Augmented Unreality, Part 3
In our personal and professional lives, we are increasingly challenged to have meaningful conversations. Technology seems to enable us to communicate without this, and our frenetic lifestyle seems to demand that we do so.
But these are just comforting illusions. We’re not making meaningful connections, and it’s starting to show in how we think and act. We needn’t look any further than our children, who would now rather play on their personal devices than with each other.
In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, I shared some notes I’d written for myself in anticipation of having a tough conversation with a colleague. My self-help guidance included being present (in the mindfulness sense), removing mental and emotional filters that impede understanding, and watching out for habits of mind and affect that can miscue the conversation. Here are a few more thoughts to wrap up this series.
Make it About the Other Person
In any conversation, one way to signal your willingness to really hear and consider, absorb and understand is to ask “How can I be helpful to you in this situation? (It’s important to mean this and to then be willing to help in whatever ways you can. If you don’t and you aren’t, don’t try this.)
It may already be clear to you and the other person how you can help. But by asking the question in the present moment, you’re immediately providing an opening to let the other person’s needs take center stage. The energy will shift. Try it a few times and see what happens.
If the response is “I don’t know” or “I was hoping you could tell me,” take this as an invitation to further clarify the problem or opportunity you’ve come together to discuss. “Could you help me understand what, specifically, you’re most interested in discussing/most concerned about?”
When you first try this, it might seem stilted, but it will get easier. This opening has never let me down, and I’m almost always surprised by the answer I receive, not because it’s radically different than what I expected, but because of the way in which the need is stated, by the emotional context — the words used, the intonation offered, the facial expressions shared.
As a reminder, most people consider a “good” conversation to be one in which they talk more than you do.
Whether you’re meeting with a client, coaching a colleague, guiding a friend who’s experiencing a personal crisis, or volunteering your time for a cause you care about, make the focus of your communication be about helping the other person. Yes, most times, there must be some mutuality of interest — our egos want a psychic quid pro quo. But that shared purpose will only emerge once you’ve opened up the relationship by making a genuine connection.
Keep Yourself Out of It
The “you” that is tied to a particular position or role should be as low key as possible, if not invisible, in the conversation. That you — the boss, the got-it-together friend or colleague, the wiser parent — will only get in the way of something happening. Your mindset should be that of two human beings just trying to relate.
Don’t embellish, name drop, or make telling references to pump up your ego. Even if you’re nervous, and your ego needs to prop itself up, be aware of the need and let it pass. Bring up your connections or qualifications only if relevant to enabling the other person to feel more confident in accepting your help.
If you’ve overcome a professional hurdle now facing a troubled coworker, you’ll have walked in her shoes and can relate more easily. But resist the temptation to up the ante by sharing a personal situation that might be seen as trumping the other person’s experience.
This usually happens when you start drifting from the present moment to a past situation, say a similar business deal or an analogous problem you worked out successfully in a different context. Try not to share those thoughts, no matter how relevant to your position. You’d likely be doing so simply to show that you’re wiser than the person you’re talking with and to tip the psychological balance in your favor. This will immediately shift the energy of the moment in the wrong direction.
The corollary to keeping your ego in check is showing compassion to the people around you. By compassion, I mean the quality of relating deeply to the human experience of the person you’re with, something you can express through your affect, body language, words, intonation, and the energy you bring to the encounter.
Compassion begins by remembering that it’s a person looking back at you, not a position. That person is not a means to an end.
Whatever end you’re thinking about, it won’t be the end you achieve. That end almost always comes from shared effort. So aside from any humanitarian reasons, compassion makes practical sense.
Compassion should not be limited to ministering to a sick parent or to helping your injured child; it has a place in our daily interactions, including our business dealings.
The mindfulness tradition counsels to enter into a compassionate mindset by reminding yourself that 50 or 75 years from now you and this person sitting across from you will both be dead and buried — piles of bones or dust. This isn’t being morbid, just realistic. The message to your psyche:
We are more similar than different in what really matters, our humanity. We are part of the same shared life. They are you, and you are them at a very fundamental level.
If you have some history with the person you’re engaging with, there are other ways to cultivate an empathic and compassionate mind set. Look for shared life experiences that have true resonance like overcoming a serious illness or raising a child or serving in combat. Bonding over being part of the same club or attending the same college, while a nice way to break the ice, isn’t going to foster compassion.
For compassion to emerge, you have to envision the other person going through what you’ve gone through at a moment in your life that really mattered. This is unlikely to be an explicit part of any conversation. Your goal is to evoke a mindset that enables you to see beyond any short-term differences to a shared humanity that transcends any positional differences.
Two myths to bust about compassion:
It is not necessary for the other person to have a compassionate mindset in order for this approach to work.
Compassion is not weakness. It shows tremendous strength and, if genuine, will be recognized as such.
I had intended to end this article on the high note of compassion. Yet one reviewer questioned how realistic it is to bring compassion to the contentious interactions we find in our world today. The mediasphere seems to affirm that nice guys (and gals) finish last. But in whose reality?
After listening to an explosive rant against a colleague, you might join in and add your grievances OR you might whisper to someone who also witnessed it, “Unreal!”
You get to choose which reality you’d like to help bring into existence.
As the Grail Knight said to Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade, Choose wisely!
Having meaningful, generative conversations leads us to create new things and solve old problems in ways that would not otherwise be possible, especially through the asynchronous exchanges of content that have come to characterize private and public communication in the digital era.
Even as we’re increasingly able to shape our personal reality, we must embrace our collective responsibility to talk with one another when it matters most. And it matters NOW!