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Connecting Meaningfully with Others

Purposeful Wanderings - Bradford L. Glass - December 2023

Newsletter - 12.23
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“Seek first to understand; then to be understood.” – Stephen Covey

Each day, my path crosses the paths of many others. Whether for an instant, minutes or perhaps hours, we share an experience at the intersection … a situation, an event, a conversation, a challenge, an opportunity. For years, I’ve practiced seeing these encounters as snippets of a movie, where I’m both in the movie and in the audience … at the same time. Taking on the role of observer (while still being a participant) allows me to see the underlying thinking and viewpoints (others’ and my own) that frame our connection … which allows me to connect more deeply. And when topics are contentious, this broader perspective leads more to learning than to disagreement.

My practice was put to a test this month. On four [separate, unrelated] occasions, I was told out of the blue that I was outright wrong about something. Now, I’m not afraid of being “wrong” … it can be an opening to new learning. I’m not afraid of being “told,” either. What struck me about each of these instances, however, was the conviction, force, and determination the other person had … to make me wrong. In each case, the “guilty verdict” was levied with no questioning, no joint conversation, no exploration of different ways of seeing, no intention to find peace.

It's instinct to defend ourselves when threatened (survival depends on our evolutionary adaptation to respond quickly to danger). But when the “danger” is a word, not a tiger, fighting back seems a bit of overkill. This is where my observer comes in. By choosing to “put myself in the movie” … I can (1) work to understand how each of us came to the [different] conclusions we did; (2) figure out what I would do … if I saw the world the way I surmised they did; and (3) invite mutual inquiry and learning. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” I’m not holding myself to some high standard here (I still step in the lake now and then) but I do know it’s a lot easier to understand perceptions upfront than it is to suffer the inevitable damage of blame and judgment down the road.

Perception is an odd thing, however. Perception is how we see the world. That’s very different from it being the world. My perception of things appears 100% true and valid … to me. That’s because it’s a reflection of my life experience. Their perception appears 100% valid … to them, a reflection of their experience. Each of us believes (knows) we’re “right.” So, it doesn’t matter who’s right; what matters is that the gap between us keep us from peaceful resolution. There’s a problem here … if we’re notaware enough to favor learning over conflict; and there’s an opportunity here … if we are. Scary, perhaps, but our “rock solid” perception – of life, others, world – is a choice we make … even if (and very likely) made unconsciously. (If you doubt the impact of perception, watch the news.)

In my examples, my perception is that all four show lack of evidence for their claims, lack of understanding of differing perspectives, an [apparent] unwillingness to bridge that gap, and an [apparent] preference to push me into it. Yet my “observer” tells me all four believe the opposite. Awareness of the differences in perception here tells me not to defend, fight, or blame … but to seek understanding instead. (My “perception” still says otherwise.)

One of the most powerful contributors to effective connection with others is also one of the most elusive … the ability to listen to their thinking – and your ownwhile you’re communicating. This is the power of the observer.

With some practice as observer, perhaps using the movie idea, you begin to see perception as “fluid,” that your reality is not some independent thing “out there,” but a reflection of your [now-growingly-conscious] perception. You begin to see how others arrive at what appear to you as “odd” conclusions. One day you realize that although you may hold strongly to your perception, perceptions don’t count as evidence for the claims you make of others. Then life gets easier; because you get real; because you see more clearly. And then you just start letting a whole lot of stuff pass by you like the breeze, simply because there’s nothing to fight with. And you may begin to like the movie analogy … and start to see everything in life as “just entertainment.” Peace.

Exercise: Connecting Meaningfully with Others.

Part 1: Take Stock: what’s your “go to” strategy today? Reflect on any number of “situations” in your recent past. Replay just how you responded (or reacted) at the time. Replays like this give you felt experience of your ways of seeing and being, which is far more accurate, and powerful, than how you think you respond.

Part 2: Imagine What’s Possible: Separate from any discoveries in part 1 above, and separate from any censoring your mind might concoct about why it’s impossible, imagine being in your “situations” and calmly, quietly seeking to understand – how your thoughts create your reality, how the thoughts of the “other” create their reality – and opening the conversation to understanding, learning and peaceful resolution. Just imagine. No “action” required.

Part 3: Practice: Try it out. After some practice – at replaying old situations and at imagining new ones – take on a practice of becoming an observer in situations your day brings you, noticing – as you participate – just how your perception of things differs from others’ (and theirs from yours). Try it: instead of pushing back, step back. You might choose to invite steering a potential disagreement toward an inquiry into the source of that disagreement.

Life Lessons from Nature: Have you ever seen the Mississippi River as it flows through Louisiana? Bounded by high levees on both sides, its channel has been confined (by the Army Corps of Engineers) to ensure it doesn’t find a new path to the Gulf of Mexico. This is unnatural for a river, for it wants to “explore,” break loose from its banks, find a ‘least-energy’ path to the sea. When high water threatens to burst levees, the Engineers make them higher. No option; confined; one-dimensional. Life is like this for many people, too … confining themselves to the channels they “know,” adding to the constraints when times are tough, under the guise of seeking safety.

“Natural” rivers are the opposite. Perhaps the Mississippi near its source in Minnesota’s back woods is like this. Free to roam, meandering, spilling over its banks, finding new possibility. It’s a picture of uncertainty, probably one of chaos as well. But it’s a system that works. Natural; multi-dimensional; never knowing what comes next, yet full of opportunity. It’s the experience of “what is” – at any (and every) moment. No artificial boundaries.

Life is a choice. You may hold onto your boundaries, with the hope that they bring you the “certainty” that comes with limited possibility. Or you can trade in the boundaries for the free choice of the unknown. All opportunity starts with seeing things for what they really are - complex, chaotic, uncertain. Don’t know about you, but if I were a river, I’d sure prefer life without walls.

Book of the month: Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown. Each of us experiences vulnerability; the issue is how we respond. We often fear being vulnerable to the point of discomfort even addressing it, allowing it to hold us back from life’s possibility. Yet embracing vulnerability is an opening to courage and to your potential. If one topic can have such impact in our search for freedom and authentic living, it would seem a worthy (albeit difficult) one to explore. A powerful book, well-written, approachable, even humorous at times.


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