Tag Archives: Strength

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.

On Strength

I first tried to climb the black route on lane one at the climbing gym some time ago. After weeks of alternately attempting and staring at the tricky holds in dismay, I climbed it. The next day, I tackled the purple route, the one with the big sloping handholds. I got higher than I ever have, fell, and then climbed one hold higher. While I had developed my strength since that first attempt, I have also become more deliberate and more precise. In climbing, as in much of our lives, this makes a difference.

Feeling stronger has me thinking about what strength means and where I have found it over time. As a friend once pointed out, I have written about human fragility and vulnerability but I have not focused nearly as much on strength and resilience. I think there are good reasons for this, but that was then. Now is a different time.


I would like to talk here about physical strength in the sense that it takes mental strength to grow physically stronger. I’m reading The Rock Warrior’s Way by Arno Ilgner right now and much of what I’m reading aligns beautifully with my experiences learning meditation. The mind has a remarkable influence on the body and, as Eastern philosophy suggests, there may not be any separation between the two. When I’m feeling happy and positive, the world looks prettier. So too, my body moves more easily. Conversely, when my shoulders are cramped from hunching over a desk and my mind is already in a rut because my shoulders are sore, my body responds unhappily when I ask it to move and my mind continues to complain.

But there is more to strength than the link between mind and body. There is, for example, the sensation of soaring when the two work in concert.

Strength is the feeling that whatever comes next is within my grasp. It is reachable. It is possible.

Strength is the feeling of trust in myself and courage in the face of difficult choices. Strength is the commitment to this thing right here right now rather than acquiescence, resignation, or tacit agreement.

Strength is the ability to challenge oneself and to ask, as I learned in a Coursera course during Singapore’s circuit breaker, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”. Listening to the answer to that question is far more frightening than asking it, but crucial to ask if we are to learn who we are and what we are capable of.


A long time ago, I knew a group of people who measured worth, achievement, and level of respect due someone based on their estimate of the person’s 5k run time. It didn’t matter if you were better than them in any other thing; you couldn’t run a 5k as well as they could. To these young men, speed was the form of strength.

I have been running for about ten years now and I, too, measured my running in terms of speed. A good day was a fast run and a bad day was characterised by a slow run, regardless of how much I might have enjoyed it. Taking time off running, whether for injury or travel or anything else, was sapping the physical strength that defined my understanding of how strong I was or could be. Slowing down, be it physically or mentally, was a sign of weakness, despite how much I might have needed it.

I am older now, older, wiser, and a bit more beaten around by the world than I was back then. I took seven weeks off of running and recently started again, very slowly. But I breathed the air, felt the heat from the sun, and experienced the expansiveness of my heart that comes from being along the water and moving my body in the company of strangers doing the same. Would I have noticed this in the way I did without the time off?

This ability to notice, and then to see, is a sign of strength. Otherwise, I am merely going through the motions without ever doing the hard work of asking why. And without noticing, I fail to take the opportunity to learn.

To be strong means to attempt, to err, and always aim to learn. We are in this life to grow and to leave the world a better place than we found it. Having the humility to recognise that others have things to teach us and that we do not know all is a form of strength.


Recent global events have tested my capacity to tolerate, to embrace, and to be flexible when confronted with things I disagree with, dislike, or wish were different. Personal experience has taught me that while it is important to know what I can and cannot tolerate, there is also a difference between cannot and will not. In many ways, this is a choice.

And I believe I am stronger for having learned that.

And I believe I am stronger for looking at those black and purple climbs and asking, “What if I?” instead of telling myself, “You can’t”.

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.” -Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum

Interlaken, Switzerland – December 2019