Respect

Jefferson Dinner, Part Two: How To Earn Respect In Any Conversation

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A while back, I wrote a post about finding your true voice and how I finally heard mine for the first time a few years ago at the Book Swarm event in Oakland, California. As I have moved around the country since then and worked on my business in different places, my true voice has come and gone, hidden from me here and there, gone on vacation a few times without telling me. It is only natural because it is connected to my self-confidence and my meta-awareness about my skills and acquired knowledge. 

Sometimes it hits me hard in conversation and I say to myself "Oh damn, I know stuff..." and drop knowledge bombs on whoever with whom I am interacting. It is so cool when you realize that you know things. You suddenly feel so powerful and even unstoppable. But it is hard to ground it and hold on to it in your awareness because there are so many moments of the day that distract you and that do not give you the chance to exclusively have the floor and fully live in that knowledge power.

The Jefferson Dinner last week, however, was just that opportunity. For those of you who did not read my post last week, shame on you. Also, to recap, a Jefferson Dinner is when a small group of people get together, eat dinner, and discuss their thoughts on a certain pre-determined topic one at a time such that everyone is heard and everyone gets to speak. 

My true voice came back from vacation just in time for my turn to speak in each of the discussions we had. 

No, I'm not telling you that Jefferson Dinners are the only times when you can feel heard and powerful. They help and they are a lot of fun, but let us dissect what about the Dinner specifically created the opportunity: 

1. Structure

The overall subject of the discussions was determined and advertised ahead of time, which told participants what to expect and also what was not going to be addressed (makes sense, right?). Furthermore, the location was predetermined and private, which provided the comfort of containment for the participants to express their opinions about the topic in a safe space. No matter the topic, the fact that the setting is preset and someone else is in charge of deciding the conversation topic, its direction, and its movement relieves the participants of a lot of pressure and energy to maintain a conversation on their own.

2. Forming an opinion

The structure of the setting and the structure of the discussion itself provides a comfortable scenario in which you may formulate and express your opinion. When the question is asked, participants naturally dive into their own brains and feverishly thrash around searching for a comprehensible personal response like a kid in Jaws swimming away from the shark. The cool thing, though, is as soon as the first person volunteers to speak, the mental ferocity subsides and you attend to the speaker. Every so often, a new little phrase will connect itself onto your response in your mind, but it does not take any extra energy or distract you from listening. 

The structure of the setting also provides the space in which you do not have to stressfully choose when to interrupt someone, raise your voice to share your opinion, or get angry when your opinion is not heard and the conversation moves on. This one is HUGE because it means that you do not have to expend any extra energy AND everyone remains civilized and amenable by the end of it. The Book Swarm discussions? Not so much... But that is for another time.

3. Respect

Here is the whopper. The crown jewel. What it is all about. You got external structure, you add personal comfort, and now all that is left is how the crowd welcomes your offering and respects your input. In the Jefferson Dinner, if the rules are followed, everyone shows you the respect your opinion deserves because you showed them the respect that they deserved. 

This is what is missing in so many conversations these days. Work, relationships, phone calls with family, you name it. Think about yourself at work interacting with a manager or colleagues. The structure of the setting is all set, you know what you would like to talk about, but BAM, you are met with disregard, inattention, and discourtesy. Maybe the listener is distracted, maybe for some reason they do not care, or maybe they are so arrogant that they cannot wait to hear themselves talk again. 

Often, this dynamic leads you, the speaker, to unsheath a nice defense mechanism and try to meet the listener where they are at on a higher level of snobby-ness than is natural and comfortable for you. Then it is a battle of defense mechanisms and you never actually express anything that you wanted to express nor advocate for yourself in an authentic and respectful way. 

Unfortunately the presence or absence of respect in an interaction determines the outcome of that interaction. 

What do we do about it? Kind of like last week, let us use these three themes as a sort of scorecard. Next time you are in the position to have a convo with someone in which you have something important to express, first ask:

  • Is there external structure around you? Is the setting familiar? What are the wild cards?  (i.e. will someone interrupt? will it be noisy? Have I been in that office before?)
  • Have you thought about what you are going to say IN A RESPECTFUL AND APPROPRIATE WAY? (i.e. what is the purest form of what you want to say, and how do you say that with etiquette?)  I capitalized those for a reason because some people take my advice to plan what they want to say but do not think about how to say it respectfully. It does not end well...
  • How can you set up the conversation such that you garner respect from the second it begins?  What can you say or how can you approach the conversation in such a way that makes it clear to the listener why you are in the conversation and what you want to accomplish in it? 

This can look like a lot of things, but often what I help clients to do in this situation is to be vulnerable and honest up front about their own reason for being in the conversation and then send the ball over the net to the listener who can now speak to their own experience. Because the word "vulnerable" is a terror trigger for many people, let me show you an example. Imagine you are the speaker:

"Hi ____________, I reacted quite strongly to some of the things that were shared in the meeting earlier. I would like to tell you about the reactions and ask you what it was like for you so I know how to go about starting my tasks." 

Though oversimplified and unspecific, this example still includes several important features to practice:

  1. you are being open and honest about your emotional reaction to something
  2. you are not downplaying or discrediting your experience
  3. you are not accusing the listener of anything, thus eliminating their need for defensiveness
  4. you are asking their opinion on a situation as well, thus opening up a respectful dialogue between you two
  5. if the listener does not respond respectfully, then that shows much more about him/her and is evidence feedback for how to interact with that person in the future 

What can you do either in preparation of a conversation or right at the beginning of that conversation that will quell power trips, offer respect, earn respect, avoid defense mechanisms, and help you feel empowered by expressing your opinion in an authentic and comfortable way?

Think of some interactions in the past and brainstorm how they might have been started differently.

Mother knows best! What childhood taught me about narrative coaching

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Several summers ago I visited my alma mater, Middlebury College, to catch up with my former commons dean. When I left the commons office, which is still down the hall from the luxurious laminate floor and plush Twin XL mattress of my freshman year dorm room (GAHHHH all the memories! Make them stop!), I happened to glance across the way at the Studio Arts building. A dreary, dark colored building snuggled into the dreary weather of the day whose rooms sat chock full of charcoal, rulers, reams of paper, and left over stress hormone from the previous semester.

In the upper right corner window was an abundance of Post-It Notes stuck to the glass that formed the huge words "BE NICE". It made me stop walking. Not only because someone had taken a break from their other art to stick probably a hundred Post-It Notes onto a window - backwards, mind you - but because it was such a simple and powerful reminder. Just be nice.

In high school, a young soccer teammate had been bullied and subsequently had trouble fitting in. I told him that "being mean is easy because it is about domination. It's one-sided. Being nice is hard because you must give something of yourself, open yourself up to someone's experience" (I have since trademarked that. No one can steal it).

People aren't automatically comfortable being open. They're afraid that their kindness won't be "taken well" or "accepted". But that doesn't matter. Kindness is kindness, and it doesn't care if it is "taken well" or not, and neither should you. 

Kindness is the other side of asking for help (see the previous post). Asking for help is difficult because it requires vulnerability, which a lot of humans don't grow to very naturally enjoy. It is like asking for help is the super heavy lever that opens the drawbridge into the castle of someone else's kindness.

But you won't know how awesome and supportive the castle is until you start pulling on the lever. On the flip side, the castle needs to be open to receiving that person in order for both parties to thrive, so just be nice. It is as simple as that. 

Take my mother, for instance. She doesn't know you and you did not ask her for any kind of help, but she will talk to you and within thirty seconds flat she will know where you work, where you went to college, how your parents met, and how you happen to know her childhood friend's niece. She just does that. That is her kindness. That is how she was brought up to be. 

In my own childhood, my siblings and I would roll our eyes when we stood in line at Disney World or tried to leave a restaurant, turn around, and see mom deep in conversation with a totally different family.

One time when I was little and whiney (THE ONE SINGLE TIME, I assure you) I complained loudly to my mom to stop talking to someone so we could go home, and HER mother, who was in the car with me, snapped "Hush!" at me so quickly that a) I have never forgotten that moment and b) I realized, instead of a propensity for discipline, where my mom established her beautiful priority for selflessness.

After all, what kind of battle was I really going to pick with my grandmother, the Kindness Queen from whom my mom had received formal training all her life?

What I've come to realize is that the key to kindness is not only being open to someone else's experience. Even though my mom would respond back and forth and always had another question loaded up, the key is her ability to listen. How do you know what questions to ask if you aren't listening?

One evening in college, I picked up a billiards game with a young man who wasn't a student and asked "Do you play a lot of pool?" And that was it. Drawbridge lowered. He told me how it was what he did to relax and about how drugs had recently ruined his life, how rehab had affected him, what his current goals were without a job, and how his loved ones felt about his choices.

That was a big moment for me because I thought he was oversharing but I did not feel the urge to flee. I just stayed and listened and we played pool.

I am not surprised that moments like that led me to the work I have done. As soon as people in crisis have noticed that I was actually listening to what they were saying, they told me everything. They told me all the stories and all the pains and, because I was listening, I knew what questions to ask next.

That's how I developed my counseling approach. The more I listened and asked, the more stories they shared, and the more personal connections I could help them make. Sure, I have lots of activities and advice and anecdotes that I could share with clients, but often they do not need that at all. Instead they need me to simply listen and ask questions. Little did I know that my whole childhood was training me for narrative coaching all along. 

You see, my mother's kind of kindness lowers the drawbridge for people's stories, and watching her talk to other families in a ski lodge instead of her own is where I first learned how to do what I do now.

When I talk to a total stranger in the street or an elevator or a coffee shop now as a "mature" "grown up" and I learn a lot about them in a mere sixty seconds, or start with a new client and know what ten questions to ask next within thirty seconds, I stop and think about how that is what I whined about my mom doing way back when and I say to myself:

"Damnit. She wins."

Then I hear her kind voice in my head saying, "Watch your language, mister", and I think:

"Darn it. She wins again."