Recently I talked with a student who has a bit of a reputation. I’m teaching this student, we’ll call him Jay, for the second year now and I teach him in two courses, IBDP Psychology and Theory of Knowledge. Like many individuals, young and old alike, Jay behaves differently in different contexts and around different people. When I met his mother for the first time she introduced herself as the mother of this “infamous” (her word) young man and told me to reach out if I had any problems.
I’ve taught more than a few of “those kids” over the years and I really like them. I really just like young people, actually, and that’s among the reasons I have chosen to work with them. My conversation with Jay highlighted the importance of having conversations, real ones about real things, with the young people we are raising and with anyone willing to take part.
It started because Jay asked, while reviewing his psychology notes, whether it’s true that being in an MRI with a nipple piercing can kill you. I answered the question the way I try to answer all questions from all people, which is in the spirit that they are meant. This was a real question for this student and it was important to address it as such.
After MRIs, we talked about tattoos, parents, and schoolwork. This led us to talk of what he actually enjoys and we talked about his experiences in the working world. We talked about what it means to be a good person and what it means to do the right thing, and about global politics and the current state of his country of origin. And through it, I learned a lot about who Jay is and how he sees the world.
Upon leaving the room, I wondered two things. First, would this conversation have happened had I not responded openly and respectfully to the question about piercings and MRIs? And furthermore, how many opportunities like this do we miss?
I have written about this before, particularly in a very old blog post that you can read here. (This is an example of a piece of writing on which I have not wavered, which is not true for everything I’ve written.) It is worth revisiting because conversation is important and conversation with young people is critical to who they become and the world that they know. If we want young people to engage with the world around them and improve it, we as adults need to walk through this world with them. We need to guide, support, facilitate. We need to respect, listen, hear, and respond. We need to do this with young people but also with one another. Without conversation, without connecting with others, we will be unable to make the world a better, more peaceful place.
I worry that authentic conversation is not a priority, however, and perhaps there are good reasons for this. There are indeed times when something else should come first. But do we lay ourselves bare in conversation as often as we could? Do we accept that this is a time for being vulnerable and for welcoming vulnerability in others?
Or are there conversations that we prefer not to have, leading us to shy away from any conversation at all? “I don’t like confrontation,” an old friend used to say. We are no longer in touch and I don’t know why, but I suspect it has to do with a conversation we never had.
This is an important point: Conversation is not confrontation. There are plenty of ways to have what I have learned to call courageous conversations that are not confrontational, are not arguments. There is a resolution in the end but not a winner. The frame of conversation is critical to engagement. I will respond much more openly to an invitation to talk openly with you if I know neither of us are looking to win in a zero-sum argument.
Lately I have become interested in SCARF, a model by David Rock that addresses five domains of human social experience that have profound affects on brain function and therefore our responses to other people. The five domains are: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. These domains activate either threat or reward networks in the brain, much in the same way as snarling dogs and money. Neuroscience has demonstrated that we are less capable of solving problems and thinking clearly or creatively when we feel threatened. It is no wonder that confrontations and arguments are unpleasant, inconclusive, and often lead to unwelcome changes in relationships between individuals. Along these lines, it is not a surprise that we grow defensive when our status, sense of certainty, personal autonomy, feelings of relatedness, and sense of fairness are threatened. We throw up walls and we become untouchable in order to protect ourselves, and our minds do not work clearly.
This is not the case in conversation. A conversation can be, and important ones often are, confronting to the self without being confrontational towards another person. We can disagree but not argue. Instead of trying to be right or convince someone else that they’re wrong, we can talk with the aim of understanding where, why, and how we’re different. Minds may or may not change but we will all come out wiser, wiser about who we are and about how to understand and interact with the people around us.
There is much we can learn when we are brave enough, strong enough, open enough, to try. Willingness to be vulnerable is essential; it is the way to know ourselves and to show ourselves to others. This is how we must be if we want a world, and I do, in which we hold one another in the palms of our hands. Within such vulnerability is a great strength that allows us to take each other by the hand and forge a path together.
A place to begin is by hearing others and responding in ways that show we are listening. A place to begin is to hear Jay ask about piercings and enter into a conversation about life and the universe.