conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Posts Tagged ‘communication

Praise an Adult: “You’re a good eater and sleeper.”

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And that’s saying something.

According to Mrs. Kirkistan, these are two of my (many?) positive traits:

You’re a good sleeper and a good eater.

She is right: I am. Both.

That’s the kind of stuff we say about an infant, in which case it is high praise indeed: getting that little human to sleep and eat bodes well for future growth. It’s some of the first stuff we can say with any authority about a newborn.

But we struggle to praise an adult.

If we look at those same qualities on the other end of the lifespan, “good sleeper” remains a positive. Older folks have a hard time sleeping (it turns out all sorts and ages of people have a hard time sleeping). What constitutes a “good eater” changes through the years as well. Moving from a voracious eater to a judicious eater seems an especially praiseworthy approach that can span the years.

Still, how can we offer praise to one another in a meaningful way? The trophy for “just showing up” is nearly worthless and most of us see through that. But acknowledging the contributions we each make goes a huge way toward helping each other find and lay hold of our better meaning-making activities.GreatBlur-05202015

Yesterday my client drew a red star next to a paragraph he liked. It’s a small thing, but in conversation I told him it was meaningful that he did that. Our best work, it seems, goes by mostly unremarked. That’s how we know it is good—no one says anything. This is in contrast to when we are kids and our parents praise us for picking up our toys or finishing our Brussel sprouts. Even in school we look for praise from teachers and professors to know that we are doing the right thing/on the right track. But most of life doesn’t work that way.

Giving feedback can help us close the circuit for each other. Even if barely acknowledged, a complement does a whole lotta good.

But it better be true. Otherwise it’s just pandering.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Decentered. As in “not the crux of all things.”

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A place for everything and everything in its place

I’ve put a recurring early-morning block on my calendar titled “Decenter.” The block or early morning quiet and focus has actually been on my calendar for decades, but I’ve recently retitled it based on a cue from Merold Westphal, a philosopher who teaches at Fordham University.

Westphal, writing in The Phenomenology of Prayer (NY: Fordham University Press, 2005), introduces prayer as a “decentering” activity. As a conversation, prayer takes me out of the center of my universe. Like the prayers of the old poet-king or the prayers of the inveterate letter-writer, these are conversations that recognize some other as the center of everything. Those two saw God as the center—I’m with them on that.

There is mystery beyond our convenient placeholders.

There is mystery beyond our convenient placeholders.

Of course, “de-centering” is not the way we could describe many of the prayers we pray. We send up endless lists to some imagined order-taking god, with caveats about when (“Now works for me. How about now?”) and where and how. And especially how much. But listen to Westphal:

…prayer is a deep, quite possibly the deepest decentering of the self, deep enough to begin dismantling or, if you like, deconstructing that burning preoccupation with myself. (Prayer as the Posture of the Decentered Self, 18)

Again and again I find myself at the center of all existence. Maybe you do too. We’re sorta set up for that, given eyes and ears that operate from a central pivot, constantly swiveling about to take in all we possibly can.

It seems natural enough to think everything revolves around us.

The truth is we need help to back away from this “burning preoccupation.”

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Dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston

I completely disagree. Are we still friends?

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How a small group helps you listen better

Say you are in a small group. Maybe you are part of a knitting guild. Maybe a book club. Maybe you meet every two weeks to study ancient texts together.

Your group comes together for some specific purpose, but along the way you make friends with these people. Sometimes these people agree with your opinion. Sometimes they disagree. But you listen to them anyway—even when you disagree. They listen/you listen because of friendship.

Tell me: how do you see it?

Tell me: how do you see it?

A few days back I wrote about a group we are part of where membership is shrinking. The take-away was that it only takes one or two people to have a conversation that is stimulating and even eye-opening, and possibly life-changing (if only incrementally). This has to do with the mechanism of hearing opinions and insights that are different from mine and stopping to consider them—because of friendship. Hearing from others is a beginning step away from the echo chambers we increasingly build for ourselves with media that says only what we want to hear.

Making friends who think and believe differently seems like a good idea. And engaging them in conversation about stuff that matters—that seems like a really good idea.

I wish we had a will to do more of that.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

How to step into a conversation. And when to step out.

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Can presence and distance live in peace?

The philosopher, the writer, the journalist—and many others—work at cultivating distance in relationship even as they stand in the present.

Why do that?

The work of analysis, of illustrating via story and reportage all require distance for the facts to sort themselves. Just like the passage of time has a way of revealing what was important ten, twenty and two hundred years ago. Just like the artist learns to imagine a two-dimensional plane to begin to make marks with/on their media.

Distance starts to open a way forward by helping us see differently. Presence demands attention—that’s the human piece of empathy and mercy. Sometimes we need to slip from present to distant and back again. All the while avoiding absence.

Overlook-2-03172015

My conversation with the hospice chaplain reminded me of the help a bit of distance brings to sufferers and those in grief. The person slightly distant brings a perspective the sufferer may need to hear, though that perspective may not be immediately welcome. Best if that slightly distant perspective comes wrapped in empathy and mercy.

But even at work we can cultivate a bit of distance for the sake of clarity. When the boss pontificates it doesn’t hurt to ask why she does so and what rhetorical goals her sermon serves.

And even at home we can mingle distance and presence: staying present with family (versus attaching to whatever screen or podcast holds our attention) is the first order of business. But we bring perspective when we step back.

We need presence and distance to move forward.

Absence rarely aids progress.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Mary Oliver: “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?”

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Just so.

Branch-2-03042015

…for always the new self swimming around in the old world feels itself uniquely verbal. And that is just the point: how the world, moist and bountiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?”

–Mary Oliver, Long Life (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004)

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Kotter: Why do leaders fail at transmitting vision?

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“a gallon of information…dumped in a river of routine communication”

John Kotter’s Leading Change (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996) does an excellent job explaining the difficulty of vision moving through an organization. A guiding coalition may take hundreds of hours to study a situation and come to conclusions. But as they do this intellectual work, they are also doing the emotional work of “letting go of the status quo, letting go of further options, coming to grips with the sacrifices, coming to trust others….” (88)

This is all part of the process and when that guiding coalition finishes and forms their conclusion they naturally feel their work is done.

Their work is not done.

That’s because nobody outside the coalition has done any of this difficult intellectual and emotional rejiggering. In fact, most will be blindsided because they’ve been hard at the tasks they always do. They don’t have a clue what is coming.

This is typically the point of failure. Someone from the coalition gives a speech or authors an article in the company newsletter. Or maybe a series of three articles. Here’s Kotter, very bluntly:

So a gallon of information is dumped into a river of routine communication, where it is quickly diluted, lost, and forgotten.

John P. Kotter, Leading Change (89)

John P. Kotter, Leading Change (89)

Compacting and condensing and boiling down the intellectual and emotional journey is essential before anyone else can or will sink their teeth into the vision. But who budgets time or money for that piece of the process?

Those who understand vision needs legs and motivation to run through an organization.

Transmitting vision must be an intentional invitation.

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Image credit: John Kotter, Leading Change (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996)

Policy is the Gulag of Good Ideas

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Good Ideas Sour and Stink When Enshrined as Law

 

“We’ll do it this way going forward.”

 

If you could do a quick, very honest poll of employees listening to their boss say those words, how many would silently be saying, “No. We won’t do it that way.”

  • 50 percent?
  • 99 percent?
  • 100 percent?
HM Prison Geelong

HM Prison Geelong

It is possible the very nature of the hierarchical or “push” corporation lends itself to sapping motivation from good ideas. When ideas come from above as pre-packaged laws-of-this-workplace, a piece of humanity goes dormant in the otherwise engaged employee. Enough of those pre-packaged laws-of-this-workplace and work becomes full of half-functioning automatons.

A room full of automatons working only for the weekend or the money or to keep a job or to avoid the boss’s wrath may have succeeded 50 years ago, or even 25 years ago. But  smart corporations and organizations will study how to turn their hired automatons into full-fledged, interactive humans while at work, not just after work.

Inevitably, that involves hearing from employees. It must be about hearing from more than the boss or those favored few. And know this: engaged people talk and discuss. That is the way of owning a process. Automatons cannot own a process. But engaged people can own a process, no matter where they fit in the organization.

Once upon a time, the lovely Mrs. Kirkistan and I spent a few years at a volunteer organization that had a compelling mission. But that mission was hindered by a hierarchical leadership approach that treated volunteers as cogs in an unyielding machine. There was no room to engage, revise, add-to or direct from within the roles we played. Only a few key leadership voices could do that. We eventually walked, as did other talented people in a variety of roles.

Coming generations of working stiffs will expect their voices to be heard. Or they will walk.

We can all grow in listening for engaged voices with solid ideas.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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