Tag Archive | communication

The Difficult Conversations

“We need to talk…”

…are the four least-favorite words you want to hear from someone you care about. Every relationship has them; subjects where you know you disagree, or where the topics touch on painful memories, or trigger deeply-held fears. They may be unresolved decisions; opinions about people or issues; They are the things that we would just about do anything to not have to deal with.

At first a difficult conversation may be “the elephant in the room” but if you can ignore it long enough it becomes “the elephant-shaped hat rack/tapestry holder in the room” and it’s much easier to ignore. Especially when it’s next to the elephant-shaped armoire and the elephant-shaped entertainment center and the whole elephant-themed decor you have going on in your relationship…

Being able to have a difficult conversation constructively is a learned skill; in the age of Outrage it’s even more rare than you’d expect. Why bother talking about the hard stuff when you can send a tweet/text/update in ALL CAPS and make your point and then (really show them!) ignore the response. Or get outragier because they’re ignoring the response.

There’s really only one way to get better at difficult conversations: practice having them. So here’s one big thing, seven steps, and three magic incantations to make practicing the difficult conversations easier.

The One Big Thing

This is the big thing, the most important, so please, say it with me: face to face is best. Preferably in physical space, but if not, then use one of the many video chat apps out there. In some cases, you can get away with a phone call, because you can hear tone and breathing and more.

Don’t. Try. Text.

Simply put: text is the worst way to have a difficult conversation. To continue the driving example, it’s putting me behind the wheel with earmuffs and a blindfold and then wondering why I keep crashing. Text is for what time will you get home and what do you want from the noodle place. Not I don’t understand how you can feel that way. Frankly, if you’re going to stick to text, you might as well not bother, because practicing bad habits is bad practice.

Which is about as useful as the teenager I was laying in bed and thinking about driving.

Seven Steps for Difficult Conversations

Got that? OK. Here are a few more easy, actionable steps. Do these, and your Difficult Conversation Game will get better. Not all at once; difficult is difficult, after all. But these are the skills you can practice and get better at it:

  1. Get comfortable. Wear comfortable clothes. Grab your beverage of choice. Be in a place where you feel safe – and that includes that you would feel ok disengaging from the conversation if you need to, which leads to…
  2. Make a Supportive Space. Coercion is a sneaky thing. It’s important that both of you are there for the conversation, not because you have to be. The best place for a difficult conversation is a neutral space – a park, a coffee shop (if you can keep your volume down), a zoo. Bad places are: the bed room. The car. Vacation. Dinner. Places where someone might feel pressured not to “ruin” things by being honest. Make sure you both have an “escape hatch” and can leave if you need to.
  3. Acknowledge the Purpose. Give each other credit! “I appreciate that you’re willing to try having this conversation with me. It’s difficult for me, and I imagine it is for you, too. So thanks.” It’s establishing a mutual respect on the most basic level: hey, we both showed up. That’s something. Sometimes that’s all you can do, but that’s still valuable practice.
  4. Set a Simple Goal and Boundary. Something like “I don’t expect us to agree with each other. I am just hoping to understand better why you feel this way.” Or “I’m not sure our experiences of what happened were the same; I’d like to listen to yours, and if you’re willing, have you listen to mine, just so we both feel heard.” If you’re lucky enough to reach that point, stop. Even if things are going well. That’s what practice is, right? Doing things over and over.
  5. Accept a Partial Victory. Sometimes the conversation is so difficult that the goal is simply “I would like us to talk about this for ten minutes without blowing up at each other.” So you talk, and you get to five minutes before someone throws up their hands and bails (remember, it’s important to have an escape route). GREAT! You managed five minutes. Next time, set the goal for six.
  6. Don’t Talk for Them. Keep the Difficult Conversation for the Difficult Conversation Place. No imaginary conversations in your head; no pithy rebuttals to things that they may have implied. In fact, that’s one of the key skills to learn: listen to what they say, not what you think they mean. It’s hard, because we tend to hear disagreement as an attack – something along the lines of “I don’t like what happened” as “I don’t like you”. More on that later.
  7. Stop Before You’re Done. Remember, this is practice! You’re not trying to solve the world’s problems, or even your own. Difficult conversations don’t go away overnight. To go back to the other metaphor, if you want the elephant to leave the room without smashing through the wall, you have to build a nice big sturdy door. And that takes time.

Three Magical Incantations

There phrases are magical tools for practicing difficult conversations. They may seem awkward at first, but that awkwardness is kind of an advantage – by keeping it almost like a ritual, you have a structure you can stay inside of to keep things from running off the rails.

  1. What I’m hearing you say is… followed by what you think they said. Their answer will either be “yes, exactly!” or “What? No! That’s not what I mean at all.” If it’s the latter, then they get to try again, and you say the phrase again, and it goes on. Then it’s your turn. It’s tiring and frustrating at times, but when you get to the “yes, exactly” point, it’s worth it.
  2. The story I’m telling myself is… followed by what those imaginary conversations have been like. This is a great way to be able to express your fears without having them come out as accusations. Imagine the difference in the phrase “You’re going to leave me!” both with and without that phrase in front of it.
  3. What I need to hear from you is… followed by the truth: what do you wish you could hear from them? You can substitute “want” for “need” if you like, but make sure you note the difference. This phrase implies that you trust that the person is not going to simply tell you what you want to hear, and that’s why that “escape hatch” is important – it takes away one of the common motivations for lying. This phrase often will astonish the person who hears it, because they honestly didn’t know. Of course, not every conversation ends with exactly what a person wants to hear…but it’s a great way to figure out where and what the person needs.

It’s worth repeating: these tools won’t automatically solve disagreements. They are not going to persuade people, they are not going to win hearts and minds. They are not supposed to.

What they will do is make the difficult conversations less scary, and give you tools to potentially turn them into paths to growth or, failing that, understanding. They only work, though, if you practice with them, and that means coming back again and again to the hard places.

If you do it, I salute your bravery. And I wish you well.

The Boundaries of Love

This is one of those trick titles – click bait, of a sort – that bloggers come up with so they can pull an “ah-ha!” later. The truth is, way back in high school, reading too much Richard Bach and Leo Buscaglia and Alan Watts and late-era Robert Heinlein, I came up with the idea that love is boundless. Love is infinite. Love has no limits.

Nothing I’ve learned since then has disabused me of that notion. I love four (yes, four of my daughters with a compassion and care that is undiluted by the fact that they’ve given me (at last count) two grandsons, both of whom I also love just as much as the daughters. I also love my friends, I love my work, I love this blog, and I love my polyamorous partners in more ways than I can count.

Love? No limits at all.

And yes, I can also go on and talk about how there are other things that do have limits. Money, time, energy, resources, attention — those are all finite things that are often mistaken for love and end up being the subject of any number of dramatic stories, both true and fictional.

This isn’t about that.

Loving Sacred

No, this is about a particular way you can remember to express love: boundaries. A boundary is exactly that: a place where something is divided by something else. Sometimes these boundaries are simply for matters of preference, such as my boundary of too much broccoli on my plate. Other times they are out of necessity, such as the boundary I have about Indian food.

That latter one is a good example of a boundary that is unfortunate, because I really enjoy the taste, color, and smell of Indian food. Unfortunately, and without exception, every time I eat it my digestive system expresses it’s displeasure in very unpleasant ways.

That’s the thing about boundaries: they are always there for one reason or another. And one of the best ways to let someone know you love them is to treat them with respect.

Sounds easy, right? Sometimes it is, especially when it’s a boundary you share, or one you understand. But what if you don’t? What if the boundary makes no sense to you? What if it seems like no big deal?

Well, you can cross the boundary, and see what happens. Maybe something bad (sorry, I’ll be in the bathroom for the rest of the evening). Maybe nothing at all — except that the person whose boundary you ignored knows that you do not respect it.

That’s the thing about dividers: they are used, sometimes, to create a space that is private. It’s unfortunate that often we have this idea that the word is synonymous with “secret”, but I’d like to suggest that you replace that with the word “sacred”. As in: a boundary is a way that the one you love has set apart a sacred space, and the way you can show your love is by not only respecting it but protecting it — as Pablo Neruda put it, being “the guardians of each other’s solitude”.

Hearing the No

The thing is, we’re used to boundaries being trampled all the time, by everybody around us (the fact that I’m writing this on a crowded plane, trying to keep my elbows in as I type is a visceral example). With most boundaries, we become toughened to the experience; if we don’t, they manifest as a phobia or anxiety (what’s really nifty is when we don’t recognize this consciously, and our subconscious goes to extreme lengths to arrange life so that the boundary is kept).

This gives us all an opportunity to show our love for each other by not being one of the boundary crossers. For that matter, you can not even be one of the boundary pushers. You can be one of the people (all too rare, I’m afraid) who can hear the no.

It’s a difficult thing in a culture where there’s a bestselling sales book called “Getting to Yes”. Where phrases like “playing hard to get” give people the impression that “no” is a malleable thing.

Here’s a thought: how about pretending it’s not? How about, when someone says no, you simply say “OK.” It’s an unusual enough tactic that it may confuse people at first. But you’re giving the gift of love by respecting the boundaries and helping protect the sacred spaces of people you care about.

It’s a simple, but profound thing. Want to give it a try?



It’s Not About You

Those four words, I am convinced, are some of the most profound and useful things to understand.

And it’s hard, because we all want to be the protagonist in our own narrative — and we are! You can’t help but be your own main character, because everything that happens is in the first person, and that person is you.

But while you may be the main character, you are not, necessarily, the protagonist. At least, not in every story you’re a part of.

That’s a hard one to grasp, but let me give you an easy example: who is the main character of the Sherlock Holmes books? If you say it’s the detective, I’m here to tell you: wrong.

Here’s how the amazing writer Chuck Wendig put it: A main character is the one who the narrative focuses on (or focuses through, via that character’s perspective) whereas the protagonist is the agent of change.

Watson. Everything is framed through his experience, through his eyes. He’s the main character, but Sherlock is the one with (again, as Wendig put it) “the quest”. Mad Max and Furiosa from Fury Road is another example. So is the first Fast & the Furious movie, with Brian as the main character but Dominic as the protagonist.

Let Them Lead Once in a While

The reason this can be useful in everyday life is because often we interpret things people say differently depending on whether we consider ourselves the main character or the protagonist. An easy example comes from pretty much any comment section:

Person A: “I feel that what you wrote was racist.”

Person B: “Oh, so now you’re saying I’m a racist, then? Well %$#$#@ you!”

Person A is talking, very clearly, about what person B wrote. Even without knowing what that was, you can imagine: it’s a bunch of pixels in the shape of letters in a font on a screen. That’s what Person A is talking about, the meaning of those letters which formed words which expressed what they interpret as a racist idea.

You’ll note that Person B only gets mentioned at all as an adjective describing which words Person A is referring to: what you wrote.

However, Person B thinks that they are the protagonist. This is about ME! Which means they add something to what Person A wrote: “I feel that what you wrote was racist, and that means that you’re a racist, too!

Except: Person A didn’t say that.

The Main Character’s Approach

If you think about the way Watson described Sherlock Holmes actions, he was quite often bewildered. “At first I didn’t understand, but then…” and there’s a long declamation by the detective explaining what at first seemed to be incomprehensible actions.

We only get that because of the main characters curiosity. Because of their willingness to sit with that bewilderment and puzzle it out. Mad Max only had a movie because he stuck around in the truck with Furiosa and the crew. He had little to no idea of what they were doing, or why, but the story is revealed through his willingness to let the story explain itself.

Person B knows they are not racist. It’s likely that Person A knows that too — which is why they are disturbed by what Person B wrote in the first place. A Main Character Person B could respond differently.

Person A: “I feel that what you wrote was racist.”

Person B: “Really? I don’t see that. It certainly wasn’t my intent. Can you explain what you’re seeing there?”

Suddenly instead of a personal attack on anyone, there’s simply a discussion about a bunch of words. Maybe some adjectives are confusing. Maybe there are some ideas or trends that A or B wasn’t aware of, and through the discussion, they can learn.

But most importantly: it’s not about them.

It’s really hard, in the heat of the moment, to remember that this may be one of those points where you’re the main character, not the protagonist. It’s not an easy thing to do at all, in a culture so steeped in Identity.

It’s worth a try, though. It can make all the difference in the world.

The Deliberate Practice of Love

You know that “10,000 hour rule” that Malcolm Gladwell popularized based on Anders Ericsson’s research? Ericsson eloquently explained why Gladwell got it very wrong in a Salon article. I enjoyed that, because I get annoyed with Gladwell’s particular version of pop-psych (also, to be fair, I’m envious at his ability to write).

But the really important takeaway from this was not about time, but rather the quality of the work:

a very specific sort of practice referred to as “deliberate practice” which involves constantly pushing oneself beyond one’s comfort zone, following training activities designed by an expert to develop specific abilities, and using feedback to identify weaknesses and work on them

It’s related to that old saying about experience: some people have twenty year’s experience, and other people have one year of experience twenty times. That’s usually portrayed in a negative light, but think about it: if someone learns to be happy in one year, and chooses to do that twenty times, who are we to say they’re doing anything wrong?

Deliberate practice is notable in the experts and superstars of the world particularly because it is a rare thing to see. And there’s a reason for that.

Deliberate Practice Sucks

Seriously. Look at the criteria Ericsson lays out:

  • “Pushing oneself” – there’s pressure.
  • “beyond one’s comfort zone” – literally uncomfortable pressure
  • “training activities” – which are never as fun as actually doing the thing you’re trying to get good at.
  • “designed by an expert” – now we have an outside judge
  • “identify weaknesses” – whose job is to tell us what we’re doing wrong
  • “and work on them.” – great, so now we get to dwell on those problems.

Why on earth would anyone put themselves through that kind of process on purpose? Oh, and it gets even less appealing: guess what happens when you work on those weaknesses and turn them into strengths? That oh-so-helpful expert identifies another weakness and it starts all over!

When does it stop? Never. Ericsson says as much in his essay:

As training techniques are improved and new heights of achievement are discovered, people in every area of human endeavor are constantly finding ways to get better, to raise the bar on what was thought to be possible, and there is no sign that this will stop.

There is no finish line. If you want to do this deliberate practice thing, sure, you’ll get better. But if you’re looking for a point where you can say “OK, I’m done”, that just ain’t part of the system, bub.

Love Stinks

It’s possible that you, dear reader, have the perfect relationship. It’s possible that there is nothing that needs to be worked on, that you and your partner(s) live in complete harmony and accord.

But I doubt it. I think that you, like every other human, have room for improvement. Or someone else in your life has room for improvement, and you would tell them except that you’re not sure how to do that without hurting their feelings and guess what you’ve just identified a weakness you get to work on: honest and non-hurtful communication! Well done!

The thing is: don’t expect it to be fun. It’s going to be messy, because we’re not really that good, as humans, at dealing with the messiness of love and sex and relationships. The proof of that, to me, lies in the fact that as modes of communication have become more effective and commonplace, relationships have become more complicated.

Grandpa didn’t have to worry about Grandma misreading a text message or getting jealous of a former lover loving a Facebook post. Was that because there was no jealousy or miscommunication back then? No, of course not — it was because there were simply some things that One Does Not Talk About, and it was left at that.

We’re bad at this. And that’s ok. It’s also ok to sometimes be tired of “deliberate practice” and just go back to the “same old practice” that you’ve enjoyed before. It’s important to take breaks, to get back to the reasons you enjoyed your partner in the first place.

But it’s also worth trying to make the practice of your love deliberate. To work on the parts that are difficult, and push yourself into uncomfortable vulnerability with the guidance of experts like Brené Brown, Esther Perel, Emily Nagoski, Leo Buscaglia, or Thomas Moore.

There is no finish line. But you — and the ones you love — are worth the effort.

High-Bandwidth Love

I’ve been diving back into the concept of antifragility in a big way. That’s the opposite of “fragile”, according to the work of Nassim Taleb, author of the book of the same name as well as the person who popularized the idea of “the Black Swan” – unforeseeable events that change everything.

One of the big takeaways from that book is that antifragile is not the same as “robust” or “resilient”. It’s completely different: resilience is the ability to come back to the status quo after stress; antifragility is instead the ability to thrive and grow stronger under adversity. Your muscles are anti-fragile, for the most part; you put them under stress, even break the fibers, they grow back stronger than before, not just the same.

Apply Anti-fragility to Relationships

My circle of friends right now is pretty distressed right now. There is a lot of fear and dismay about the state of the world, and when you add the general stress of the holiday season to that it is a perfect storm for depression and worse. In an age of constant digital connectivity, it’s easy to slip into the mode of the quick text message, the thumbs up reaction, the love or the retweet to show solidarity.

Don’t do that.

Or, if you do that, make that the first step towards some more contact. Level up your communication with them. Increase the bandwidth, so to speak:

  • If you would normally like something, comment.
  • If you would normally comment, send them an email or private message.
  • If you would normally email, call them. Yes, on the phone.
  • If you would normally call them, schedule a video chat with Skype or Facebook (blech).
  • If you would normally video chat with them, figure out a time to connect with them in real-time meat-space. That means coffee, or dinner, or a movie, or maybe a plane ticket across the county.

Do it.

That Seems Like a Lot of Trouble

Yes, it is. It makes things more complicated, it takes time. But it also provides you with two things:

  1. You are strengthening your personal connections and network. If you reach a point where you need help, this is your safety net.
  2. You are getting more information about the people around you and their state of mind. The tone of voice that tells you they are sad even though the words are “I’m fine is not something you will hear in a text message.

That last one is especially something that I, personally, am urging you to do because it’s something I wish I did. A good friend of mine took his life earlier this year, and while rationally I know that it is not my fault, the last few text interactions we had haunt me. We tended to communicate that way, through text or through chat unless we were both in the same town at which point our friendship deepened over cigars and conversation.

I will always wonder if I might have heard something in his voice if I’d called instead of texted him. It drives home the reasons why making relationships more antifragile is not only a compassionate service to others – it’s a step towards my own well-being.

You have a whole weekend ahead of you. See what you can do to strengthen those connections, because there’s storm winds on the horizon.

Photo courtesy of Naveen Kadam

bonus: Check out the RSA presentation of Taleb’s Antifragile Talk!

Love Slack

Leave room – for no good reason.

– from Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Can Mean So Much



Finished the book! And I have to say that it is one of the most influential and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read. In fact, while I really enjoyed the audio book, I’m going to be going back and getting the text version so that I can highlight things (seriously, they need to come up with a way to highlight – and annotate – audio books). With an entire book about scarcity, though, you might ask if there was anything in there about abundance? And how to cultivate it?

There is, a little, but the authors point out that in their research one of the indicators is that abundance itself is one of the prime instigators of scarcity. Like the Cornucopia from The Hunger Games, abundance is dangerous. It is during times of plenty that we lose sight of the things that we will need later on. We spend rather than save, we procrastinate rather than do. Without a deadline, students tend to put things off forever – and even when given the opportunity to set their own deadlines, they tend to misjudge or simply schedule badly the time they need to get their work done.

The studies are in, and they overwhelmingly show that humans in general tend to “undervalue the effect of shocks” as the authors put it. It’s not terribly likely that I’ll get in a car accident; or that I’ll get sick; or that I’ll suddenly lose a client. None of those things individually is likely to happen, so I don’t feel the need to plan for it terribly much. What I might lose track of is the fact that while the odds of any one thing happening can be low, the odds of something happening is actually pretty good – and any one of those things has the potential to derail my sweet serene life, if I don’t have the slack to handle the shock.

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

I know, it’s Friday, and you’re wondering when I’m going to get around to talking about Love. I’m getting there, I promise!

Remember that scarcity as a phenomenon is not limited by class, wealth, health, or anything – if you’re human, then at some point you’ve felt the pressure and the need for something. The big difference lies in how much slack you have to deal with the stress, as well as what kind of “buffer” you’ve built to shield you from the consequences of failure. If I have a flat tire and don’t have AAA or the money for a tow, I’m going to likely get a ticket, possibly have to borrow money, as well as figure out how to pay for the car to be taken out of impound (and then fixed). If, on the other hand, I have AAA or comprehensive insurance, a flat tire is nothing more than a delay in wherever I was going – and even then I may have built in the “slack” of leaving early enough to account for accidents.

When you’re in a loving relationship, you’re going to have “shocks” like the flat tire. Bumps that will happen. It may be something directly related to your relationship – a misunderstanding, a disagreement, jealousy – or it may be a side effect of scarcity somewhere else in life. Stressed about the bills, you snap at your spouse. Trying to finish a report for the boss, you tell the kid “Not now! I don’t have time!” That’s where you find out if you have enough love slack.

Because if you don’t, then that disagreement can very easily turn into a fight, or a grudge that’s held forever. That agitated Not now! becomes an internalized valuation that the child carries with them. On the other hand, if you’ve put enough slack and buffers into your love, when this kind of thing happens it is understood for what it is: a momentary blip in an otherwise strong and caring relationship.

What does slack in a relationship look like? It looks like having a conversation over dinner instead of watching TV. It looks like getting someone a card, or bringing them their favorite candy just because you value them. It looks like creating space for the two (or more) of you for no good reason.

It also looks like learning communication skills, like how to apologize, how to rephrase what you hear and what you say to get to mutual understanding, and to respond rather than react. These are the buffers that will get you through the shocks. If you don’t have them, you’re putting your relationship in danger. Because the shocks will come. What remains after they’ve passed is up to you.

the practice of graceful requests

photo courtesy Ann Thorniley

Be careful what you ask for. And how you answer those who ask.

A Guest Post from Amy

A dear friend and avid reader commented last week on my Friendly Coercion post with some suggestions that were so good that I felt they merited their own post.

Amy Law from Seattle has developed her own particular set of protocols for both hearing and expressing requests. Personally, I think it would be great if we had little cheat-cards we could pull out and use to help remember the steps.

When receiving a request:

  1. Hear the request: It’s a request. Not a demand, not a threat, not a need only I can fill, and probably not something I only get one chance at.
  2. Clarify what I heard: In whatever manner is appropriate to the situation (verbose, succinct, non-verbal, pictogram…) try to communicate back what I think they’re asking for. When that is totally clear, then…
  3. Wait for my response in that moment. Don’t “default” to a response
    • because it’s what I said last time,
    • because it’s what they expect/need,
    • because I was angry five minutes ago when I thought they were asking for something else.

      Just take a moment and find out what’s in my integrity in this moment.

  4. Remember that my response can be an invitation to intimacy. I’m more than a Magic 8-ball. What other information or point of connection can I offer in this response? This isn’t about softening a “no.” This is about sharing the vulnerability. (And in my case sometimes it is about encouraging myself to be more enthusiastic in my “yes.”)
  5. Respond and stick around to see what happens next. Cultivate generous curiosity. In general this is a reminder to refrain from mentally running off into story land (aka “narrative fallacy”), but if storyland is what happens be willing to observe (not analyze) that too.

When making the request:

  1. Notice the desire.
  2. Am I happy to accept a no? If I pause when answering that question, then I pause before making the request. I take the time to tease out what’s so important. What does this request mean to me? Can I be more direct in asking for the core of what I want?
  3. Notice the environment. Not just physical location, but the emotional and physiological states of everyone involved.
  4. Make the request: In whatever manner seems appropriate to the situation (verbose, succinct, non-verbal, pictogram…)
  5. Stick around to see what happens next. (see above)

Got feedback for Amy or Gray? What are your techniques for asking and receiving things well? 

I’m not shy at all about asking you to 
become a patron of Love Life Practice,
especially on Cyber Monday!

using hand signals for better meetings

The Good, the Bad, the Efficient

Occupy Wall Street. The phenomenon raises a lot of eyebrows, shaking of heads, grimaces. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, looking at it as noble or futile or both, it was, for a time, an undeniably potent force. One of the more powerful tools that it used was a conversational technique using hand signals. It’s not entirely original – this kind of thing has been used by everyone from Quakers to the Civil Rights movement.

I have seen it creeping into conferences and such that I attended over the past year or so – people snapping their fingers or waving their hands to indicate approval, for example – but I experienced it full-on in a more recent “lean coffee” a couple of weeks ago in Seattle. Now, Lean Coffee is a whole other thing, using the Kanban Technique pioneered by Toyota, but this particular discussion also used a version of the hand signals in the process.

Here’s How It Works:

Seems trite? And yet, amazingly effective.

Seems trite? And yet, amazingly effective.

In the flow of conversation, if someone was talking, the others would often indicate their feelings about what was being said with the lower set of signals. That tended to give the speaker a good idea of how they were being received, and if they were being head (not just listened to). In the Occupy method, a response to whoever was speaking would be indicated by pointing a finger at the speaker, and saying something new by the “Want To Talk” signal ingrained in students for hundreds of years.

In this particular Lean Coffee we used the pointing fingers for something different. If someone wanted to speak, whether response or something new, they would raise their hands. If others felt that they wanted to hear what the new person had to say, they would point a finger at that person raising their hand. As often happens in conversations, more than one person might have things to add – and people would use their other hand to point at the additional people with ideas.

If it sounds complicated, it really wasn’t. The pointing fingers (sometimes with two fingers to indicate first/second choice) gave a pretty clear idea of who was next in the pecking order, and it kept people from talking over each other. The “feeling” hand signals let people respond to what was being said without interrupting the speaker.

An additional element was timing. Each person had seven minutes to start with when they began speaking. At the end of that seven minutes, people would vote on whether to give the person another four minutes to speak. At the end of four minutes, people would vote on giving an additional three, then two, then one. Voting was a simple thumbs up/thumbs down or sideways for “neutral” (and if a majority were neutral, then the subject was deemed not interesting enough to continue). The intent was to keep people from droning on and on or repeating themselves (there’s also a hand signal for that, twirling your fingers around each other, but that wasn’t part of the Lean Coffee I attended).

Hippy Dippy Yippee

If all of this sounds silly or artificial, it’s because it is. Then again, did you watch the rules of the Texas State Legislature when Wendy Davis made her stand? Again, regardless of your politics it can’t be denied that there were arcane and arbitrary rules being used by both sides to try and achieve their ends. Ever since the first campfire discussion we’ve tried to come up with rules and methods to make group discussions more comprehensible. In a perfect world everyone is equanimous, concise, polite, and seeking mutual understanding. Anyone who’s been in any kind of committee meeting knows we do not live in a perfect world.

I didn’t stay for the whole discussion, and at the time I found I really didn’t like using the signals. They felt constraining, they felt a little silly, they felt like they drained the passion out of the conversation. I looked at it as a simple experiment, but not something I’d want to adopt.

Then I went to Ann Arbor last weekend.

The Sound of Listening

Have you ever been a part of a group of artists discussing something? How about a group of teachers? It can get pretty raucous and passionate. Now imagine a group of artists and teachers talking about how to teach art, in a room where there are a bunch of other artists and teachers actually teaching art. Mind. Blown. The ideas flowed and expanded and overlapped and synergistically built on each other and it was amazing.

It was also chaotic. Interruptions. Hard-to-hear voices, especially when people strongly agreed or disagreed with something. Lots of hands raised, sometime unseen by the person speaking or by others who simply spoke up. Suddenly at a certain moment when I saw one friend across the room wanting to talk, I found myself pointing at her. Another woman to my left raised her hand as well, but I knew most people couldn’t see her, and I found myself pointing two fingers of my other hand at her. It was a natural reaction: we should listen to her next, and then this other person needs a turn. Sure enough, the person who was speaking saw my hands, looked over, and ceded the table to the new idea.

In other words, it may have been silly and artificial – but it works. Here’s your challenge this week: give it a try. Maybe around the dinner table with kids, maybe at an informal “test” meeting at work (remember, you don’t have to reference Occupy Wall Street; use Toyota, it’s got a better track record). I suspect, like me, it will feel really weird during that first meeting, and you might just dismiss it as a harebrained idea.

But I bet at your next meeting without it, you’ll wish that at least some of the people used it.

Then again, I could be wrong. Let me know what you think!

practice good hugs

Hugs, Broccoli, & Yoga

“We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” – Virginia Satir, “The Mother of Family Therapy

Basibanget via Flickr CCAs promised, today’s Practice post is all about hugging. Hugging may not be your thing, but like broccoli and yoga, it probably should be. As a liberal dance artsy type, I’m pretty familiar with hugs; as a midwestern male former Marine I’m also pretty familiar with how awkward, clumsy, and even creepy they can be. So how do you manage to get your RDHA (Recommended Daily Hug Allowance) without getting a reputation as Person Most Likely to Be a Reincarnated Octopus?

Here’s a few tips that I’ve found work pretty well. Keep in mind they are only suggestions – not rules. In researching this post, I found many “how to” guides on hugging, and after many head-shakes, spit-takes, and more than a few expletives following the words “What the –“, I threw them all out. Everything that follows is either hard science or else personal opinion. Cultural mores? Customs? I can’t pretend to speak for your world, your friends, family, or comfort zone. Use your best judgement.

  1. You need hugs. Saying “I’m not a hugger” is kind of like saying “I’m not an exerciser” or “Yeah, nutrition, I’m not into that.” It may be true, but your body – specifically your body chemistry, which controls things like your mood – is totally into that. So bite the broccoli and get your hugs.
  2. Ask for consent. Just as you wouldn’t force-feed someone broccoli or do “enforced yoga”, if someone doesn’t want to hug you, you need to gracefully accept the “no.” More than that, you should give them the opportunity to say no – ask “Are you a hugger?” or hold your arms out (see #3) when you’re still quite far away from them, so they have time to frown, shake their head, run away, or give you some other indication that they are ok with their depleted oxytocin.
  3. When in doubt, do an X hug. Did you know hugs can be dominant or submissive? Or that if you hug someone around the neck, it’s romantic? Neither did I. In fact, I’m pretty sure I still don’t know those things. What I do know is that when I started giving X hugs, things got easier. All that means is that you hold up your right hand and stretch down with your left. Hopefully your hug partner does the same, and when you come together your arms make an X – that then collapses in on itself, because you want to try and –
  4. Hug Longer. Though I’ve heard “six seconds” is as long as it takes to get the oxytocin pumping, all the research I found online said twenty seconds or more. Now, that can be easy if it’s somebody you’re really comfortable with, but it can be a really long time if it’s someone you don’t really know all that well. One way to get past that is to simply –
  5. Breathe. C’mon, you knew that if this was a touchy-feelie post I was going to say “Just breathe…” at some point, right? If I didn’t, they’d take away my Personal-Development Blogger License. The fact is, though, when you breathe deliberately you not only center yourself, you also give the person you’re hugging something to focus on. Above all, don’t hold your breath – it kind of negates the point of the hug. The other person might be holding their breath, which we’ll cover in number seven. But you should breathe, and just breathe. In fact, you kind of step out of space and time and –
  6. Make a Bubble. For the duration of the hug – no more, no less – don’t do anything else. Step out of the busy, create a tiny little unreality where the two of you are simply sharing human touch – a language far deeper than words or even expressions, a language so deep our bodies are designed to respond to it. Take just that little moment – that twenty seconds out of your day – and make it just for hugging. If it helps, decide that for that one-fifth of a minute your job, your vocation, your calling in life is to hug well. After that you can go back to being a rocket surgeon or whatever.
  7. Listen for the Disengage. This is a vital skill. This is how you aren’t creepy. You are paying attention to the other person’s body language to judge how comfortable they are with the hug. Sometimes people just hug you back. Other times they tense up at first, but you’re breathing (right?) and they kind of relax into it. Sometimes they just keep holding their breath though, and that’s your cue to disengage. Not like they’re hot lava, but quickly and graciously. Also, if they do hug you back, be listening for that moment their body signals they want the hug to end. It may come from their hands, it may be a slight drawing-back of the body – but whatever it is, listen to it and respect it. Do not force a hug to last longer, any more than you would force a dinner guest to have seconds on broccoli.
  8. Acknowledge. It doesn’t have to be a big deal – just a simple “Thanks” or even a smile and a nod. Whatever it is, it’s like you had a conversation, and at the end you say “goodbye” or “see ya later.” You don’t just walk off abruptly. You’ve just made a bubble and breathed together and communicated – so give that triumphant example of human interaction its proper due and say “Hey, thanks for the hug…
  9. Establish a Supply. I don’t expect you to hug everyone for twenty seconds or more (though if you do please email me and let me know how that went). While you can offer hugs to everyone – and yes, you’ll be known as “that huggy person” and suffer the fearful derision of the macho – you will find out pretty quickly that there are some people you can get your twenty seconds from and some who are just good for a brief pat on the back. That’s fine – you can become a hug connoisseur, and appreciate the trust involved with simply being in such close proximity to another human. Save the hug buddies for when you both really need your fix.
  10. Hug How You Want. In researching this post I came across a lot of derisive posts about certain kinds of hugging. Some said the “guy hug” (clasping hands and bumping shoulders with a single hearty pat on the back) was ridiculous. Others talked about how bad “A” hugs were compared with “I” hugs, or that you had to be a certain age or height differential to hug other people. All of this is hearsay, custom, opinion, and bull. The twenty second thing? That’s backed by science. But everything else is basically about you and the person you’re hugging. So ignore convention, and do what feels right to both of you.

That’s it! Got more suggestions? Any hug questions for me? That’s what the comment section is for! Now go out there and hug!

Did you know that giving on Patreon feels almost as good as a hug?
Ok, that may not be backed by science –
but I know it feels good,
because my patrons have told me so.