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Posts Tagged ‘listening’

I am interested in depth.

I was talking to a friend who was sad because she had wanted to spend all day with a close friend of hers, and then that friend booked herself so they’d only have a few hours instead. My friend was sad because this would mean they wouldn’t have a chance to go deep. “We’ll only just have gotten warmed up, and then she’ll have to go,” she said.

I had this conversation as I was planning my LA trip, and as a result I didn’t make as many social plans as I might otherwise have done. I wanted to allow time to relax, get comfortable, and potentially go deep. What I found bore this strategy out: the longer I spent with someone, the deeper we were able to go.

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One reason I like Rainforest is because it encourages depth.

Perhaps this is particularly true of people who you don’t get to see in person all the time, but I found the first couple of hours was usually spent with general catching up, some small talk, and just kind of remembering what it was like to be together. Then the conversation would gradually deepen, circle around, come back again, deepen some more, repeat a few times. The longer the amount of time, the deeper we could go.

What do I mean by deep here? Just by seeing each other in the first place, my friends and I were strengthening our connection to each other. But depth is when you move beyond small talk, beyond what you’d say to more or less anybody. Depth is when there are no more pat answers. Depth is where surprises happen, and reveals. Depth is when we say things that are scary. Depth is when we really learn who the other person is, beyond their basic preferences and interests and obvious personality traits.

Depth is the experience of sharing what it is to be human, and what it is to be this specific human right now.

Just as depth takes a bunch of time to foster in any given interaction, it also takes time to develop in any given friendship. Perhaps if you meet someone in a particularly intense circumstance (Clarion, anybody?), you can move into depth more quickly than normal. But more often you’re acting on a mere feeling that depth might be possible here if you invest enough of yourself. Sometimes that feeling pays off, and sometimes it never does. To find out, you have to take time.

The people with whom I am closest all have this quality of depth. I never grow tired of hearing about their lives and what they’re thinking and feeling. When I’m in their presence, I feel something inside of me relax. Thank goodness we can be real together, I’m thinking. Thank goodness I don’t have to put on an act to make them comfortable.

Thank goodness we can love each other for who we are.

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In the past, I have had people take advice I didn’t mean to give from this blog.

I rarely mean to give advice. When I sit down to write, I’m not thinking, “Now then, let me tell people how I think they should do x or how they should feel about y.” I’m generally talking about my own experiences, knowing very well that people are different and their concerns are different and what works and doesn’t work for me might have nothing much to do with you. I talk about things I find interesting and things I have learned, but they are all very much colored by me being me.

But advice, well, advice can be tricky. I was reminded of this fact by this post about advice, which contains many examples of two pieces of directly conflicting advice, both of which can be valid. It’s really illuminating to read so many examples back to back. I’ll give you just one here to give you a taste:

“You need to be more conscious of how your actions in social situations can make other people uncomfortable and violate their boundaries” versus “You need to overcome your social phobia by realizing that most interactions go well and that probably talking to people won’t always make them hate you and cause you to be ostracized forever.”

I know people for whom the first piece of advice is probably best, and people for whom the second piece of advice is probably best. I even know people who might benefit from both pieces of advice. So yes, advice is not simple.

Ultimately I think good advice depends a lot on context. Generalized advice is all well and good, but nothing can replace the insights of a therapist or a close friend or family member who knows the specifics about who you are and what your situation is. (This person must also be wise and experienced enough to have helpful insights.) Often situations have many factors at play, so one piece of generalized advice can easily miss a lot of nuance.

In learning how to better set boundaries, for example, I found it very useful to have people I call “sanity checkers:” people who know me and my background and who are very skilled at setting boundaries themselves, who I can get feedback from, run things by, or get help with wordings. I find I need their help less and less as I get more experience, but even so, it’s nice to know I can ask for their expertise if I need it. And sometimes I still definitely do!

The other interesting thing about advice is that you can’t force people to take it. It doesn’t matter if you do know them and their situation, if what’s going on seems really incredibly obvious to you, or how painful it is to watch them suffer. People do things on their own timeline. They’re ready when they’re ready, especially when it comes to accepting hard truths and making difficult changes. Sometimes they’re never ready.

Which means I always feel fairly wary of giving personalized advice. You have to find a way to do it that is gentle enough that it doesn’t alienate the two of you when they probably don’t take the advice. And I try not to give advice unless it’s actually been asked for. There are exceptions to this (oh, nuance!), and we all slip up at this from time to time, of course. Some people feel they need to give advice to be useful, which isn’t really true but can certainly feel true. And sometimes it can be really hard to sit and witness the suffering of someone who is simply stuck and has been for months or even years. That tends to be when I’m most likely to slip up.

Advice over milkshakes!

Advice over milkshakes!

In conclusion:

Generalized advice: can be helpful, but must be considered in context

Personalized advice: can be helpful, but must find people who are insightful and get you

Giving advice: can be helpful, but usually only if asked to give it and if not too attached to the outcome

So yes, these are my thoughts (but not advice!) about advice.

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On a great date, the conversation will flow, there will be a bunch of questions you want to ask and a bunch of topics you want to pursue, and it will end with a continued sense of fascination about the person with whom you’ve been spending time.

Most dates aren’t great dates.

But before we start talking about my own personal date conversation dislikes, let me suggest that we all try our best not to take this post too seriously. Because you know, life is short and we’ve all made a few of the conversational blunders I’m about to point out. ME TOO. That doesn’t mean they aren’t funny or worth talking about. That also doesn’t mean you fail at dating or socializing.

It simply means, hey, life is ridiculous sometimes. We screw up sometimes. Things that don’t work for me might work swimmingly for you. Etc., etc.

So with that out of the way, let’s talk about my least favorite conversational gambit of all time: the What Do You Like to Do in Your Spare Time question.

Sometimes this question can masquerade as “What are your hobbies?” Both questions are about equally wretched and boring. In fact, I hate this question so much that at this point I will endeavor to avoid having to answer it. Unfortunately, most people who have strayed so far off a good conversational path will inevitably HOLD THEIR GROUND, thereby consigning us both to an asinine few minutes. The only consolation, and it is a tiny one, is that I can then ask them the same bad question to see if they actually have a good answer to it. For science. (But they don’t. They never do. At least not so far.)

Okay, stop and take a deep breath if you often ask this question. I’ve asked it too. We are okay. Really. Just, you know, maybe think about it before you ask it next time.

Here’s why I think it’s such a bad question: because the response it encourages is merely a bland list of activities. Basically this question sucks for the same reason that my blog sometimes sucks, because it doesn’t give you nice, juicy concrete details. It doesn’t lead to stories. It doesn’t lead to connection. It leads to boring boring boring. (Or if you’re talking to me, it leads to me going completely blank and giving you a piteous look.)

Photo Credit: jwordsmith via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: jwordsmith via Compfight cc

A better conversational tactic is to talk about what the two of you have been doing recently, which will usually automatically give rise to talk about activities and subjects that interest both of you, but in such a way as to encourage anecdotes and details and maybe even an actual discussion. (I know, I know, I set my sights high.) Granted, if all you’ve been doing lately is working, this won’t be as effective, but here, have a nice reason to strive for a little bit of balance in life. You’re welcome. (Or, barring that, I suppose you could talk about what you want to be doing or what you’re going to do.)

Here are some other quality conversational blunders I love to hate:

  • “I know you don’t drink alcohol, so let me talk for a lengthy period of time about alcohol.” No. Just don’t do it. In a group, I will deal with it. One-on-one, this is totally unnecessary. If you have a huge passion for wine, or Scotch, or whatever, I accept that maybe someday I’ll have to listen to you talk a lot about it, just as you’ll have to listen to me blather about musical theater. But that time is not the first date. Or the second. Or probably even the third. Basically it just shows you’re not paying attention to what your companion finds interesting. (If, on the other hand, it hasn’t come up that I don’t drink, you’re totally off the hook. Expecting your date to be a mind-reader is not cool.)
  • Personal questions about money. I understand my date might want to be reassured that I’m solvent and responsible and not about to flee the country or file for bankruptcy, but beyond that, waiting a couple dates before prying into all the details of my financial situation is a good call. I know some people think this is totally fine behavior, which is their prerogative, but I’d never to do it on the first couple of dates myself.
  • “Here’s what you should do about x situation that you didn’t ask for advice about.” Ugh. This is often kind of annoying anyway because people usually want a different response (and that’s if they’re actively talking about their problems in the first place, which is rarely the case in early dating, when you’re merely trying to get to know one another). But on the first couple of dates, it’s particularly bad because the other person probably doesn’t even know enough details or information to actually be giving relevant advice. But then when I stand my ground and then try to change the subject, they won’t always let it go. Fun times.
  • Saying something mean-spirited/putting the other person down. Here’s the thing. Maybe the person was nervous. Maybe the person was making a joke (granted, a mean-spirited joke). But ultimately I don’t care why it happened. If someone says something kind of mean during one of your first times together, odds are it’s going to happen again. And again. And again. This isn’t just a red flag, it’s a get-the-hell-out-NOW flashing neon sign of doom.

(Note: I’ve gotten some push-back in the past when I’ve talked about this particular neon sign, and I think it might be because people are worried their teasing will be interpreted as mean or negging or whatever. But if it is interpreted that way, then that means the two of you are not compatible, end of story. Your senses of humor simply do not mesh. Or else it means you are crossing the boundary between teasing and being disrespectful and aren’t aware of it. But nobody owes you a lesson in that; it’s something you’ll have to work out for yourself. Or maybe people are worried that I am too sensitive. Don’t be. My main failure at reading people is sugarcoating what I know and being too accommodating, and I’m fine with being willing to stand up for myself.)

In conclusion, most dates aren’t amazing out-of-this-world I-can’t-stop-talking-about-it dates. If they were, dating would be a simple and short process (and for the people for whom it is, hey, more power to you!) But dates are certainly a lot more pleasant when both people are kind and polite and make an effort to be in tune with one another. On that I suspect we can all agree.

PS: If you would like to share your least favorite conversational gambit of all time, I’d love to hear it!

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I’ve written this blog post so many times in my head, and every time I end up crushing it into a metaphorical paper ball and throwing it in the trash. Because every one of them ends up sounding as if I think I know what it’s like.

And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that I DON’T KNOW.

I don’t know what it’s like to be the target of racial slurs.

I don’t know what it’s like to worry that my child might be killed because of the color of his skin.

I don’t know what it’s like to be pulled over because of what I look like instead of how I was driving.

I don’t know what it’s like to be discriminated against not just because I’m a woman, but also because of my race and class.

I don’t know what it’s like, as a person of color, to try to break into a publishing industry that is hugely white and for the most part doesn’t see the problem with that.

I don’t know what it’s like to see someone who looks like me be the first one to die in movie after movie.

I don’t know what it’s like to be demonized for my skin color.

I don’t know what it’s like to know I’m three times more likely to be killed by police.

I don’t know what it’s like to be frightened enough to seriously look into emigrating from the United States.

I don’t know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a never-ending stream of racially related micro-aggressions, day after day after day.

I don’t know what it’s like to have one of the big moments of my career marked with a stereotypical joke about my race.

I don’t know what it’s like to have people assume I’m violent or aggressive or stupid before I take a single action or say a single word.

I don’t know what it’s like to receive a longer or harsher sentence than a white person would have received for the exact same crime.

I don’t know what it’s like to see the KKK in action and to know its members would be totally behind a world in which I was merely property. Or dead, even though I’ve never done anything to them.

I don’t know what it’s like to have no choice about dealing with the problem of racism in the United States.

I don’t know what it’s like to live in a country with a history of seeing my ancestors as animals, of counting my ancestors as each only three-fifths of a white person, of thinking the slavery of my ancestors was morally okay, of lynchings and segregation and dehumanization and murders of those of different racial backgrounds.

I don’t know what it’s like. All this and so much more.

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What do I know?

I know that racism is an easy thing for a white person like me to ignore. I know I can choose to remain ignorant without huge consequences. I know I can avoid the discomfort of looking at my own privilege. I know I can pay lip service to being a decent human being by saying race is invisible to me. I know I get to be outraged and not simultaneously deeply afraid. I know I don’t have to be courageous, that I can say nothing and probably no one will be upset with me and maybe no one will even notice and it’s not like my life is made personally unbearable if the systemic racism in our country isn’t addressed.

But I choose NOT to ignore the realities of racism in our country and in our world. I choose to practice my empathy. I try to educate myself instead of placing the burden of my education on others. I donate to the #weneeddiversebooks campaign, and I implement my own reading project to increase the diversity I’m exposed to in the books I read. I try not to say anything too ignorant or hurtful, and I prepare for the possibility of me screwing up, so maybe when that time comes I’ll have the grace to apologize well and make the amends I can. I try to be a safe and supportive person. I listen. I listen some more. I listen even when I don’t understand. I listen as much as possible because I know I don’t know, and because listening is a way of legitimizing voices that have gone too long unheard. And this is, quite frankly, not very much. But it is a beginning.

I want to be very clear about my thoughts. I don’t have to know what it’s like living without white privilege to know racism is a big problem in this country. I am not okay with this status quo. I support change with all my heart, and I believe that change is possible. I believe we as a nation can be better than this. The path to change will continue to be long and difficult, but it is a path I believe in and support.

I hope I will see you there on that path with me.

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Theodora Goss’s latest post cracked my head open, and thoughts have been pouring out ever since. There are at least three essays I could write in response to it.

This is one of them. It is about secrets.

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Photo Credit: Skley via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Skley via Compfight cc

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I have forged myself into a receptacle for keeping secrets. I have been a reliable secret keeper for twenty-five years. I know things I wish no one would ever need to know.

People tell me their secrets. Mostly men, because I’ve made an inadvertent lifelong study of being the type of woman men confide in. I’ve only realized this recently, and I’m not quite sure what, if anything, I am going to do about it. Is it so bad to be a secret keeper for other people?

I think it actually might be, at least in certain circumstances, because after a while, I disappear in the sea of secrets. The narratives unfold, and I allow them so much space that eventually I compress into hardly anything at all. Being a secret keeper can be hazardous to your health. It takes a master to prevent their encroachment and hold them where they belong.

Can I be a master? Perhaps.

Do I want to be? This is an entirely different question. I think I do, but only when my own secrets get to be a part of the sea.

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There are two types of people: those who, at the slightest hint of anything difficult in conversation, become distinctly and obviously uncomfortable, and those who aren’t afraid of talking about the hard stuff.

There are two types of people: those who know how to listen, and those who have never trained themselves to hold space for another person.

The ideal secret keeper doesn’t blink an eye at the hard stuff, and she holds space without a trace of judgment. The secret teller can then unburden himself in safety.

There is an art to creating trust.

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I have plenty of secrets. I don’t think about them all of the time, even most of the time, but when I do, I feel like they might choke me.

I turned keeping secrets into a modus operandi back in middle school, and I never looked back. My survival, I was convinced, depended on my ability to keep all these secrets that no one would understand. The idea of gossip about me was unimaginably horrible.

So I simply never told anybody anything.

It worked, too. And to this day I don’t think I made the wrong choice.

Then again, I still sometimes say very little indeed. So of course I agree with my past self. Of course.

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I have secrets I might be literally unable to talk about. I do not have the words. I am a writer without words, which as you might imagine, can be disconcerting. I might have to create a whole new language in order to express these secrets accurately.

I do not have the words because that’s what happens when something is traumatic enough. The trauma leaches words of meaning, and it blanches them bone white so they are hard to distinguish.

You read about avoidance of talking about trauma, and you think, oh, that must be like when you avoid cleaning your bathroom. But it is nothing like avoiding cleaning the bathroom. It is more like, your bathroom lacks the coherence and structural integrity to be able to clean. But it’s still sitting there needing to be cleaned all the same. So then you have to rebuild the entire freaking bathroom just so you can clean it.

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Secrets are bad for your health. This seems relevant to the current discussion. It is why one bothers to go to all the trouble of rebuilding the bathroom. Which, any way you slice it, is a huge pain in the ass.

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Right now this blog post is a secret. But tomorrow morning it will go out into the world, and the act of you reading it will transform it into something else.

Now that you have reached the end, it is no longer a secret. It is something we know together.

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I ran across an excellent article on an economics blog I follow called “Amateurs versus Professionals.” It very much applies to what I’ve observed about writing, and I imagine it holds true for many other pursuits and professions as well. I thought it would be fun to expand on some of the points made. (Yes, this is totally what I do for fun. Welcome to my mind.)

After reading this list, it occurs to me that much of the difference between an amateur and a professional is a state of mind. This means that even during the earliest stages of a career, we can aspire to professionalism. And I believe this state of mind will make it much likely to eventually find success.

Here are some points I find particularly relevant:

Execution: Amateurs don’t see their work through. They don’t finish. They don’t find the time, or they get distracted by other shiny ideas, or they allow themselves to be held back by their own fears. To a professional, execution is paramount: “Sure, they occasionally abandon a project when they see further effort is fruitless, but the mark of a pro is someone who begins and ends.”

Image: Amateurs are concerned with image, whereas professionals are concerned with their work.

It can be fun to be involved in the industry, to network and name drop and know “important” people. And knowing writers definitely livens up my social life. But it doesn’t matter who you know if you’re not doing the work. It doesn’t matter how connected you are if you are not finishing any of your projects. The work trumps everything else. And professionals know this in their bones.

Confidence: This one is interesting, because if there is any profession in which professionals are insecure, it’s writing. But professionals tend to express it differently. They are less likely to express their insecurity publicly on the internet. They are less likely to make extreme self-effacing remarks in public. They are more likely to be matter-of-fact about their insecurities if they happen to come up. And they are more likely to deal with their insecurities with their close friends instead of with whoever happens to be around.

A writer must have the confidence to envision entire new worlds in her mind. Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

A writer must have the confidence to envision entire new worlds in her mind. Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

 

Empathy: Professionals recognize we all have to pay dues, we all have to navigate a series of “breaks,” and we all have our own set of problems.

I wince whenever I hear one writer talk about a professional difficulty, only to have another, usually less experienced writer say, “Oh, I wish I had your problems.” NO. Just NO. First off, problem comparing is not helpful. Second of all, that other writer just passed up a golden learning opportunity. Who knows when this “coveted” problem might be your own? Third, the writer sharing the problem is going to notice the lack of empathy offered and the relationship might be weakened as a result.

Talking/Listening: Amateurs interrupt; professionals listen. Amateurs tend to go on and on with a minimum of prompting. They talk for twenty minutes straight about their current project and then never ask about yours. They inadvertently reveal ignorance because they are so busy filling the space with themselves.

One of my favorite things to do in a professional setting is find someone whose knowledge and opinions I respect and get them talking. And then I sit there asking questions and soaking up everything they say like a super-absorbent sponge. The amount of information I get from doing this is priceless. I already know what I have to say; I want to learn about what other informed people think.

What do you think are important marks of a professional?

 

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Definition of kindred spirit:

“A bosom friend–an intimate friend, you know–a really kindred spirit to whom I can confide my inmost soul. I’ve dreamed of meeting her all my life.” – Anne to Marilla in Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomerie

Theodora Goss recently wrote about soul mates, and when I read her post, I recognized what she was talking about. Her idea of the soul mate is my idea of the kindred spirit. And when we use either of these phrases, what we’re really talking about is connection.

I really like the idea of practicing being a kindred spirit, both to yourself and to others. Because if you are not a kindred spirit, how can you expect anyone else to be? And being your own best kindred spirit plays right into the idea of loving ourselves, which is incredibly important.

And there are so many different kinds of kindred spirit. One of the things I like about the Anne books is that we get to see Anne discover many different types as she grows up. There is the romantic kind, the kind we’re most likely to think of when we say soul mate. And there is the best friend kind, in whom we are perhaps most likely to confide. But there are many other kinds as well, just as there are many different ways to support and appreciate each other.

Some of them run deep, right through the core of who we are. Others (like Mrs. Josephine Barry in the Anne books) are closer to the surface but still marked by the hallmarks of a kindred spirit: a sense of understanding or kinship, along with a sense of appreciation for who the person is. What this sense of understanding revolves around and how widespread it is will vary from relationship to relationship.

It interests me that with many people, we never have the opportunity to share our entire souls, or even a large portion of them. But we often have the opportunity to share a piece of our soul, to shine a ray of ourselves or open one of a hallway of doors. Even if it’s a very little door, its opening still has meaning as it creates its feeling of connection.

I wonder if this is why we sometimes think it’s harder to make friends as adults. With old friends that you’ve known since childhood, we share the understanding created through a shared past. When we make friends in school, it is often also through a shared context and experience (taking place during a period of transformation, oftentimes), which can persist for the rest of our lives. When we’re adults, we have to work harder to find that shared understanding, but it is often still there if we decide to go looking for it.

Of course, now I know many kindred spirits with whom I’ve bonded because of writing. A shared passion can be a powerful magnet. Shared passions or interests, shared past experiences, shared personality traits, sometimes even shared social groups can be enough to light the first spark. I even have my blogging kindred spirits: Rahul Kanakia and Theodora Goss. I rarely get to speak with them in person, but I often talk about their posts here, sharing my own thoughts on their ideas.

One thing that most of my kindred spirits have in common is that they LISTEN. Some of them are better at it than others, but at least some listening on both sides is key. That is the only way to create the necessary understanding. It is the only way to actually get to know someone, and we can only truly appreciate someone if we know at least some part of them. Similarly, we can only be a kindred spirit to ourselves if we learn to listen to ourselves and pay attention to what we hear.

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.” -Anne in Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomerie

What does being a kindred spirit mean to you?

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