Tag Archives: Relationships

How to Have a Conversation

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.

Conversation

Oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conversation

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.

Confrontation
A face-to-face meeting; the clashing of forces or ideas

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/confrontation

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.

Dancing in the Kitchen

This year, for the first time ever, I am not spending the summer with my family. In the past, much of this summertime has seen me with my mum playing together in the kitchen, but, unfortunately this cannot be. So for the moment, I’ve been sharing meals with friends and reflecting on times past.

I’ve written many times that if love is a verb, love requires action. This means behaving in ways that give love. We can show love in many ways, such as holding those who need holding, listening to those who are speaking, helping when help is needed, and giving of our time. Another way to show love, I deeply believe, is through cooking. A few years ago, my mum sewed me an apron embroidered with the words, “Love people. Cook them tasty food.” I think that sums it up.

In terms of cooking, there are two ways to show love: preparing food for others and preparing food with others.

In preparing food for others, the acts of chopping, slicing, dicing, washing, peeling, and whisking (to highlight just the tip of the iceberg) are not accidental – all are intentional. These acts require us to consider others and are the visible evidence of a desire to nourish, which is an act of care. Care in this context is a way to love.

Cooking for others may not involve the seeking of reciprocity. We prepare food that we think others will enjoy, and not with the purpose of raising ourselves in their eyes. So, when we sometimes cook for others in order to impress them, that is not an act of love. Preparing a meal for those in need, however, whether due to the demands that a joyous arrival of a newborn baby or the sorrow of a loss may bring, is something we do for those we care about – for those we love.

In such circumstances, when I cook for others out of love, my favorite meal to prepare is a hearty soup. (Admittedly, this is challenging in the tropics and I have modified my approach.) Soup is a meal that warms from the inside out and is filling, healthy, and tasty. It is simple to enjoy with no more than pepper and bread, and unpretentious with ingredients that are easy to find. There is love stirred into the soup pot.

In addition to showing love in the preparation of food for others, there is also cooking with others. When done with love, this can be analogous to an indoor version of running through the sprinkler on a hot day. It can be glorious or it can be a complete disaster (think thunderstorms and mud flung into eyes) but either way, if it is done with love, it ends in smiles and laughter.

Cooking with others is joyful and spirited. It is the creative interplay of working together, a fluid dynamic that involves trust and tolerance of another person. As my mum has said, “We dance the kitchen dance really well.” And yet, sometimes we get in each other’s way. This is when we take a step back and respect each other’s space, and this requires a significant degree of humility on our part, a willingness to simply let the other person be. We welcome their playfulness, their mistakes, and their laughter – because we do the same.

The kitchen dance, as I know it, is what I think walking hand in hand through the world might look like. It is beautiful and intricate in parts, yet it also requires the discipline to take on the responsibility that it brings. It is not simply preparing food but also caring for all parts of the journey; the sharpening and honing of knives, the clearing of counters, the washing of dishes, and the scrubbing of pots and pans, and finally, the clearing of the table. Together. Us. Rejoicing, frolicking.

A word of warning, however. It is important to recognise that there is a difference between two people working in a kitchen and combining food, and two people dancing in the kitchen and creating food. There is a synthesis of senses in the latter that may not exist in the former. There is a give-and-take between us as texture, taste, scent, and sight of the elements are explored. What I do now will influence the choices you make later. We bounce off and augment each other while incorporating individual creativity. Your taste and my taste guide the next element, the next move. We share as we explore, and in doing so laugh and love.

Playing in this way has led me to compose food that one would never find in recipe books. And in doing so I have found that not all of them merit repeating. But that isn’t what is important. What is meaningful, is that I have played with others in the kitchen and shared in the love that this brings. I will continue to cultivate and cherish those times and urge you and your loved ones to do the same.

Jean Talon Market – Montreal, Quebec

The Story is Not the Experience

My eyes are not working as they should be right now. The words are blurry, so I’m typing with eyes closed. I suspect it’s some sort of migraine; I’ve been there before. A headache slammed into my head shortly after I returned from my run and I’ve taken painkillers and drunk a whole lot of water, and I’m almost done with my first cup of coffee. My head is far less sore than it was half an hour ago, but my eyes haven’t caught up.

And yet, I could be wrong. Perhaps the blur is because the lenses of my glasses are simply dirty. That’s easy to test, so I take them off, give them a good wipe, and aha! Problem solved.

Yes, sometimes it’s really easy to tell when something’s wrong. Physical pain, someone we love “forgetting” to return calls, a colleague crying in the office, a teenager’s choice to adopt a dramatic new hairstyle are all obvious calls that something is up. We can see it, or feel it or hear it.

But these are symptoms, and all we know is the symptom but not the cause, so we make assumptions and our assumptions might be mistaken.

If we can be wrong when something is tangible and immediate, consider how much more wrong we can be when it’s not. I have written before about the importance of listening and building relationships and, more recently, of the challenges of communication in a digital era. That piece focused on the difficulty of sharing meaning in the absence of visual cues, but did not explicitly address the challenges of communication across time, place, and space. And it is crucial to do so.

I am speaking from the lens of one living half a world away from my family. We speak daily and message almost as often, yet we still experience breakdowns in communication. Why?

As we know, the purpose and method of communication changes out of necessity when crossing time zones. We often need to wait to contact others and there is precious little real time immediacy in our conversations. Instead, we lag. I could send a message to my mum about my blurry eyes right now, but it’s the middle of the night where she is and I can’t expect her to respond, so I turn to friends nearby or other sources for help.

I would rather have spoken with my mum, but by the hour our time windows align, my eyes have returned to normal. There are far more interesting things to discuss, and really there is no point in worrying her unnecessarily. So she will never know.

Now imagine this in a much more serious context. Imagine your partner is on a business trip and has just been robbed. Wallet gone, identification gone. When you finally speak six hours later when it’s morning for you, your partner has already gone to the police, recovered the wallet, and attended the late afternoon meeting. “I was robbed” is now a very different story. Your partner might have been terrified at the time and never mention it. Perhaps the fear itself has become a memory or perhaps he was robbed at a strip club. Either way, you’ll never know.

Let’s go further. Covid-19 is a phenomenon that has spread across the globe and it has caught us in very different places. Our experiences in the last few months differ based on location, age, employment status, living situation, health, and through what we choose to read. But we do not recognize that we see things differently, even as we compare across countries. Even though we should know better, we expect that others are experiencing largely the same things as we are.

Those sharing real time and place with a person who has contracted Covid-19 have a different experience of the illness than those who are not there, and the lived experience might not be communicated faithfully. Those present who experience scary moments, for example, might for a number of reasons omit the memory of these moments from any later conversation. This can happen either intentionally much in the same way as the examples above – why worry someone who is far away and can do nothing anyway? – or unintentionally – those moments have passed and there are other things to talk about

And yet, they may well expect others to know how they were feeling or what was happening. They may be upset that the listener does not respond with as much concern as they had expected. The speaker assumes shared context, which might be mistaken. In this case, the listener misses the fact that just because we are talking about the same thing does not mean we experienced the same thing. Similarly, it is also understandable that the speaker may leave things out. But omission means that the listener does not have the same story. 

I do not think this is anything new. We know and largely accept the above when reading the news. We know that the way we respond to nationally, globally, and culturally significant events such as war, famine, festivals, and Super Bowls varies widely depending on our experiences with these events. But we often do not consider that the same might be true of personally relevant events. We might not consider the power of time, place, and space when it hits much closer to home. 

And we might therefore make the mistake of expecting others to see, understand, and behave just like us.