I have a smart mouth. At least that’s what my mother always told me. I think she’s right. She’s good at telling the truth. But I’ve also worked very hard not to use that smart mouth unless I have to, unless I’m hungry, or unless I’m impatient with the listener.
I noticed two things the other day. First, it’s hard to give feedback when the feedback stings. Second, it’s hard to soften words that are inherently sharp.
I was giving feedback the other day to someone, and I didn’t use my smart mouth. I used the best approach I could. I wanted good for this person, a student of mine. And it was still hard to tell the truth. I’ve been teaching graduate students for eight years and giving critical feedback is still a task.
So the next time you hear hard feedback, take a breath as you take in the words. It may be as hard to say as it is to hear.
I get emails that I signed up for years and years ago. Recently I’ve started to clear the clutter when those messages come.
Some of the messages I still read. Some I appreciate because they remind me of things I’ve forgotten. They bring back before me what used to be important.
The thing is I don’t want all the emails I get. I want to make a different choice. I want to subscribe to some things and unsubscribe to other things.
In email, it’s simple. I click one button and see a pop-up. Maybe there’s an optional survey about why I’ve changed. Maybe not.
It’s harder in conversation. Or in relationships. Or in practice. But the choice is the same.
There are things we choose and things we don’t. Hopefully we have the courage to unsubscribe at the right time.
I quote Seth Godin because his voice is valuable and useful. Please get to know him here.
Friday I read an article about the President-elect’s conversations with world leaders and how they were, consistent with his earlier manner, clear departures from the way diplomatic leaders and ambassadors think he should participate in such conversations.
Mark Landler’s NYT article quoted a former Pakistani ambassador who said that in his country history and details matter most. He said that his country and our country has between them many misread signals. I thought: given the “history of misunderstandings” some conversations need more than a leader’s reactivity.
I don’t know that the President-elect’s conversation was reactive. But I do know that some conversations require patience and consideration. In other words, a considered approach is a more thorough one given the history between your conversation partners. Wisdom seems to be in knowing which conversations require us to dispense with history and tradition and which require pronounced appreciation for them.
In which relationships do I need to pay attention to what’s happened before? I think most relationships call for that. I can’t think of any situation where knowing and respecting what happened before you arrived at the next seminal isn’t important. Then, you choose according to your wisdom.
People only know what’s offensive to you if they’ve taken time to learn about you and preferably from you. The gesture that’s wrong. The label that’s even worse. The joke, the oversight, the sarcasm, or the innuendo.
If a person possesses good intentions and they still hurt you, it may be because they don’t know you. Spend some time revealing yourself.
Give them room to figure you out, to get to know you and not the image that they came with. If they neglect who you present yourself to be, perhaps they won’t be a good friend to you. If they stay, you can say that they already know who they’ll get. If they don’t use the information you gave them, you know what they think about you.
Each of us belongs to larger groups or systems that have some investment in our staying exactly the same as we are now. If we begin to change our old patterns of silence or vagueness or ineffective fighting and blaming, we will inevitably meet with a strong resistance or countermove. This “Change back!” reaction will come both from inside our own selves and from significant others around us. We will see how it is those closest to us who often have the greatest investment in our staying the same, despite whatever criticisms and complaints they may openly voice. We also resist the very changes that we seek. This resistance to change, like the will to change, is a natural and universal aspect of all human systems.
(From Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger pgs. 14-15)
“How we urged them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level.”
Lesson four: Unleash the power of three. Notice how often the speaker relies upon a pattern of three to make her point. This is one of the oldest tricks in the orator’s book. In literature, three is always the largest number. “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” Four examples or 40 become an inventory. Three encompasses the world, creating the illusion we know everything we need to know.
“Our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”
Lesson five: Express your best thought in a short sentence. This is one of the best lines in the speech for a number of reasons. It’s a short sentence, only seven words. Each word is a single syllable. There is parallelism between “they go low” and “we go high,” emphasized by the repetition of the word “go.” The sentence is complex, that is, it begins with a subordinate clause “When they go low,” which describes the opponent’s weak move, followed by a main clause that gives greater weight to the speaker’s values.
“Kids like the little black boy who looked up at my husband, his eyes wide with hope, and he wondered, Is my hair like yours?”
Lesson six: Find a focus. Stick with it. In the story “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson, the winner of the town’s annual lottery gets stoned to death. It is a surprise ending, but there are several mentions of the word ‘stones’ as foreshadowing — never “rocks.”
If I had to choose one word to describe the speech, it would be “kids.” It is repeated five times on a single page. She also uses words like children, sons and daughters, but the informality of kids draws you in: “So, how are the kids?” There is a significant literature in African-American culture about the issue, the problem, the glory of hair. Of “good” hair, and “bad” hair. It feels almost daring for Michelle Obama to refer to this incident, to turn a taboo into a parable and a blessing.
See Roy Peter Clark’s full piece at Poynter here.
See Mrs. Obama’s speech here or below.
…Yet when they are immunized against this deeper emotional honesty, the results have far-reaching, often devastating consequences.
Despite the emergence of the metrosexual and an increase in stay-at-home dads, tough-guy stereotypes die hard. As men continue to fall behind women in college, while outpacing them four to one in the suicide rate, some colleges are waking up to the fact that men may need to be taught to think beyond their own stereotypes.
…By the time many young men do reach college, a deep-seated gender stereotype has taken root that feeds into the stories they have heard about themselves as learners. Better to earn your Man Card than to succeed like a girl, all in the name of constantly having to prove an identity to yourself and others.
Read the full article here at NYT.
It was the final evening of a lovely week at Grammie’s in Charlotte. Grammie makes sure we have the best time possible in her city, a city that has southern hospitality to spare. With such an inviting combination, how can anyone on vacation lose?
Grammie thought it’d be nice if we went to Maggiano’s on our last day before returning to our routines in Chicago. Somewhere between the discovery of the best artichoke dip I had ever had and bites of fried zucchini, my then 4 year old says aloud, “I hate white people.”
Mind you, our server was white as were the dinner guests at the table next to us, and the majority of the dining area. As I recall, my toddler son did not yell the shocking declaration. There was no anger in his voice. Instead, he made his announcement with a sad resolve and perhaps resignation.
The three adults at the table, myself, his father, and his grandmother were stunned to absolute silence. “Where did this come from,” I panicked internally. “Have I given him a reason to hate white people?” “Has he heard hate come from my mouth or seen it from any of my private actions?” I was literally stupefied.
My first external reaction was to vehemently dismiss his words and to protest, to chastise him for making such an “obscene” statement. “No, Bryce!,” my face grimacing. “No! You do not hate white people!” Bryce, a wonderfully expressive child, who heard my reprimand and took in the perplexed faces around him, immediately began to cry.
I then knew that chastising him was the wrong response and frankly not at all consistent with the way I had been parenting him. I’ve always encouraged Bryce to speak the truth, that there is nothing at all wrong with telling the truth about how he feels. Sometimes, I even go so far as to reward Bryce for telling the truth. This time around, because I was embarrassed by Bryce’s truth-telling, I reacted in fear.
The wisest of the bunch, our dear Grammie, naturally found the words to ask the reasonable question, “Why, Bryce? Why do you hate white people?” Bryce responded matter-of-factly, “Because they killed Martin Luther King.” It was interesting to me that he said that “they,” white people, killed Martin Luther King. He saw fit to tie the actions of one white man to all white people…a generalization that causes me to question the role we all play in our complicity when an unjust crime occurs. Grammie’s non-verbal response was priceless. She nodded and said nothing at all.
What was great about the moment was that there was nothing to be said after Bryce’s answer. Bryce had been learning in school about the work of Martin Luther King and about the Civil Rights Movement. He goes to a private school that is intentional about African American history as well as Christian principles. So Bryce learned that an innocent man, who used his life to challenge, oppose, and resist hateful violence, oppression, injustice, and savagery was murdered because of his race, because of his life’s work. Why wouldn’t that cause anyone to feel deeply and to have strong feelings against the perpetrator and his actions?
As Michael said in his post, we knew that Bryce didn’t hate white people. He calls his godparents, Aunt and Uncle, not because we make him, but because it’s a natural term for him…they are family. When Mommy and Daddy cannot pick him up from school, and Uncle David or Auntie Maggie shows up, he runs to them and greets them with a hug. He eats food from their hands, he shares a bed with their son, he is comforted and consoled by their hugs, and their words of love. The same is true for Aunt Sheila and Uncle Alan, and “Bonsai” and Ms. Wendy…Bryce has love for people in our lives who are white.
But the truth of that moment and what made me so proud of Bryce for saying what he said, is the courage it took for him to say how he felt. He knew it could be problematic for him to say aloud how he was feeling, hence his preface, “I don’t want God to be mad at me.” But he pressed through the baseless facade, something that I couldn’t do as an adult of 36 years, and he spoke his truth, which gave us an opportunity to clarify his feelings.
He doesn’t hate white people, he hates whatever it is that causes people to treat other people so dishonorably. I marveled at how he could make such an honest connection at his young age. It reminded me that one of the gifts of a child is to remind us what the truth really is, to face it, and to uncomfortably sit with it…something that frankly seems like the honest thing to do concerning race in this country.
In an opinion piece about not being alone, Johnathan Foer writes about the diminished substitutes we’ve accepted and become with the progression of technology in communication:
Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a kind of interaction possible without the person being near his phone. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. And then texting, which facilitated yet faster, and more mobile, messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.
But then a funny thing happened: we began to prefer the diminished substitutes. It’s easier to make a phone call than to schlep to see someone in person. Leaving a message on someone’s machine is easier than having a phone conversation — you can say what you need to say without a response; hard news is easier to leave; it’s easier to check in without becoming entangled. So we began calling when we knew no one would pick up.
Shooting off an e-mail is easier, still, because one can hide behind the absence of vocal inflection, and of course there’s no chance of accidentally catching someone. And texting is even easier, as the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.
You can find the full piece at the NYT here.
Dag Hammarskjold, a twentieth-century diplomat, advisor, and leader is a companion of mine (through the text). I read selections from his Markings from time to time. They are poems, reflections, meditations, and musings. Last night I read a few. Here’s one from 1952 that seems compelling to me today:
How ridiculous, this need of yours to communicate! Why should it mean so much to you that at least one person has seen the inside of your life? Why should you write down all this, for yourself, to be sure–perhaps, though, for others as well?
I’m in the middle of revising another draft of my manuscript. I’m walking through some thoughtful edits from Maya Rock, and the walk is both enlivening and humbling.
I’ve been sick for more than two weeks thanks to my generous son. I’m still a little congested, in the head especially, and I mean that, at least, in two ways. But Hammarskjold’s words come alongside me as I’m reading my edits, adding and cutting and thinking and shaking my head at some of the assumptions I make in my story.
I’m considering my draft in light of his reflection. How he says writing, or communicating, allows a person to see the inside of your life. How communication is for others. It really takes me out of my head, where all the assumptions are, where all the answers are, and delivers them onto the page, into the conversation, in the space where communication happens between two people.