I risk voicing a truism; namely, that women are very capable of talking and thoroughly enjoy doing so! Research demonstrates they generally are more verbal, and not infrequently more verbose than men.

A difference between the sexes seems to me to be: Men typically talk to resolve; listening with more an ear to actively fixing whatever might be wrong or perceived to be wrong, rather than listening with all one’s senses so as to hear the many unspoken words / emotions that speak themselves through glistening eyes, quivering lips, faltering voices, rapid and defensive / angered responses, etc.

4.  Grief and mourning can be delayed, but not bypassed . . . If, that is, you want to re-engage life and living.

For 10 of the last 13 years I have worked in a senior management capacity with non-profit organizations in South Africa that focused on mitigating the cause and effects of violence and HIV/AIDS.

A recent article A Save-the-World Field Trip for Millionaire Tech Moguls describes one man, Scott Harrison’s “sexy” effort to provide clean and plentiful water to those in the world without. Through his non-profit, Charity: Water, he has managed to facilitate the drilling of thousands of water wells and the installation of an equal number of hand pumps.

Incidentally, and perhaps reflective of the demographics of his donor base, each pump has an attached metal plaque with each donor’s name etched on it. Desire for legacy, recognition, seems to me a decidedly American fixation, as is our so-called exemplary charitable generosity, which in reality would not be near so generous if it did not hitch a ride on the coat tail of income tax reduction.

In contrast to “sexy” development work, coming alongside and participating in life with hurting people, particularly those who have suffered or soon will suffer loss, as well as trauma of any variety of types and degrees is far from “sexy.” Yes, your name is surely invisibly inscribed on the hearts and in the lives of those you shared vulnerable life moments with, yet seldom is there any acknowledgement of your sacrifice, no public recognition for being a “Well Member” – a donor, who pledges $24,000/year to Charity: Water, for three or more years.

My point is this:

It’s much easier and less demanding to give money to the needy of the world, than time, toil and tears (lest you misunderstand me, yes, social development organizations need both, including the Charity: Water’s of the world).

Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) lost his wife and struggled daily through a labyrinth of inconsolable grief (e.g., avoiding looking at photographs of his wife, certain grocery aisles, as well as previously favorite coffee shops). It took years and the collective, consistent and caring support of family and zoo staff friends for him to travel through grief to a place of acceptance and re-engagement with life and living.

I welcome “life truth” wherever it reveals itself. I’m grateful to movie and cinema for important life reminders.

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Filed under Africa, Diversity, Family, Life, Loss, Memories, Mentor, Pedagogy, Perspective, Relationships