Posts Tagged ‘communication’

One of my most popular posts is one I wrote back in September of 2012, entitled “Nice vs. Kind.” And this week I received a note about it from a person I recently met, so I thought it would be interesting to provide an update to you all.

In the post, I talked about the distinction I perceived between being nice and being kind, and I talked about how, while I was making the shift, it could sometimes be difficult for me to be kind at all, because then I’d just fall right back into being nice instead, which was something I was trying to change.

What I neglected to say was it was also difficult to be kind because I was so angry from the decades of not getting most of my needs met and receiving repeated messages of how unimportant I was. In other words, I had to learn to be kind to myself before being able to easily be kind to other people too.

Fast forward almost three years, and it has definitely become easier for me. I’ve created a kind of checklist for dealing with situations that feel fraught and involve setting boundaries. (Because honestly, the rest of the time, it’s not very hard for me to be kind.) This thought process has become mostly habitual at this point.

Photo Credit: a.drian via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: a.drian via Compfight cc

Step 1: Figure out what I need/want.

If I really don’t care, then I get to be laid back, which is lovely.

If I don’t know, then I usually need some time. I’ve gotten better at simply saying I don’t know and getting the time I need to figure things out. Sometimes, when I’m really confused or emotional, I also need to talk things over with one or more friends to understand what it is I really need.

Step 2: Be clear and firm.

Step 3: Be kind.

Steps 2 and 3 are in that order for a reason. They reflect my priority, which is to be clear and firm FIRST, and kind SECOND. This helps prevent me from accidentally falling into niceness and wishy-washy-ness. It also reminds me not to soften or change what I need in order to be nicer, which is pretty much always an idea that crosses my mind at some point. (The Step 1 checking in with friends part is pretty helpful for this too, as it helps me not be too nice to begin with and builds in some accountability.)

I should note that if for some reason Step 3 is not possible, that doesn’t give an automatic pass to being UNkind. In general it is possible to be clear and firm without decimating someone in the process. To me, the main drawback of not being able to engage with Step 3 is it can feel a bit…robotic, but if that’s what necessary to express myself clearly and firmly, well, it’s not so bad. And luckily it doesn’t come up very often.

I should also note that following these steps doesn’t instantly solve all my interpersonal problems. The fact is, if someone wants something and I decide I don’t want to give that thing, then sometimes no amount of clarity or firmness or kindness is going to change the fact that the person isn’t going to be happy.

Still, each of these qualities serves its purpose. I practice clarity so I can get my actual point across with, I hope, fewer misunderstandings. I practice firmness so I’m less likely to have to revisit the same conversation and issue repeatedly or have someone try to change my mind. And the kindness? I believe it is ultimately helpful to the other person, and also, it’s simply the way I want to be.

“Be firm but kind, Amy.” This is the advice that runs through my head now. It isn’t foolproof, but it helps me remember how I want to be.

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Yes, I know “nobody” talks on the phone anymore. Somewhere along the way it became trendy to have phones that work poorly as phones, and we really only need to communicate in text-based ways anyway, and I’m a writer so this is all to my benefit. But haven’t we all been part of a frustrating text-based communication string that takes forever and would have taken three or less minutes to clear up over the phone? Haven’t we?

The truth is, I was never one of the people who hated talking on the phone. Sure, given the choice, I’ve always preferred face-to-face, but back in the day the phone was a useful tool for staying in touch, and I used it that way. I wasn’t one of those people whose ear was permanently glued to my receiver, but I did spend some non-business-related time on the phone. Until everyone stopped using the phone, and the mere idea began to feel…weird.

Photo Credit: alexkerhead via Compfight cc

Old School! Photo Credit: alexkerhead via Compfight cc

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of communications that are much more convenient and effective via email or text or choose-your-text-based-method-of-choice. And I don’t want to go back to the days when there were fewer options (those options being telephone, snail mail, or knocking on my friend’s door and asking if they could play).

But I realized recently that just like with snail mail, for me telephone calls have gained a certain kind of cachet because they happen more rarely. Meaning, they’re more likely to feel SPECIAL.

When I finished my novel a couple of weeks ago, I was having a great time texting and messaging a bunch of friends to celebrate. One friend responded by calling me up, and I have to say, that made my day.

Last month I got a text from a friend that mentioned crying. I instantly called him up. Next best thing to being able to be there in person.

One of my good friends phones me up for a chat every week or so. We’re both busy people, and we can’t always find time to see each other, and even when we do, we’re often going to group events together and such. But finding twenty or thirty minutes to talk is usually doable, and our phone chats allow us to stay up-to-date with the personal details of each other’s lives.

Honestly I like the phone for the same reason I like Skype; talking on the phone doesn’t strip away as many cues as text-only does. With Skype, I still get all (or at least most) of the body language. With phone calls, I miss most of those, but at least I get tone of voice and intonation. I use emoticons and exclamation points and asterisks and capital letters liberally in text to give it some of the same nuance as speaking, but honestly, there’s only so much I can do.

I still don’t call people on the phone a lot myself. There’s so many people who hate talking on the phone that it feels like a potential minefield. So I tend to save it for those moments when it will potentially make a big difference, when a friend is celebrating or struggling, or when I am.

But sometimes I think a phone call is exactly the right thing to do.

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I recently took a couple of online personality tests (the Myers-Briggs and the IPIP-NEO), and my results have changed. I’m now coming out fairly firmly on the extroverted side of things instead of being almost exactly in the middle.

I want to leave aside, for now, the argument that introversion is not a personality trait. I also don’t want to delve deeply into the sometimes ignorant stereotypes and oversimplification that goes along with discussions of introversion and extraversion.

I have not been trying to change into more of an extrovert, but I think me doing so has been a side effect of another change I have been trying to make: namely, to develop a backbone, tone down the people pleasing, and learn to set boundaries.

As it turns out, it is exhausting to be around people when you are a people pleaser. Full stop. It doesn’t matter if you are an introvert or an extrovert. It doesn’t matter if you know how to make conversation or can be a good listener or are a generally pleasant person to be around.

It takes huge amounts of energy to be around people when you aren’t allowed to say no, don’t value your own opinions and feelings and desires, and won’t stand up for yourself. Because the people around you might ask you to do something that you can’t possibly or don’t want to do for them. Or they might (inadvertently or not) treat you without respect. Or they might disagree about how something should happen, and then there will be conflict, which is anathema to the people pleaser. Or they might do something that bothers you but to which you do not feel able to respond.

At some point, in order to protect yourself from this huge expenditure of emotional energy, you might begin to build a wall around yourself. You might find yourself wishing to be alone because being alone is the only time when you can truly relax and be peaceful. You might keep other people at arms’ length to minimize the requests and the conflicts and the fatigue. You might need a lot of time to recharge after socializing.

You might appear to be an introvert.

But as it turns out, with proper implementation of boundaries, there are possibilities! You can say no. You can set limits on the behavior you’re willing to accept. You can stand up for your opinions. You can have opinions in the first place. You can object. You can have emotions. You can leave if you’re not having a good time.

You can be a better friend because you no longer need to demand perfection from yourself or from other people. You don’t need perfection when you’re allowed to communicate and take care of yourself.

And at some point, being around people just doesn’t take up as much energy as it used to.


Where’s Amy? Photo by Yvette Ono, photographer extraordinaire.

Let me be clear. I don’t think all or even most introverts are people pleasers, and that this is why they are introverts. I put no value judgment on how much time people like to spend with other people or how much alone time people want. But I do think that being a people pleaser can mask or change parts of the personality. In my own case, being a people pleaser encouraged me to become more introverted. But as I have been focusing on becoming less of a people pleaser, I’ve also been changing my social behavior and my attitude towards it.

I like seeing markers of progress, even unexpected ones. And I like feeling more fully myself.

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Hello again! Long time no see.

I spent most of my month’s absence in France, eating delectable cuisine, soaking up sun, exposing myself to different experiences, and reading many, many books. And not once during my three and a half week trip did I check my email or log onto Facebook or read any blogs. (I did look up some travel information and Wikipedia pages on the internet, and that was about it.)

I hadn’t unplugged myself so thoroughly for quite some time, and I found quite a lot of value in it. Space to just be. Time to think about whatever I wanted to think about. Permission to be in my own present moment, whatever that happened to look like. And perhaps most refreshing, a break from most external stress.

Sometimes that’s what we want from vacations: a break from our regular lives and some of our ongoing problems, giving us a chance to recharge. Sometimes this leads to personal epiphanies, and sometimes it leads to a chance to rest. Both are valuable.

A relaxed Amy in Carcassonne.

A relaxed Amy in Carcassonne.

Taking a break from social media also reminded me afresh how much I appreciate my friends and colleagues. While I didn’t find myself overly tempted to log in, I thought about my friends a fair amount. I wondered how they were doing, and I wished I could send them little texts telling them how fabulous they are. I’m so grateful for the technology that allows me to stay connected with the people who mean so much to me.

That’s probably my greatest takeaway from my time without internet: technology is wondrous, but I’m allowed to use it on my own terms. Writers hear so often about they have to be on this social media site, or that new shiny one, or write blog posts every day, or whatever the latest trend is. But the truth is that in order to continue to do any of those things, we have to find the value in what we’re doing. We have to recognize the amazing feeling of being able to stay close to people who we can’t see face-to-face all the time. We need to appreciate the ability to connect in different ways with our readers and find the way(s) that work best for us.

I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. When we hate a thing or secretly resent it, we aren’t going to be doing our best work. A grudging connection has a different quality to it than one that is celebrated.

When I look behind all the best writer social media strategies, I see people who care. They care about their audiences. They care about providing something meaningful, whether that be information or entertainment or connection. Genuine caring is hard to fake. So our job, then, is to find a way to use social media that allows us to project our caring outwards, while still being able to take care of ourselves.

So how do I feel after my social media time off? Well, right now I’m jet lagged, and I have a head cold, so I’m not exactly feeling refreshed. But I’m so proud of myself for taking the break I needed.

And guess what? Nothing terrible happened. The blog continues. My friends and colleagues are still here. No crises occurred that needed my personal attention. The world doesn’t actually require my constant attention to keep turning.

Sometimes a reminder of that can be a very good thing.

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Shortly after I published Friendship Can Be Like Dating, I received a text from a long-distance friend of mine. How did internet friendships play into my theories, he wanted to know. He had a point. After all, he and I are good friends and we definitely don’t see each other once a week. If we see each once a year, it’s time to break out the party hats. And thus, an idea for another blog post was born.

Do I think it’s possible to be close friends with people who don’t live locally? Definitely. Do I think it’s possible to be close friends with people whom I’ve met on the internet? Yes, if certain things happen.

Basically, in order to be close friends, you’ve got to find some way to have both time and intimacy with one another. Without these, it’s hard for a relationship to grow beyond a pleasant acquaintanceship. Luckily for us, both of these things are possible using technology, which means we’re no longer as limited by geography in developing friendships.

Photo by Al Bogdan (another long distance friend).

Photo by Al Bogdan (another long distance friend)

I still think the Once a Week theory holds true in the online realm. The friends we interact with on a weekly basis feel like an active part of our lives. The friends we interact with on a monthly basis still feel present. Less than that, and we become less aware of and engaged with each other. (That’s not to say you can’t still be friends; it simply means you won’t be as immediately close and involved.)

But interactions look different when we live far apart. A few of my friends and I are what I call “text friends” because we communicate primarily via text. We might have an entire conversation over text, or we might just send a quick “You are my favorite brand of awesomesauce” kind of text. But what we’re doing whenever we send one is saying, “Hey, I’m thinking about you, I love you, and I value our friendship.” I have other friends who are “Twitter friends” because we mostly chat on Twitter. Still others are e-mail friends or Facebook/Facebook message friends or Skype friends. Time spent interacting is important, but interacting at all also plays a larger role in these LDFs (long distance friendships).

One of the great things about LDFs is that it is often easier to get one-on-one time. Although there are group-focused ways to communicate, many of the most common methods require forming a personal one-on-one relationship. Whether I’m sending texts to my friends in Ohio and Washington or Skyping my friend in Boston, we’re focusing on each other.

Some of the communication techniques are also great for balancing friendships to be more two-sided. In both e-mail and text, for example, both people will get a chance to speak, talk about their lives and viewpoints, and be heard. And because there’s an inherent delay built into the communication, it’s a lot harder to be interrupted in a way that’s truly disruptive.

I do find that my LDFs are greatly enhanced by any amount of face-to-face time. Often, in fact, they begin with face-to-face time and grow into something closer over the internet. Many of my convention writer friendships have started like this. In person time can be hard (and expensive) to arrange, but when it works out it’s worth its weight in gold.

What do you think? Do you have close LDFs? How do you maintain these friendships?

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Occasionally I read an article that makes me really excited because it puts an idea or concept so elegantly into words that even if I’ve thought about the topic many times before, I feel like I’ve made a brand new discovery. This happened a couple of days ago when I read Toni Bernhard’s “Why Judging People Makes Us Happy.”

In the article, she explains the distinction between discernment and judgment:

“Discernment means perceiving the way things are, period. Judgment is what we add to discernment when we make a comparison (implicit or explicit) between how things or people are and how we think they ought to be. So, in judgment, there’s an element of dissatisfaction with the way things are and a desire to have things be the way we want them to be.”

When I was younger, I wanted so badly to be nonjudgmental that I often didn’t even allow myself to practice discernment. This had results about as unfortunate as you might expect.

When I started allowing myself to have opinions again, I had no idea what to do with them. Plus I’d been storing them up for quite some time. I felt like I was having judgmental thoughts left and right.

That’s why I like the idea of discernment, the middle ground of seeing the truth of what’s going on around you. Discernment doesn’t require excuse-making (for ourselves or for anybody else). It also doesn’t require us to change anything (or wish anybody would change). What it does allow for is seeing a situation as it is unfolding, for seeing how other people are acting and reacting, and for noticing how what’s going on is affecting our own states, whether that be emotionally or physically.

Discernment gives us data, the data of what actually is as opposed to wishes about what could be. Once we have data, then we can make good decisions for ourselves as to what actions we wish to take and what boundaries we might want to set. Without data, it’s hard to figure out the best way to take care of ourselves.

Let’s say I have a friend, and I notice that every time we’re together, he’s talking in a negative way. At that point I can pay attention to how that’s affecting me: Am I tired after we hang out? Do I feel more negative myself? What emotions am I feeling? Do I brush off the negativity fairly easily or does it linger for the rest of the day?

Maybe it doesn’t affect me very strongly, and I feel compassionate towards my friend because I know he’s having a hard time, in which case I don’t have to do anything at all. Or maybe I’m feeling drained or some other way that I don’t like feeling, and I realize I only want to spend time with my friend when I have a certain amount of energy. Maybe some other stuff is going on in the friendship too, and I decide I need some distance. Or maybe I have a conversation about it with my friend. All of these choices are fine, and they simply depend on the dynamics of that particular friendship.

Discernment and then action move us away from the blame game. Instead of thoughts of “it’s her fault, and why does she have to be that way?”, we move to “what do I need to do to take care of myself?” Taking care of ourselves is something we can act upon, and doing so allows us to have more compassion for those around us.

What do you think? Do you agree with Toni Bernhard’s definition of discernment vs. judgment?

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A sex columnist and a children’s book writer went out on a first date. The conversation flowed, the chemistry was palpable…but ultimately the children’s book writer decided there couldn’t be a second date. He was afraid his dating a sex columnist wouldn’t work for his career. True story.

I thought of this story again when I read Penelope Trunk’s recent post about being honest about who you are at work, in the context of Jason Collins’ coming out story in Sports Illustrated: “The more you hide, the harder it is to find a job that’s right for you.”

I think a lot about the post I wrote about the distinctions of public, personal, and private, especially when I’m talking to people about social media strategy. Because in order to be genuine, in order to connect with people in a deeper way, it’s often necessary to share some of the personal. But figuring out what’s personal and what’s private isn’t easy. And when the career you love and your private life (or alternate for-money career, as is the case for many artists) don’t quite mesh together, it’s hard to reconcile. Hence the children’s book writer making the tough decision not to date a woman in whom he was interested in order to avoid a later dilemma.

Our society is in the middle of a shift involving the availability of information and the level of connectedness between us. I met a book editor last month who complained about how often his writer Facebook friends posted about their politics and how much this bothered him. A decade ago, this wasn’t an issue. It’s so much easier to avoid talking much politics when you’re going out for drinks with your editor than it is to avoid posting about anything remotely politically every day. And even if you talked about politics over those drinks, that conversation has a different contextual place for both you and the editor than it does in a social media feed.

So we find ourselves wrestling with two related problems: having less control overall over the information the world can access about us, and having more of a platform from which to release our own information about ourselves, which means we have to decide what to say (and what not to say). In addition, we have to deal with the implications of all this information floating around (or the potential of it to be released) to our careers, to our loved ones, to our complicated social landscapes, and in terms of ethics.

Our lives as open books. Photo Credit: Honou via Compfight cc

These issues are exacerbated for artists because of our society’s collective difficulty in considering works of art as something apart from their creators. This is when we begin to see parents objecting to a children’s book because its author is not seen to be of sufficient moral character. I also know people who don’t want to go see the Ender’s Game movie this fall not because they object to any of the material they think they’ll see but because they don’t want to give money to Orson Scott Card. Certainly as content consumers we have every right to decide what art we will and won’t consume, but it is interesting watching the trends towards making that decision based on the creator instead of the work. Why is this change taking place? Because more information about these artists is generally available (both from themselves and from outside sources).

As privacy becomes less possible and we have less control over accessible personal information, it will become increasingly important to use our platforms to tell our own stories about ourselves. As Justine Musk says, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else tells it for you.”

It is going to become harder and harder to hide. Sometimes we might be able to make decisions like that children’s book writer and keep things simpler for ourselves. But other times, what’s at stake will be too important. And perhaps it’s at that point when having the platform and ability to communicate in your own way becomes the most important.

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