Holiday Conversations

I was impressed by how effective this year’s political campaigns were at creating division and fear. As we come together with friends and family of all political stripes over the holidays, what would happen if we analyzed how politicians behaved and did the opposite? Would our conversations create connection and trust?

holiday conversation

Mindful Listening

The authors of the original mindfulness manual laid out simple guidelines for listening.

People may use five types of speech when addressing us.    

• Timely or untimely.

• True or untrue.

• Gentle or harsh.

• Helpful or unhelpful.

• Well-intended or malicious.

How should we respond?

No matter what is said, train your mind to remain unaffected. Always maintain kindness and compassion for the speaker’s well-being.

The Heat of the Moment

But how do we train to keep our composure, let alone good will, when people from the other side interrupt us, spin falsehoods, spout inflammatory language, and never waver from their malicious intent?

Some instructions adapted from Chade-Meng Tan’s Search Inside Yourself offer ideas.

Timely Conversations

In the age of 24/7 media, cable news shows are hungry for the crisis of the moment. Polarized pundits duke it out by cutting each other off mid-sentence. This is great for amping up emotions and producing viral soundbites.

But how do our conversations with friends, family, and co-workers go when we cut people off mid-sentence? What if, instead, we invite others to share whatever is on their mind, and give them our full attention as they tell us?

One way to practice using timely speech is to designate a time for speaking and a time for listening.

Team up with a conversation partner and offer them the option to be speaker or listener.

Set a timer for three minutes.

Speaker instructions: this is your three-minute uninterrupted monologue. When you are speaking, try to maintain some awareness of your body to see how it feels when someone listens to you. No need to worry about being cut off. No pressure to keep talking if you can’t think of what to say next. If you run out of things to say, notice how it feels to sit with silence. When another thought pops up, you may continue speaking.     

Listener instructions: your job is to listen while maintaining some awareness of your body to see how it feels when you don’t have to think about what to say next. No pressure to jump in if the speaker slows down, meanders, or goes silent. If the speaker stops, notice how it feels to sit with silence. If they start speaking again, resume listening.

Tip: if the content of the speaker’s monologue rouses some strong sensations in the body, like those you associate with anger, consider whether the purpose of the occasion (such as getting together with friends and family) is to debate public policy or philosophical perspectives. To keep the conversation civil, try one of the approaches below.

Truthful Speech

Politicians and pundits are known for their selective and creative use of facts. They tend to acknowledge the ones that support their truth and ignore or cast doubt on the ones that don’t.

For political junkies fact checkers provide a great public service. But how do we feel about them in everyday interactions? If interrupting someone doesn’t turn a friendly conversation hostile, try upping your game by correcting them.

To practice resisting the urge to fact check the speaker, respond by paraphrasing your understanding of what they said, beginning with phrases like, “What I heard you say is…” or “If I understood you correctly….”

When you finish your summary, give the speaker the opportunity to clear-up any misinterpretations or important facts that you left out.

Tip: when it’s your turn to speak, if you’re not one-hundred percent sure of your facts, make it clear that you’re expressing a belief or opinion with phrases like, “It was my understanding that…” or “I think…” or “I feel…” Whatever follows these statements is always a fact.

Gentle Conversations

When politicians and pundits use harsh language, they’re out to arouse our emotions, not our reason. There’s method to this madness. Soundbites of harsh language spread like wildfire.

In real life, we don’t fight wildfires with fire but by creating the conditions for them to burn themselves out.

To practice resisting the urge to fight fire with fire, paraphrase your understanding of the speaker’s emotions as well as their words, beginning with phrases like, “What I heard you’re feeling is…” or “It sounds like you’re feeling….”

When you finish your summary, give the speaker the opportunity to clarify their feelings.

Tip: when it’s your turn to speak, let your body awareness help you tap into how you feel as well as think about what you’re saying.

Helpful Conversations

Politicians go on defense and double-down whenever an idea they identify with is being judged.    

In real life, we go on defense at the slightest suggestion that we’re being judged:

• Incompetent.

• A bad person.

• Unworthy of love.      

To practice resisting the urge to threaten the speaker’s self image, use your body awareness to notice whether you’re tightening up and feeling judgmental. Remember that any feedback that makes the speaker feel defensive will not be helpful.

Conversely:

  • Paraphrasing the speaker’s words without judgment acknowledges their competence.
  • Recounting their feelings without judgment acknowledges their goodness.
  • Demonstrating that they’ve been heard and understood is one way of showing you care enough to listen.    

Tip: if you feel judged when it’s your turn to speak, start from the position that it isn’t the listener’s intention. See below.

Well-Intended Speech

If you’re not certain why a politician chose to say or do something, their opponent will be happy to tell you.

But one honest mistake we make creates misunderstandings more than any other: we judge the effect of our actions based on our intentions, and we infer other people’s intentions based on their actions.

For example, if we accidentally cut somebody off in traffic, we excuse ourselves because we’re running late. If someone cuts us off, it’s because they’re rude, reckless, and self-centered.    

So, if something we hear is hurtful to us, we assume that it was meant to harm us.

To complicate matters, once we assume we know someone’s intentions, we accept our assumption as fact. Even if the offender later claims they meant no harm, we may not believe them.

When you’re unclear on the speaker’s intentions, you can express that uncertainty with “I’m a little fuzzy on what you said about…” or “I wasn’t quite sure what you meant by….”

This gives the speaker the chance to clarify anything the listener misconstrued.

Tip: be aware that your own intention is to remain kind and compassionate for the listener’s well-being.

Ten Minute Exercise

To recap how to practice civil conversations:

1. Team up with a conversation partner to take turns as speaker and listener.

2. Speaker instructions: this is your three-minute uninterrupted monologue. When you are speaking, try to maintain some awareness of your body to see how it feels when someone listens to you. No need to worry about being cut off. No pressure to keep talking if you can’t think of what to say next. If you run out of things to say, notice how it feels to sit with silence. When another thought pops up, you may continue speaking.

Listener instructions: your job is to listen while maintaining some awareness of your body to see how it feels when you don’t have to think about what to say next. No pressure to jump in if the speaker slows down, meanders, or goes silent. If the speaker stops, notice how it feels to sit with silence. If they start speaking again, resume listening.

3. During the next two minutes, the listener summarizes their understanding of the speaker’s words and emotions, including their uncertainty about the speaker’s intentions. The speaker then gets a chance to clarify.

4. Repeat steps two and three reversing the roles of speaker and listener.

To practice these conversation skills without the timer:

Give the speaker the gift of your attention.

Maintain some awareness of how your body responds to what is said.

When the speaker comes to a natural pause or starts a new topic, ask for permission to summarize by saying something like, “Before we move on, let me see if I understood you correctly.”

Before you speak, you might start with something like, “I don’t always speak as clearly as I’d like, so feel free to give me feedback on how this comes across.”

For handling anxiety while speaking or listening, try these ten second reality checks.

Fear of Being Unmasked

We think of our personality as our distinctive character. But the Latin root word, persona, means the mask through which an actor speaks. Like Halloween masks, our personality conceals who we really are. And we live in fear of being unmasked.

fear of unmasking

The Mask of a Best-Selling Author

With his first book, The School of Greatness, podcaster Lewis Howes achieved something that most authors only dream of. He debuted at the Number 3 spot on the New York Times Best Seller List. Howes shared his experience in his second book, The Mask of Masculinity.

I had achieved so much of what I wanted with my book and with my career, but deep down, I was asking myself about the point of it all. I had no one to share it with. I had no intimacy or deep connection with anyone else.

I should have felt amazing, but all I felt was terrible.

Unmasking Masculinity

Howes began questioning the personality traits that had simultaneously brought him success and misery.   

What he discovered were nine culturally sanctioned and reinforced “masks” that men are expected to wear.

Stoic Mask: Showing emotion is an invitation to scrutiny, judgment, and rejection.

Athlete Mask: A good athlete is a good man–period. Non-athletic men must compensate by knowing everything about sports.

Material Mask: A man’s net worth is his self-worth.

Sexual Mask: A man’s worth is also measured by the number of women he’s slept with.

Aggressive Mask: Men never back down.

Joker Mask: Man’s cynicism and sarcasm can defend against every attempt to soften or connect with him.

Invincible Mask: Men are fearless.

Know-It-All Mask: If you don’t understand why a man is your intellectual superior, he’ll be happy to explain it to you.

Alpha Mask: There are only two types of men: alphas and betas, winners and losers.

Problems with Masks

Many problems with Halloween masks also apply to masks we wear in everyday life. They don’t fit. They’re uncomfortable. Eye holes limit our ability to see things clearly. Rubber pullover masks are sweaty and make it difficult to breathe. They sometimes frighten those we love without making an impression on those we mean to scare. At root, they’re not really who we are.

The athlete, material, sexual, aggressive, and alpha masks all place a man in never ending competition with every other man. The stoic and joker masks pit a man against his emotions. Implicit in the invincibility mask is the fear of being afraid.

Behind the Mask

To discover why his success hadn’t brought him fulfillment, Howes attended an intensive emotional intelligence workshop. It was like group therapy with one-on-one and group exercises where participants spoke openly about the suffering, pain, and resentment that held them back in life.

Before shifting to people’s vision for their future, the facilitator gave everyone a final chance to address anything from their past that they hadn’t covered yet.

The honesty and vulnerability of the space gave Howes permission to do a mental inventory. He realized that if he didn’t take this moment to address the time, at the age of five, he had been raped by the teenage son of his babysitter, (something he had never shared with anyone in his life), he would never feel comfortable sharing it.

His body walked him to the front of the room. He looked at the carpet because he was too ashamed to look anyone in the eye. And he walked through the entire experience–the sights, smells, sounds, touch, and tastes of it–matter-of-factly without holding back.

When he’d finished, he went back to his seat and erupted in tears of pain, sadness, relief, insecurity, and fear. Women on either side of him held him and cried with him.

The Courage of Vulnerability

It was all too much. Howes escaped from the room and the hotel. He put his hand on a wall and buried his face in his arm, ashamed. He couldn’t go back.

One by one, the men in the group came up to him, hugged him, and told them, “You’re my hero.”

Howes’s vulnerability had given them permission to share stories that they had always been too ashamed to share. They told this tearful man with snot coming out of his nose that what he had done was the most courageous thing they had ever seen.

The Question

Everyone told Howes that he needed to share this with the people in his life, but he didn’t know how to bring it up.

A therapist friend suggested he begin with a question. “Is there anything I could ever say or do that would make you not love me?”

When Howes found the bravery to unburden himself, his vulnerability gave his loved ones permission to share pain they had tried (but failed) to bury. Instead of splitting them apart, it brought them closer together.

These unexpected benefits motivated Howes to risk opening up to his podcast audience.

The Answer

Howes writes: When I took off the mask, I was able to share my feelings. I also felt freed up to do better work. This unmasking let my audience see the real me, and they liked that me better. The results were great for my business. my relationships, and my health. I feel more confident every day that my audience sees the real me and that they appreciate who I am for what I am.

It’s not the mask they liked; it’s me.

Ten Minute Exercise

Howes’s book covers the benefits of removing each mask and techniques to help do it. Some tools include journaling, finding balance, gratitude, acknowledging our emotional needs, honest connection, self-worth, listening, and celebrating others’ good fortune.

Part of the technique for handling the Aggression Mask involves forgiveness.

Here’s an abbreviated version of the forgiveness practice recommended by the Greater Good Science Center.

1. Take five minutes to write down exactly what happened, why it was wrong, and how it made you feel.

In the remaining five minutes:

2. Make a commitment to yourself to feel better.

3. Recognize that forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciling with the person who upset you or condoning his or her actions.

4. Notice that your current distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts, and physical upset you are suffering now, not from what hurt you ten minutes—or 10 years—ago.

5. Practice stress management to soothe your body’s fight or flight response. For aggression, try this: Breathe in through the nose while slowly counting to four. Hold the breath for a slow count of four. Exhale for a slow count of four. Pause for a count of four. Repeat at least three times or until your calm is restored.

6. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, which gives power over you to the person who caused you pain, take the remaining time to write about something that makes you grateful.

Bonus: This nine-minute animated book summary will help you decide whether The Mask of Masculinity is for you.

This nine-step forgiveness technique offers additional details on moving forward to meet your positive needs.

FAIR Consent

Practicing FAIR consent is a powerful tool for reducing unwanted sexual interactions. Practicing consent in everyday life can lead to richer, more rewarding relationships and emotional resilience.

consent only yes is yes
A Tragic She Said/He Said     

The “Why Now?” episode of the podcast Hidden Brain focuses on the social forces that led to the emergence of the #metoo movement. But it also offers a rare glimpse into both sides of a non-consensual sexual encounter that demonstrates the vast gulf between intention and impact.

The “she said” below is an excerpt from a Facebook post. The “he said” is an apology left on the woman’s answering machine when he learned about the post.

She Said

“In the beginning of June I had a meeting with a playwright in my home. He is my senior by several decades. I’ve known him since I was 11, I regarded him as an honorary grandfather. I was going through a tough time, I had just dealt with a couple of deaths and this man offered to help me by gifting me some of his work to produce and act in. I was extremely grateful and excited.

He insisted he come to my apartment for the meeting. The door closed and he held my breasts and said he’s known me since I was so young and can’t believe how large and beautiful they had become. He pulled me onto his lap and licked my lips and tried sticking his tongue in my mouth several times. I felt frozen. I said ‘I have a boyfriend,’ he said ‘So? I have a wife.’ I felt like I was 5 years old. The way I always hoped I’d behave in a situation went right out the window. I needed to get him off me and out of my home, but I also wanted to protect his feelings. I can’t believe to this day that was a concern of mine.”

He Said

“Uh, (Woman’s Name), this is (Playwright’s Name) calling. I’m so upset. I…I don’t know what to say. I had no idea. It’s a terrible, terrible misunderstanding. There’s a terrible missed signal. And I didn’t know you were upset. I love you, (Woman’s Name), and I never, never would hurt you that way. Never, never, never. Please, you’ve gotta believe me. Oh my God, I’m just shaking. Somebody just wrote to me and told me about it. I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry. And I love you. And I would never, never, never hurt you that way. That was such a missed signal and such a…oh my God.”

Terrible Missed Signal

I’m younger than the playwright in the situation above, so I probably received a more comprehensive sex education that he did. My school-sanctioned education was limited to the biology of reproduction and the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. My workplace sexual harassment training preached abstinence from saying or doing anything even remotely suggestive of sex. Other messages I’ve heard over the years have focused on “no means no.”

In the absence of consent training, the way the woman always hoped she’d behave went right out the window. Instead of the man taking anything short of a yes as a no, he took anything short of no as a yes.

A FAIR Approach to Consent

Samantha Hess began leading Consent Workshops in early 2018 and I’ve attended most of them.

Though adapted from the FRIES sexual consent acronym of Planned Parenthood, the exercises for FAIR consent are all non-sexual. Attendees are often eager to share their takeaways with their children or grandchildren.    

Consent is about learning to receive a no without feeling rejected and give a no without feeling guilty.

In order for there to be consent, it has to be FAIR.

Freely given.

Agreeable.

Informed.

Reversible.

Freely Given

The “No, Thank You Exercise” demonstrates that consent isn’t consent if someone can’t say no.

Partners take turns making requests:

“I know we’ve just met, but can I borrow $100?”

“Can my kids borrow your place for a birthday party? I don’t like to clean up the mess.”

The person receiving the request takes time to seriously consider the offer, then respond with some version of “No, thank you.”

The asker then practices sincerely praising the decision.

“Thank you for taking care of yourself.”

“Thank you for allowing me to ask.”

This gives the asker practice at receiving a no and the responder practice at saying no without feeling obligated for offering a reason.

Agreeable

In the “Ask and Wait” exercise partners take turns making requests of each other that they will actually engage in if both parties agree, they then patiently await a response.

“Would you like to shake hands?”

“Would you like to tell me something about your day?”

This gives the asker practice at the risk of receiving a no. It gives the responder practice at checking in with themselves before agreeing to something that they may not want to do. They can then freely give the answer that they choose.

Informed

In the “Negotiation Exercise,” partners take turns making requests of each other, clarifying the terms of the request, and practicing “yes and” or “no but” until they come to a consensual agreement.

“Would you like to shake hands?”

“No, but I’ll give you a high five.”

“Yes, and can we use our left hands?”

This gives both parties the opportunity to practice asking for what they want from an agreeable action and declining actions that are disagreeable.

Reversible

For the “Change Your Mind Exercise,” partners begin by engaging in a mutually agreed upon activity.

After a short time, either partner displays a lack of interest in continuing and the other tries to pick up on the body language or facial cues that indicate they’ve changed their mind.

They then share feedback on the cues given and received and change roles.

This gives us practice making others feel safe around us by letting them know that we honor their decision to change their minds.

Practicing Consent

Practicing the principles of FAIR consent in areas other than sex leads to healthier relationships. If we routinely say yes when we mean no, we begin to resent others for asking and ourselves for giving in. Failing to ask for something because we fear rejection may unnecessarily limit our possibilities. If we say yes with the intention of wiggling out later, we become untrustworthy.

FAIR consent isn’t about always getting our way. It’s ultimately about doing what’s best for all parties involved.

Ten Minute Exercise

Two videos (that you can watch in less than ten minutes) help illustrate consent best practices.

When it comes to sex, anything short of a yes is a no. Tea and Consent (2:49).

Outside of sex, overcoming the fear of rejection can lead to an unexpected yes. Ask for Olympic Symbol Doughnuts (5:13).

You May Be Right

“Here lies the body of William Jay,
Who died maintaining his right of way –
He was right, dead right, as he sped along,
But he’s just as dead as if he were wrong.”–Dale Carnegie

Workplace Injustice

Last week I listened to two stories about perceived injustice in the workplace.

In both cases I agreed that the actions described were unskillful because they had created suffering for co-workers. But, as a third party, I couldn’t gauge whether the infliction of suffering was intentional.

How much of the suffering was created by the actions, and how much was created by the perception that the actions had been unfair?

Justice Workplace

At most workplaces, employees share the common goal of making the organization successful.

In competitive sports, one party wins by outperforming the other. It’s the referee’s job to keep things fair.

But in the legal profession, your co-workers are your adversaries, and to succeed you must prove you’re right and they’re wrong.

Problem Solving, Competition, and Perfectionism

Scott Rogers, Director of the Mindfulness in Law program at the University of Miami School of Law discussed occupational hazards on Dan Harris’s 10% Happier podcast.

Lawyers are really good at problem solving. They’re competitive and like to stay on top of their game. They’re perfectionists. These qualities serve their clients well and are assets in doing their job. But, if lawyers can’t turn down the dial on problem solving, they’re constantly looking for the next thing that’s wrong. If they can’t turn down their competitiveness then they see threats everywhere. And perfectionism compels them to review documents again and again for fear of being shamed by a misplaced comma.

As a result, lawyers live with anxiety, depression, and commit suicide, even when they appear to be thriving in the eye of the beholder.

Fundamental Insights

Rogers’s exposure to Transcendental Meditation during his early days in law school fueled his curiosity in introspection. In reading about mindfulness, he sensed that authors like Thich Nhat Hanh and Ram Dass were re-stating basic fundamental insights.

He quotes a talk by Ram Dass: “There’s nothing I’m going to share with you all that you don’t already know. It’s that we tend to forget. So, here we are, we’ve come together to remember.”

Rogers admires Ram Dass for his early work developing a healthy relationship with the voice in his head, and for deepening his connection with the heart. Rogers referred to this as an open-hearted embrace.

Open-Hearted Embrace

An open-hearted embrace is realizing that we’ve got more going on together than we think. We’re not quite the threats that we take each other to be, so we don’t have to be as guarded and stressed about each other.

“Going a little deeper, I think it speaks to this recognition that if we can really tame that voice in our head, not forget it, but really size it up and befriend it, then there’s this letting go of something that was never real in the first place.”

The feeling of connection isn’t touchy-feely, but actually inherent in the system in which we find ourselves. Realizing this is a game changer.

Unbelievably Frustrating

Rogers first practiced this open-hearted embrace during a case from hell.

He was sure he was right, and he was sure the opposing counsel and their client were misrepresenting the facts. It was unbelievably frustrating to feel that he was being treated unfairly, and he was having a difficult time setting the record straight.

In desperation, he performed his mindfulness practice and reached the insight that he was contributing to the suffering. Even though he may have been right, his sense of unfairness wasn’t relieving the stress of the situation, it was contributing to it.

He realized that we’re all in this together.

Uncruel Competition

But how does the viewpoint that we’re all in this together affect your ability to prevail over your adversary?

It doesn’t mean that you don’t forcefully pursue what’s called for in the moment. But it does mean that you’re doing what’s actually called for to be responsive without overdoing it or under doing it.

You can compete with your adversary without losing your sense of connection to them as a human being. Just like you, they are living a life that began, they are going through challenges, and sadness, and celebration. And remember that just like you, their lives will end.

“That’s something you feel, not something you know just in your head.”

It’s seeing the humanity in your competitors while still competing, and not losing touch with the humanity within yourself, because the two run in tandem together. As you lose sight of it in the other, you’re losing touch with it within yourself, and as you maintain that awareness in the other, you cultivate it more fully in yourself.

Advantages of Embracing Awareness

Acknowledging that your adversary is just like you allows you to be present and alert. You hear what’s actually being said. Letting the person who’s talking finish what they’re saying, no matter how their views differ in terms of the legal matter, avoids notching up the tension in the room.

The ability to clearly distinguish between what’s actually happening and the story you’re telling yourself about what’s happening can help you respond more skillfully to whatever challenge arises.

And that’s a major competitive advantage.

Ten Minute Exercise

Ironically, lawyers, whose success depends on achieving opposing outcomes, have one advantage over co-workers who are pursuing a common goal.

Lawyers have to make the case that their point of view is 100% correct and reasonable.

Chade-Meng Tan, former Google engineer and author of Search Inside Yourself offers this exercise for reducing perceptions of unfairness in the workplace, and in life. (I’ve adapted it so that you can do it in 10 minutes).

1. Gather your writing tools.

2. Set a timer for two minutes.      

3. Think of a difficult situation from your present or past when there was some conflict or disagreement, something real, something that has some meaning and potency for you.

4. Set a timer for four minutes to describe the situation as though you are 100 percent correct and reasonable.

5. Set a timer for four minutes to describe the situation as though the other person is (or the other people are) 100 percent correct and reasonable.

6. When the timer sounds, re-evaluate your sense of unfairness.

Two common challenges for understanding the opposing viewpoint:

Just like you, your co-worker prioritizes certain values based on their life experience.

Just like you, your co-worker sometimes has to act without having all of the relevant information.

According to Meng (what both friends and strangers call him):

“The more often you are able to see how each side in a disagreement is correct and reasonable, the more often you will be able to understand differing perspectives objectively and the more accurate your organizational awareness will become.”

And the less you’ll have to struggle with the additional stress of things being unfair.

Bonus

It takes work to come to grips with perceived unfairness. These capuchin monkeys show us how hard it is to rationalize: it’s just an experiment.