November 2015: How Conversations Fail

by Brad on November 1, 2015

“There is no greater threat to the critics, cynics and fearmongers than a person who is willing to fall because they’ve learned how to rise.” — Brené Brown

We live much of life “in conversation,” generally with others, but often with ourselves, too. Despite how crucial communication is to a sense of personal well-being (and to our effectiveness), we tend to put little focus on mastering the art. We then blame the inevitable failed conversations on lack of skill or the other person, when in fact, the missing ingredient is awareness. By misidentifying the problem, we deny ourselves the possibility we long for.

The greater challenge that lack of awareness presents is that it leaves the unconscious mind in charge, just when we need creative genius most. The unconscious is home to our stories, those habituated, usually-outdated, almost-always-untrue assumptions we’ve adopted about the way life is and about who we are. After years of [unconscious] practice, we, and life, actually become these stories. It’s like being in the wilderness with a map to somewhere else – lost.

SunsetIn her book, Rising Strong, (see September newsletter), Brené Brown offers a model for living more wholeheartedly in the midst of uncertainty. She suggests that if we “get curious about our feelings and how they connect with the way we think and behave,” we make old assumptions conscious, so we can then challenge them and write a new story. What if we were to use that approach to understand how so many of our conversations fail? Our old “stories” show up in conversations as the thinking framework, or context, that surrounds them. This context remains the same independent of the conversation; remember, it’s part of who we think we are. In conversation, we notice it as intention (what we want from a conversation), interpretation (the “spin” we add to how we see people, events and situations), listening (where we listen for whatever supports our beliefs, not what is truly there), and emotion (where we often become our feelings instead of learning from them). This thinking framework is largely invisible to us, yet it was created wholly by the way we’ve learn to see and think. Remaining unaware gives old stories from our past phenomenal power in the present.

From the perspective of the unconscious mind, it’s just “doing its job,” which is to keep you safe from perceived danger. Unknowingly coming from fear, you then try to defend yourself, take things personally, act out your emotions, and judge others. To the unconscious, anything new is dangerous, so you get very good at denying your own potential.

From the perspective of the conscious mind, however, when you make unconscious chatter visible, you can then, as Brown says, “get honest about the stories we’re making up” so we can challenge, and eventually rewrite them. With new stories borne out of awareness, things that before plagued the context of your conversations have no place to live. The path to making this shift is inquiry – becoming a student of your thoughts and feelings. When you can trace your thoughts back to the old stories that evoked them, the natural communicator inside you emerges and flourishes.

Exercise: Examining Your Thoughts and Conversations: In 10 – 15 minutes of quiet time each day, mentally replay conversations you’ve had during the course of the day. Choose a few that went well, a few that didn’t, and a few you had with yourself. Reflect now on who you were being then – noticing your intention, interpretation, emotion, listening. The purpose here is to learn, not to judge or change anything. Two things happen as you practice noticing your thinking. (1) you gain a perspective as an observer of your thoughts that you could never get as an unconscious participant; (2) you notice, with conscious awareness, maybe for the first time, what your mind is actually up to. With that – for intention, notice how your conversations went just way you “intended,” depending on whether your intention was chosen consciously or unconsciously. For interpretation, notice where you took things personally that weren’t, where you blamed others (or yourself). For emotion, notice where you may have allowed emotions to choose your words or actions in a conversation; but when aware, you could have emotions without allowing them to cloud your perception. For listening, notice where you bristled in judgment about the other person’s words, and once defensive, how your words and voice rose to defend you. Just notice these things. Your level of awareness creates the way your conversations go. Awareness alone creates change, causing you to “remember” your authentic intention. Create and live a new story.

A River Runs Through It [Life lessons offered by nature]

Thanks to a thoughtful friend, I recently saw a YouTube video entitled, “Biomimicry,” featuring Janie Benyus. It’s a very insightful piece about life on earth, and contrasts some of nature’s problem solving strategies with our [by contrast archaic] human strategies. Among the contrasting points:

  • Nature runs on sunlight, which is here and now. We run on fossil fuels, which are only of the past;
  • Nature does all her chemistry with water. We do ours with acids;
  • Nature uses only the simplest elements to make complex creations, using low-temperature and non-toxic chemistry for its process. We use complex elements and forced reactions to make even simple creations;
  • Nature rewards cooperation, wastes nothing, depends on diversity and never fouls its own nest. We reward competition, waste inordinately, fear or fight with diversity, and seem intent on leaving our waste in the air, water and land on which we depend … while thinking little of it.

The film is essentially positive, however, for its theme is about how we might become apprentice to her mastery, and begin asking, “What in nature has already solved the problem I’m trying to solve?” An example: fish are miniature desalinization systems. There are businesses springing up all over committed to asking this question, and ones like it. “We don’t have to learn how to create sustainable; we need only listen to what’s already been created.”

This is “my” kind of science … seeing relationships across disciplines and across natural systems, then “inventing” anew based on the learning involved. Check out the video; it’s worth the 20 minutes.

Nature takes care of the place, not the individual, for when you create/nurture conditions conducive to sustainability, you get sustainability. You don’t do that thinking only of the individual; your view is simply too narrow. Native American wisdom acknowledged this, considering in their decision-making process the impact seven generations ahead. Nature “thinks” 10,000 generations ahead. We seem to fail beyond one.


Openings to New Possibility

Available for you:

  • The Road Not Taken Community, a no-cost subscription that offers you connection, interaction, challenge, and learning. Articles, newsletters and blogs here. I welcome conversation; dialogue is how we all learn together.
  • In Nature’s Image,100 of my nature images, each with a simple message to help experience life’s meaning.
  • The Road Not Taken newsletters (13 years, 156 issues of Purposeful Wanderings) available here as a pdf file.
  • Photo images from my travels available here on fun products – note cards, coffee mugs – great gift ideas.

An invitation to possibility: This (or any) newsletter could be the basis of a focused program of personal coaching. So if you read something that evokes the yearning inside you … and have the courage and determination to challenge conventional thinking so you can live instead with authenticity and freedom, contact me for a conversation that can energize your dream. I will help you reach a level of clarity and perspective – about yourself, others, your life, your work, and the world – that will allow you to live your truth, every day. Trade the way it is for the way it could be.

Book of the month – Listening Below the Noise, by Anne LeClaire. This book is subtitled, The Transformative Power of Silence, and explores Anne’s personal experience (and choices) about introducing silence into her life. Gandhi once said, “In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness. Our life is a long and arduous quest after Truth.” This book illuminates Anne’s quest for clarity in life, and how her practice of silence opened the path. I’ve met Anne; she’s a Cape Cod “local.” Her words are universal. Her choices may not be yours, but her story can help you find yours. … And if you’re on Cape Cod, you’ll find this book at the Market Street Bookshop in Mashpee Commons – 508-539-6985.


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