We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter, Celeste Headlee

When I began to work on my conversation skills, I asked myself: Am I doing the things Salman Rushdie does that make him such a delight to speak with? Was I listening to what people said and then responding, or did I simply wait for them to take a breath so I could say the clever thing I’d already formulated in my mind? After my third interview with the novelist, I started to take note of how often I listened closely before I responded. I realized I hadn’t really been listening to him, and that meant that we didn’t really have a conversation. I had just been asking unconnected questions, crafted in advance, unchanged by his answers.

33385019It’s easy to turn a blind eye to our communication weaknesses; we tend to make exceptions and excuses for our mistakes, and sometimes even go so far as to recast our weaknesses into strengths. For example, you may not enjoy making small talk with your neighbors at the end of a long day, but you tell yourself that the reason you avoid eye contact with the guy next door is because you respect everyone’s privacy. Or let’s say you’re reluctant to engage with your colleagues at the office. You may tell yourself it’s because you don’t want to interrupt them when they’re working or because you’re too focused on your own work to waste time, but the truth is you may not care what the person in the adjacent cubicle did over the weekend.

We have an amazing capacity to justify almost any action that we want to take or avoid. Pat Wagner, a management and communication consultant at Pattern Research, refers to these justifications as “virtuous flaws.” Of course, we rarely extend the same courtesy to others. We don’t talk to people on the elevator but say of a coworker, “She’s so cold! When I pass her in the hall, she barely says hello.” Wagner says we are frequently oblivious to how poor our interpersonal skills are and how they affect other people. We don’t know or don’t care that our tendency to interrupt is discouraging others from speaking up in meetings or that our failure to remember details makes people anxious.

Here’s an exercise I used to try to get over this perception problem. (It’s based on something that Wagner does in her workshops.) I made a list of the things people do in conversation that bother me. Do they repeat themselves? Ramble on? Interrupt? I wrote it all down. Then, I took that list to my friends and coworkers and asked them how many of those things they think I do. I asked if I do those things often or just once in a while. I made sure to impress upon them that I was looking for absolute honesty because the purpose of the exercise was to improve my skills and I promised not to be offended by their answers. This was a scary enterprise, but a very, very enlightening one. (loc 756)

This whole post could easily be filled quotes from this book, and you would be well served. My husband recommended it to me after hearing Ms. Headlee on a podcast (he listens to all the things, I read all the things, and then we discuss – it plays to both of our strengths), and I was immediately intrigued.

I’m one of those introverts who loves to talk with close friends and family, but recently, I’d been feeling a disconnect from some of the people in my life I’m closest to, and I was desperate to find a way to broach some difficult topics with them. I’d run through the conversations in my head many times, but I was feeling anxious and unprepared for the reality of sharing those thoughts. I knew it was crucial to go into the conversations with the right strategy, and I’ll be the first to admit that this sort of planning is not my strong suit. (Words that have been used to describe my conversational style include: brash, blunt, and somewhat generously, straightforward.) I wasn’t sure a journalist’s take on conversation was going to be the help I needed, but it seemed like a good place to start. As it turned out, a person who speaks to others for a living is a wonderful resource on what works (and what doesn’t) in conversation.

Headlee is the first to admit she has done many things wrong over the course of her long career, but in her efforts to improve, she has struck on some salient advice for those of us trying to muddle through more mundane conversations. What really struck me though was something she mentioned in the quote above – how she started to think about characteristics that irritated her in conversations with others, and how she realized that many of those traits were hers to struggle with as well. For me (and this is related to being an introvert, and therefore not always quick to follow the conversational gambit, especially in meetings or during important or complicated discussions), my biggest challenge is that I try to formulate my side of the conversation either beforehand or while the other person is speaking. The idea of pausing, of allowing empty space in the middle of a discussion is stressful, so my brain is always busy pumping out ideas (not always gems, either) to fill those dreaded gaps.

While I was considering this problem, I realized that in recent conversations with people I’m struggling to connect with, I was in overdrive. My brain was so panicked about the problems we were facing, I wasn’t giving the other person space to explore their own pain aloud without jumping in to offer advice or sympathy – anything that would patch over what felt hard to manage. Instead of focusing on their needs, I was absorbed in myself, and it was causing the rift to get worse.

It seems like we rarely converse anymore. I mean, we talk and we chat (often over text or e-mail), but we don’t really hash things out. We spend a lot of time avoiding uncomfortable conversations and not enough time making an effort to understand the people who live and work around us.

Once I really got into the meat of this book, I felt a huge sense of release. Here were some genuine and thoughtful ideas for improving my conversational skills, and when I tried them out in lower stakes situations, they worked! And I don’t mean just sometimes, but every time I used them, the conversation was more successful. (The only person it didn’t work with was my mother, but I suspect that’s because decades old conversational paths take more practice to diverge from – for the record, I was trying to be a more patient listener after a lifetime of her being the one who listens well to me.) I felt empowered to go into the conversations I had been dreading with an open mind, rather than a well rehearsed script, and the results were better than I could have imagined.

I don’t often read books that I feel everyone could benefit from, but it would be amazing if this were taught to children…and then also became mandatory reading for the workplace, driving schools, family reunions, political summits. We could all use this information to become not just more astute listeners, but better friends, and partners, and advocates. Communities on all scales would thrive from the education Headlee provides in this book, and with them, each of us as individuals.

If you’re still looking for a present for the holidays, consider this – and make sure you read it before wrapping, because the best gift you can give to the people you care about is an attentive ear and mind.

Happy Thanksgiving

The Summer Day, Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

This is, perhaps, a strange piece to share today (unless you’re in the southern hemisphere, in which case, enjoy the coming summer months!). It’s Thanksgiving in the US, and this year, we have no elaborate meal, no friends stopping by, no plans other than to attempt to teach our oldest how to make pie and stuffing (the only two foods my husband can’t do without). A part of me wishes we had the distraction of a busy day. Activity is a pleasant diversion, and we certainly have much to be grateful for, and to celebrate.

Right now, however, we’re also struggling to balance the joy in our life with the immense sadnesses of several of our closest friends. They are not my stories to share, but I carry them heavy in my heart right now. On a day of indulgence, family, and tradition, I’m finding it hard to do anything beyond live in the tiny moments – the grasshopper in my hand moments – because the bigger picture is too daunting, and shadowy, and hard.

The tiny moments though, they make up my days with the frenetic love of toddler attention spans. They are tiny fingers clasped around mine, buoying me through tearfilled phone calls. They are ten second snuggles, and unexpected baby belly laughs, and the blossoming of brotherhood. They are a house, clean for five minutes before a whirlwind of adventure displaces every little thing, and a sink overflowing while we stroll in the sun. They are the careful attention of a two year old sous chef, and the flinging of small bodies into outstretched arms.

They are my salvation right now, and for them, I am thankful.

Nobody Told Me: Love in the Time of Dementia, S.R. Karfelt

AFTER MILLENNIA OF marriage and centuries of children, I thought I understood love. Dementia is teaching me so much more about it. It reminds me of that quote from Alan Bennett in The Lady in the Van, “Caring is shit.” It’s said while he’s fussing about the problems with the homeless woman living in a van in his driveway. Low brow as it might sound, I found it rather profound. Shit. You have to put up with a lot of it for love. You give it and you get it. Marketing and movies focus on the pretty parts of love, but there are all sorts of love and a whole lot of it isn’t pretty.

51dushu4z4l-_sx337_bo1204203200_Love is hiding in the lounge at assisted living and writing your mother-in-law’s name on her underthings so they can be sent to the laundry.

Love is Juan, after weeks of international travel, dragging his jet-lagged bones to assisted living and sorting through the hodgepodge of his mother’s clothes, teacups, and papers, and taking down all the wall art he spent hours putting up.

Love is Plan B or C or D or whatever we’re on now. It’s a Spartan plan. That means no decorations, just a couple boxes of pictures. 

Love is realizing that making Gummy’s new home like her old one was our ideal. We don’t know Gummy’s ideal, and she can’t remember it.

Love is realizing what used to comfort doesn’t anymore. Gummy’s been giving her teacups away. She doesn’t recognize that they belong to her. She hides them in drawers to keep them safe. Later she panics because they are disappearing.

Love is the nurses and aides who get hit and scratched by patients with dementia, and take it in stride.

Love is adult grandkids who get slapped by a grandmother who’s doted on them, and forgive, and comfort their grandmother in her dementia-fueled anger.

Love is people who take time out of their days to spend time with people who suffer from this disease. Especially those who give so much of themselves to Gummy.

I just love her, they say.

Maybe she can’t remember their names, but she remembers the love part.

Because people are people and love isn’t forgotten, even when particulars are. People suffering dementia still need love. It doesn’t look anything like the Hollywood version; it looks like work. Feels like it too.

Real love is messy and hard sometimes, but it’s all we’ve got. Yes, we love her, and, yes, she’s giving us a hell of a lot of shit. (loc 1561)

My grandparents were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (both grandfathers) and dementia (both grandmothers) way before anyone else we knew was heading down this particular medical rabbit hole. My parents – both only children – were under the crippling burden of caring for their parents just as all of their friends were enjoying becoming empty nesters. I got to witness, for over a decade, two of the very best people I know share a terrible weight as they watched the people they loved best in the world slip away in agonizing fits and starts.
As my mother sometimes jokes (now that the worst of it is over, and their parents have passed on to what I dearly hope is better than the hell that is dementia), “At least we got a book out of it!” And we did. It’s called Caring for Ourselves While Caring for Our Elders, and she and I wrote it in partnership with a psychotherapist named Leann McCall Tigert in 2007, when we were still in it neck deep with my grandmothers. In the book, my job was to document what it was like to watch the so-called Sandwich Generation deal with the enormous stress of caring for both parents and children. Spoiler alert: it’s tough. It’s not, however, anywhere near as difficult as being the person doing the caregiving (a fact I grasp much more fully now than I did ten years ago).
I often think about my grandparents, who were so integral to my life, as I watch my parents and in-laws with my children. I remember them as the vibrant people they were when I was a child, and I also remember them as the vulnerable, sometimes difficult people they were in their late eighties and nineties – the deaf (my father’s parents) and the blind (my mother’s), the memory deficient (all), and eventually, the frail. I loved them all fiercely, and I was also angry at them because caring for them aged my parents just when they were supposed to be free.
The worry was everpresent. Every time the phone rang, disaster lurked. Trips were few and far between. Vacations were nonexistent. It was very much like having a baby, except that it was heartbreaking. These intelligent, compassionate, fascinating people were left greatly reduced by dementia, and yet even at the very end, there was so much love and appreciation on both sides.
I’ve never read a book that conveyed the balancing act better than Karfelt’s did. I put off reading it for a few months because I didn’t want to be sad; when I finally started though, I couldn’t stop. I must have recommended it to twenty people by the time I finished. I put countless bookmarks in it. I highlighted. I laughed. I read passages aloud to my husband to explain why I was weeping. I called my mother up multiple times and told her, “This was you! She’s you!”
When I finished, I felt as though a piece of my soul had been seen and recorded. The loneliness of dementia – of caring for a person with it, of having it, of hurting as it erodes familiarity – she captured it all. She made me think again about what it must have been like for my parents, about how deeply loving and present they were for so many years, about what a gift that was to my grandparents, and to my brother and me, even when we struggled with it.
Because people are people and love isn’t forgotten, even when particulars are.

The Refrigerator Monologues, Catherynne M. Valente

I’m in the middle of a great book right now, and while I definitely had planned on being done with it so I could post my review, life had other plans. As a result, I’m digging into the back catalogue of exceptional books I read on maternity leave, and The Refrigerator Monologues immediately presented itself.

the-refrigerator-monologues-coverIn case you’re not familiar with the concept of “fridging” a character, it’s short for “women in refrigerators” (I didn’t know this, but apparently the term originated with a Green Lantern storyline, where the hero’s girlfriend was killed and put into a fridge for him to find). It’s used when a female character is killed, maimed, stripped of power, and/or raped by the villain for the express purpose of furthering the male hero’s journey.

This happens on television all the time. I can’t count how many shows I’ve quit watching after one (or more – often more) great female characters are fridged to motivate a man to action. It’s an infuriating trope, which is why I was so delighted to find this dark gem, a book that follows the stories of fridged victims – both superheroes and the girlfriends of superheroes – and gives them the spotlight they were robbed of.

I’ve enjoyed Valente’s more family friendly fairy tales for years, and it was fascinating to see this side of her work. While I wouldn’t recommend this book to just anyone – even fans of hers may be wary of the language and themes – for those who find the fridge frustrating, who debate pointless character deaths bitterly with friends, who could just do with a breather from mainstream fascination with the exquisite pain of the white male journey, this one’s for you.

A Beautiful Work in Progress, Mirna Valerio

I love my children. I love being a mother, a daughter, a wife, a sister, a friend. I love that I have so many people who surround me with their love and their support. I love that as much as I lean on them, they also need me.

But. I’m also an introvert. I gain clarity, strength, and patience from being on my own. I get giddy when the door closes and I find myself alone in my own home, or sitting quietly at my computer in a coffee shop surrounded by others who are happy to be together but separate, or standing in the predawn light with my running shoes on and a playlist queued up.

511rwxq1f7l-_sy344_bo1204203200_At this particular point in my life, none of those things happen. I have a baby who refuses to take a bottle (completely unlike my first kid, who couldn’t have cared less where his meal came from as long as it was efficiently provided), which means the only time I’m physically alone is on the rare drive over to the recycling center five minutes away. (If you were going to suggest “the bathroom,” well, you’ll have to excuse me while I die laughing along with just about every mother in the history of mothers.) Five months in with baby number two, and I’m ready for a return to a little much-needed mental and physical personal space. For me, it’s a matter of self-care, and recognizing how difficult it is not to have that right now is one of the things that keeps me sane.

I’m not looking for a vacation from my life. My people are a special and loved part of who I am, but I can tell I’m becoming less of my best self because I don’t have that time away from doing for and listening to and being present for others. I especially miss my morning runs. Those workouts used to be the cornerstone of my mental health, not because I’m a gifted runner, but because they required a certain joyful grit to accomplish.

We have a saying in the world of education, more specifically in the area of diversity, inclusion, and equity. It’s an axiom to live by. With it, we will be able to weather many things—inconveniences, moments of shame, those times when we make huge mistakes, when we drop the ball, when our kids embarrass us (or we them), when some occurrence forces us far from our own personal boxes of emotional comfort and safety.

Lean into the discomfort.

To my diversity brain, the phrase means to embrace what is difficult so that you may progress. Welcome what makes you frightened and what makes your heart rate rise. Greet that sense of uncertainty into your life so that you may explore yourself more deeply.

Lean into the discomfort.

To my long-distance runner’s ears, this axiom means embrace the suck. A lot of long-distance running sucks. But what sustains runners are those moments of beauty, those instances where you feel weightless and unencumbered. We embrace the suck so that we can fully embrace what doesn’t suck, to fully receive it. (pg 286)

Finding this book (recommended to me by my mother after I mentioned how out of shape and frustrated I was feeling) has been a godsend. I wasn’t familiar with Mirna Valerio before reading it, although I know now that she has a popular blog (which I’m now getting caught up on) and has been featured in publications like Runner’s World. I honestly can’t believe I didn’t know about her before this. A plus-sized black ultra runner? She’s definitely an outlier in her field, but as a woman who doesn’t fit the lean, long-legged stereotype of a traditional runner, her memoir inspired me deeply.

It filled a void I didn’t realize existed. To read about a woman who doesn’t run to lose weight, but for the sheer joy of covering huge distances over difficult terrain – it was exactly what I needed as I try to map out the next few months of my life, as I shake off the exhaustion and excuses of the newborn haze and kick myself back in gear.

Of course, it’s easy to read a book like this one, to pore over it each evening as the baby is falling asleep in my arms and the toddler is talking himself down in the next room, and to feel that burst of energy that comes from getting out on the road. It’s another to actually do it. I can feel myself stuttering and shying away from how hard it will be to coordinate, to regain strength, distance, and speed, and to learn a new skill (running with a stroller – another experience my eldest child had zero interest in trying). I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to get back to where I was, or to get to someplace better, and that’s frustrating. I want to have a plan in place, but I’m feeling out this new territory one day, one step, at a time. At least now, I can imagine Valerio, out on a treacherous trail in the dark of night, doing the same thing. One foot, then another.

What we are now is not what we were. Where we are now is not where we will be, unless we want to continue existing in the same reality over and over again. (p 299)

Coed Demon Sluts (Omnibus), Jennifer Stevenson

Nothing like jumping back into the mix after a few months off with a review about a five book series called Coed Demon Sluts. Maybe it’s the sleep deprivation, or maybe it’s the constant parental wariness required when caring for an enthusiastically loving toddler big brother and a five month old who’s game for anything as long as it involves being near said sibling, but it makes me laugh. Why not talk about books that feature women who have made a deal with hell to become sex demons that are funny and thoughtful with a refreshing feminist philosophy?

81uhpceu5xl-__bg0000_fmpng_ac_ul320_sr214320_Popcorn lit is one of my favorite genres, and the best are those easily digested by the mind slop currently inhabiting the space where my brain usually lives. These books though, had the added bonus of exploring fascinating issues around societal expectations of sex and sex work for women and men, appearance as it relates to size, race, and sexual identity, and female friendships and support networks.

After the first two books, I was a bit concerned because I didn’t necessarily agree with some of the conclusions being drawn – for example, the women/demons are able to shape their appearance any way they’d like, and each of the original four characters choose tall, thin, young, impossibly beautiful bodies. I don’t believe that given the option, every woman would want the same template, but it did pique my interest around the way women often by necessity associate power and appearance.

It also made me all the happier to get to the third book and see this stereotype start to be dismantled in the rest of the series. In fact, as much as I enjoyed the first two books, Stevenson told her strongest story throughout the last three volumes. The five books are very much written as one, and although each follows one demon in particular, I found it worked better to consider each an extension of the same story.

Honestly, once a conversation gets going around male gaze, the worship of youth, racial bias, the long term effects of abuse, and the privilege surrounding wealth and beauty, it’s difficult to dismiss these books as light summer reading. I’m a huge advocate for read what you love (lest you read nothing at all), and I think it’s both appropriate and inspired to see an author tackle these topics in such an accessible way. It feels like Stevenson is really living out the idea of meeting people where they live, encouraging her readers to enjoy a mental vacation without sacrificing a sense of empathy and connectedness with the wider world.

Quick housekeeping note: I said I’d be writing again in September, and I’ve clearly got things well in hand (definitely not sliding in under the wire here – nope, not at all). It turns out, having two young children makes it more difficult to write, not less, and although I’ve actually read about thirty books since May, it’s been insane to try to get even ten minutes on my computer to talk about them. This post (and probably many of my future reviews) was written with one thumb on my phone. I apologize for any errors that might occur as a result. At any rate, I’m happy to be back.

Shoulders, Naomi Shihab Nye

Shoulders

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

This will be my last post until September. I’m taking parental leave, and I know that despite my best intentions, the likelihood of getting back here before the unofficial “start of the year” (for me, the year has and will always begin at Labor Day) is a pipe dream. Having one kiddo was busy – having a newborn and a toddler, I expect, will be chaos.

That being said, I never get tired of sharing Nye’s work with a larger audience. She has been one of my favorite poets (although she’s a wonderful author of fiction, as well) for over a decade now, and I’m constantly stumbling over her words, tucked away in some notebook or word doc I’ve saved, at the perfect moment. For me, this is that time. I’m on the precipice of a life change I can hardly imagine but feel deeply blessed to have, and at the same time, I’m concerned that our second child will be born into a world so dramatically different than our first.

Our first was a child born of Summer (I still remember being moved by that idea of “eternal” plenty when I read A Game of Thrones back in 2001). Although the world was far from “fixed,” it was still a hopeful period for this country. The rights of many were being recognized in ways they hadn’t before, and the political spirit was leaning toward uplifting the most vulnerable rather than trampling them. My own life, and the lives of many of my nearest and dearest were in celebratory periods, and I felt a great confidence – not only in myself, but in friends and stranger alike. I floated through pregnancy enjoying a sense of alignment with the world that I don’t think I felt before or since.

This time around, I’m much more anxious. The things I hear and see, the lengths people have to go to to be recognized with simple dignity, the pain I’m witness to in the people closest to me – it has been a far cry from the sunny peace of two years ago. I feel a sense of powerlessness and exhaustion to make the kind of statements I want to make for myself, my family, my neighbors, and those around the world who are suffering horrendously. And yet, this little wiggle, this busy kid I carry with me everywhere, he offers me great comfort. He is a reminder, when I feel overwhelmed, of my ability to empathize with other mothers no matter our differences, to have patience with the greater questions, to be as kind to those I meet as I hope they will be one day to him.

It’s a lot to get from a little person who hasn’t made an official appearance yet, but I’m profoundly grateful. The serenity of the world may not surround me right now, but I can still find it, still breathe deeper remembering my role – not just as a parent, but as a human being – is not to fix everything or celebrate always, but to keep my eyes open for opportunities to care for those who cross my path.

 

Be well, my book loving friends. I look forward to rejoining you in a few months and hope in the meantime, you find great books to transport and transform you.