Archive for October 2010
How far do you take a lie to protect someone?
Alex Kerner (played by Daniel Brühl), his sister and their mother lived in East Germany. But Kerner’s mother, a faithful socialist, had a heart attack and fell into a coma the night the Berlin wall came down. When she awoke eight months later, Kerner wanted to keep her from a second heart attack, which her doctor said could kill her. So he followed her doctor’s advice and recreated his own version of East Germany to protect his mother.
This dark comedy is funny because of Kerner ‘s success in creating the illusion of an ever-excelling East Germany. It gets funnier when Kerner invites others into the sham. But it’s funniest and touching at the end. I won’t say exactly why, but it involves an East Germany accepting refugees from the West escaping the ravages of consumption.
Along the way lies get told, naturally the lies must be multiplied and amplified, televised and dramatized. It is clear the untruths cannot continue, and truths begin washing through the story. Conversations that sidestepped truth and walked circles around reality eventually succumb to both love and trust.
I could not help but ask what illusions I create for myself and invite others to be part of. We all need the kind of conversations where truth is spoken, no matter how it seems to change reality.
The Practice of Dialogue Rests on Solid Ground
I’ve become intrigued by trying to boil Listentalk down to the most elemental forms. Intrigued because there is a firm foundation for which I can build things on. Here’s what I know so far:
- There is a performative aspect of language. This performative aspect allows language to actually do something out in the world, to make things happen. It is not just that speaking something makes it true. But there is something closely related that is less about true/false and more about perception/reality: when we speak something, it becomes public, it becomes known, it becomes the story we’re going with—unless immediately debunked by those involved in the hearing and telling. So…stuff happens when we speak it. It becomes true…or at least truish. JL Austin, John Searle and others go on and on about such speech acts. I intend to hear more from them.
- We do right by others when we treat them as people. Obvious? Yes and no. Martin Buber suggested we often treat each other as objects rather than as people. He talks about “I-Thou” relationships where we treat the person before us as fully-human, whole people. Beings with many facets, interests, parts of their character. We talk and (especially) listen to them as we respect the dignity of their being human. But too often we treat others with an “I-It” sort of connection. That is, the kind of connection we have with an object too often becomes the model for the way we connect with people. We use a hammer to pound a nail, a George Foreman Grill to press a Panini for lunch. It makes sense to use tools in that way. But we mustn’t treat people as if they were objects. We devalue them. People are people. People are not objects placed on earth for the sole purpose of carrying out my personal (sometimes diabolical) will. There’s much more to say about this (in particular from Emmanuel Levinas), but that is the basic argument.
- God created and interacts with people. Lest you think I’m writing some humanistic diatribe, both the performative nature of language and the treatment of people as beings of dignity flow directly from the Old and New Testaments. Look at the role of “Word” from Genesis 1 to John 1 to Revelation 22. Words are performative so often it will make your head spin (If your head is subject to spinning) (You might want a doctor to look at that). Watch how the Eternal One allowed for the possibility that words spoken could be rejected. Even the words of the Creator. Even the Word that was a person as well as God.
- We’re at a new time when gatekeepers no longer control the discourse. Social media is part of the deal, but not the whole deal. New attitudes about who is in authority, who we can trust and who we cannot trust are in operation. Technology is opening doors.
Those are “Listentalk’s” four building blocks.
What did I miss?
Is that so wrong?
Do you remember the conversations that changed your life?
Decades ago a guy gave a talk at our church. This guy had made a career change from working as a medical device executive to becoming a leader in the denomination. In a quick conversation after his speech, I mentioned my interest in the medical device industry. He gave me a name to call. I called the guy that week and caught him at a generous moment—despite being an executive himself he spent 30 minutes telling me what he loved about the industry, the company and how helping people provided meaning for his workday. Then he gave me Dave’s name, said I should call Dave and drop his name.
I did that.
Dave turned out to be the best boss on the planet.
The conversation followed by the conversation followed by the conversation turned into decades of writing for the medical device industry, starting with Medtronic. The point of the story is that conversations can take us places we might have wanted to go to but had no idea how do get there. Of course, conversations don’t always work like that, but it happens more often than we might realize. In fact, I think simple conversations change our life every single day. That’s my premise as I write “Listentalk: How simple conversations change your life every day.”
Those conversations start with the courage to share what is going on inside—sometimes deep inside. Using words. Out loud.
Can you remember a life-changing conversation? Tell me.
Brilliant Technicians can be Eloquent with the Right Topic and Right Audience
Say you have this friend. And your friend is a genius. She invents stuff all the time—important stuff people want. People buy this stuff and are even willing to spend significant money for it. And the stuff she invents works…mostly. It works, but it needs help. It works 90% of the time, but needs 10% adjusting and tweaking and, well, help. Your friend knows this. She knows she is brilliant at putting the technology together to meet a particular need. But she also knows she and her team work like demons once their unique idea is in place. They work like demons because each of their unique ideas requires constant adjustment as they are put into place, adjustments peculiar to the customer that bought the solution.
This last 10% is the source of significant pain and long hours for your friend’s team. This is because the customer bought the unique solution—knowing it was a unique solution—but secretly thinking the unique solution would work right out of the shipping crate. And no matter what your friend said to the customer, that assumption that it would work right out of the crate persisted in the customer’s mind.
That last 10% is a technology problem but it is also a communication fail. The customer perceived one thing and received another—whether or not the customer’s perception was accurate. In fact, the last 10% has much more to do with conversation than it does with technology. How so? Because conversation between those who understand the solution and the problem must take place before the solution becomes a fully realized solution. Because conversation is the give and take between people as they listen and offer suggestions, over and over again.
Introduce Your Brilliant Friend Around
Conversations are not magic (or…are they?) but they accomplish much more than we can understand. They are great at connecting, where people begin to understand each other. They are great at diffusing tense situations simply by passing words between people. They also can inoculate against tense situations before those situations occur. All of this through the regenerating power of relationship that happens when people connect. I and have argued that letting people into a process earlier only helps the process.
Helping your brilliant friend talk about the solution she is putting together, even to engage the customer in the last ten percent may be the most productive thing you can do for your friend, her company and her customers.
There are ways to do this. Painless ways that lie outside of the old media channels. Ways that can do far more good than you may realize.
I might stop printing. But you’ll have to pry transitions from my cold, dead hands.
I’ve been doing things differently without realizing it. For over twenty years I’ve inserted a blank page at the end of sections and chapters so my next section or chapter can begin on a right-hand page. I admit to finding a certain elegance in beginning a new thought on the page lying flat before me and close to my right hand. It just felt right.
Most of the documents I produce for clients will be used electronically. Few even consider printing them because, well, why would you? Since the screen is always there…and since paper just gets lost anyway…and since as soon as you print something, it changes and your print is outdated…so why print something again? Current audiences will not realize how a right-hand page lies flat on a surface while a left page bubbles up and distorts—an open invitation to move forward.
It’s not just blank pages. Transitions are transitioning away. Remember when transitions were the thing: when you wanted to gently lead your reader from one topic to the next, from one moving part of your argument to the next? Some writing textbooks still talk about making transitions in your writing. But are the days of transitions—just like the days of inserting blank pages—are swiftly passing. Since everything is modular we expect to jump from topic to topic rather than be wooed along.
Nicholas Carr in The Shallows talks about the atomization of information. How books and chapters and articles are already being dismantled so pieces are available here, there and everywhere. People writing books with the help of social media use the situation when they post as they go, so potential reviewers have the opportunity to interact with the writing long before it is even put in the longer (and more expensive book form). One of the dangers is that writers will write for short attentions spans—wait aren’t those people called bloggers and copywriters?
In truth, writers have always written for short attention spans. Back when reading books was the thing smart and interesting people did, writers talked about the reader’s constant pressure to walk away from the text. That was a key motivation for the writer to make the text more interesting. In my writing classes we often lament the lack of readers (in general) and the reader’s constant temptation to click away from the text. Clicking is so much easier than walking.
Blank page insertions may go away, but I doubt transitions will. That’s because communicators still have an innate need to keep an audience interested. Blank pages may be an artifact from the printing days. But transitions are a piece of our humanness that is alive and well and will stick around until our final…transition.
I’m in two more of these conversations: in one group we’re working through a fragment from the Apostle John: His account of Jesus’ words just after the last supper but before He was led away to His death. We’re curious why John had all this extra material the other writers telling the same story did not include. But even more, we’re eager to know the ins and outs of talking with God. John’s Jesus had a lot to say about such conversations in that fragment—some of it almost (but not quite) unbelievable.
The other conversation is a manuscript study of Mark’s gospel. We’re committed to turning and prodding and poking and hashing through the text per Professor Agassiz’ recommendation. It could get heated.
The Beauty and Horror of a Text
In the conversation about the fragment from John’s Gospel, one woman said, “It would be so great to actually hear the tone of voice and see the body language behind what He said.” She was right. The problematic phrase: “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know me…?” (John 14.9) Did Jesus use a joking tone, like mock exasperation? Or did he shout it or was there some heat applied in the utterance? It’s hard to tell just from the text. It depends on how you read the story. Another conversation around Mark’s story had us wishing the author was around so we could ask a few questions—like how he knew what he knew.
In both cases, the author was not there. The only thing we have from the author was the text before us, and even that has been put through a translation process long before reaching our eyes and ears. What to do? Maybe if we had Kerri Miller interview the author (Hey, I’d attend that), we’d finally get our questions answered.
Or would we? Possibly the (long-dead) author would have forgotten just what body language or tone was used to make the point. Even if he remembered, would we have more information and would that information supersede the text itself?
Both stories (John and Mark) hold clues in the text that lead me away from wishing Ms. Miller could interview the authors. Interesting question because it points to something Jesus said to his followers in John. There were all twitchy with nerves because Jesus kept talking about leaving. He finally said, Look, You can’t handle the truth right now. I’m doing you a favor by going because God’ll send His Spirit. His Spirit will never leave you, He’ll always be with you, and He’ll actually direct you into the truth.
There’s truth in the text and I’m eager to ferret it out. But there certainly is something special that happens in the conversation around the text. Maybe I’ll invite Ms. Miller back for that.