Monday, February 20, 2012

Difficult Conversations 101

Just imagine how much easier this life thing would be.... if it just came with a manual.  

Just imagine how much easier this life thing would be....if that manual included a chapter on how to communicate with each other.

Just imagine how much easier this life thing would be....if that chapter included a few paragraphs that instructed on how to respectfully disagree with each other.

Just imagine how much easier this life thing would be....if we all managed (more often than not, anyway), to honor a person with a conflicting thought while harboring a different viewpoint.

Don't worry.  I'm done with my John Lennon impersonations for the day---but I am being serious, or at least as serious as I know how to be.    We spent a lot of time in school learning things that are forgotten after the next chapter test (hello, geometry, biggest time suck waste that I ever encountered), vocabulary words that remain unused, foreign languages that most of us don't speak.

Side note on the foreign language : I actually won an award in high school for my outstanding grades in French (I tied with my friend with the initials "MGK")-- and while I can recite the "Hail Mary" and "Our Father" in French- backward, forward, sober and drunk- I managed to eek out about 20 useful words, combined, in the time I spent in France.  AWESOME.

What we're not taught, and it's something we all need to learn, is how to communicate with each other--particularly when we hold differing opinions.  And don't say that skill is learned at home- most adults, myself certainly included, don't know how to do it either.  If anything, I think communication skills deteriorate with age rather than improve.

Then, throw social media into the mix, and....PRESTO!  There's a big ol' mess on your hands.   I'd say a whole new set of rules with respect to social graces on things like Facebook, but I don't think that's a fair assessment.  I'm starting to believe it's more like anarchy.  I'm stunned at the types of venom that people are willing to spew--at friends, at family members, at COMPLETE STRANGERS, though I freely acknowledge that it's much easier to strap on a set when behind a keyboard than when looking someone directly in the eye.   Fret not- the irony of my mentioning this sentiment in my blog isn't lost on me.  I know better than anyone that it's much easier to share my thoughts in a medium that I control, in a pace that I control, and as a soliloquy rather than an actual conversation.

People have their deep-rooted beliefs and sometimes those beliefs are controversial.  I'm certainly no different than anyone else in this regard.   In this world, there are some people who would engage in debate about these beliefs-- vehemently, and in real life, and face-to-face.  This tendency doesn't scare or otherwise alarm me.  I generally either respect those people, or think that they're bullies depending on the mechanisms that these people employ to make their points---but either way, I generally know what I'm dealing with.  What does alarm me is the tendency of otherwise mild-mannered people to acquire some misguided sense of cyber-courage and (for lack of a better phrase) go off on those with whom they disagree.  There's philosophical debate, there's disagreement and then there's antagonism...and that's a tricky course to successfully navigate without going completely off the rails.

On the opposite side of the spectrum (and more often than not, I fall into this category, though I've certainly run my mouth in an ugly fashion when I shouldn't have), there are people who cower down and swallow their differing viewpoints when they might otherwise want to speak up--partially out of fear, and partially out of a desire to keep the peace.  While this course of action is certainly easier to digest, it again speaks to a general inability to productively and respectfully disagree with someone else.

(Yet another sidebar to avoid having unintended holes shot in my arguments:  The group of people who I reference above do not include those who hold a differing opinion but choose not to share it.  Choosing to hold beliefs private is one thing, and comes from both a decision and a position of strength.  Clamming up when you'd like to engage in a debate because you don't know how to or are afraid to navigate the minefield is not derived from a position of strength.  To the outside world, both courses of action may look the same, but they couldn't be any more different.  One is electing an option.  The other is opting out for lack of any other known alternatives).

Further compounding the problem in my mind is the growing tendency toward polarization, especially when the broader media has largely segmented into two camps--- the left and the right.   Like I said, I certainly have my own beliefs, and I hold them dear and I won't go into much specific detail in this forum other than to say "to the left"---but I refuse to subscribe to the "all or nothing" partisan philosophy that seems to have become a prerequisite for life in this country, in this time.  Saying "take it or leave it" to me, or "you're either with me 100% or not with me at all" just isn't going to work.  I'm fine with saying that I'm more closely aligned to certain political and religious beliefs than others, but I'm not fine with saying that I'm wholeheartedly and unequivocally behind anything.  To me, it's more a sentiment that indicates....upon careful consideration, I have decided that in most material respects, I am more closely aligned with XYZ than anything else, even though I am aware that XYZ is not without its problems."

Another tangent.  Sorry.   I have no clue what to do either.  So, to summarize, what I've done over the span of a few hundred words is identify what I believe is a problem and offer virtually no solutions to solve it.  Good job, champ.

I like debates.  I like playing devil's advocate.  I love asking questions.  I love finding new ways to look at things. What I'd like to do, and so far I've failed miserably, is find a way to debate and find an outcome whereby I can (a) disagree with someone without caving; (b) learn something from their differing viewpoint, even if I don't necessarily agree; and (c) find some way to honor the person while not-always-necessarily agreeing with their point of view.

Easier said than done...easier said than done.  This would have been so much easier if I was taught this skill in school as opposed to waste-of-time geometry.

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