Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation, #3 – Who (You Think) You Are in Conversation – Beyond Culture

Previous essays in this series are available here: &

This third essay continues #2’s exploration of ourselves and our worldviews – those values, beliefs, biases and experiences that inform the lenses through which we see and interpret life. In #2 we noted the often invisible influence of culture; here we’ll zoom in and explore some of what accounts for other discrete differences both beyond and within these cultural influences.

A short list includes genetics (nature); parenting (nurture); personality; health; trauma; multiple intelligences (aka developmental lines); tendencies along the continua of feminine/masculine, interior/exterior, individual/collective; and Shadow. To the extent that we are aware of, choose to explore, and intentionally develop any of these, we will be more or less knowledgeable about ‘who we (think we) are’. Here’s a brief overview of each:

  • Genetics (nature) provides us with some basic input concerning our individual traits, tendencies and possibilities – from physical appearance to various aptitudes.
  • Parenting (nurture), which is influenced by culture, provides us with immediate follow-up regarding how our nature may manifest. Our parents (and other influential adults) provide us with an early view of life that may be more or less accurate and healthy, and which we may embrace, rebel against, or both.
  • Models of personality abound and can be helpful. One view of personality is that it emerges through the strategies we engage as children in order to survive, cope, and thrive in our family (and culture) of origin. Often, some of the things that serve us as children are no longer necessary or helpful in adulthood, and we can thank them and let them go as we develop.
  • Serious, persistent health issues at any age may teach us about vulnerability, mortality, resilience, compassion and hope, as well as anger, resentment, and despair – as may any form of trauma. Our parents’ and other caregivers’ attitudes, as well as the culture at large, often carry powerful messages – helpful or hurtful, true or unfounded, about various types of illness and trauma.
  • Decades of research confirm our ability to develop through intelligences such as linguistic, logical-mathematical, interpersonal, moral, kinesthetic, musical, emotional, spiritual and cognitive, among others. We may become highly developed in one or more of these, less so in others. There is not necessarily a correlation between what we’re good at and what we enjoy.
  • One way to speak about feminine and masculine energies (as opposed to the biological females and males) is that healthy women and men can develop a balance of and comfort with the tendencies toward communion, compassion and mercy – typically considered feminine traits, and tendencies toward agency, wisdom and justice – considered masculine traits.
  • Along the continua of interior/exterior and individual/collective, we may find ourselves attracted to and more or less competent with specific elements of what have become known as Ken Wilber’s quadrant model: the interior-individual (the world of my values, intentions, thoughts, beliefs – philosophy, psychology, spirituality); the interior-collective (the world of our beliefs, thoughts, values – relationship, culture, anthropology); the exterior-individual (the world of my physical body, action/doing, sensory experience, biology); or the exterior-collective (the world of environment, systems, infrastructure, ecology).
  • Finally, we repress those traits that our culture or family frowned upon – what it was not okay to feel, be or do when we were young – our Shadow. In every conversation, unaware of what we have repressed, we feel a disproportionate reaction when we notice it in some else: I’m not angry! You, and everyone like you are angry!

Yikes. Amid this complex mess, why even bother trying to have a conversation?

One reason is, in David Whyte’s words, “The conversation is the relationship” in any sustainable, authentic exchange, and while we are focusing on verbal conversation in these essays, the nuances of true conversation transcend and include what we say, as we are asked to “back them words up, pardner,” “put our money where our mouth is,” and “walk our talk,” among other annoying, relevant clichés.

So, before we’ve even touched on the requisite skills and characteristics of civil, open, honest, ‘adult’ conversation, it’s clear that communicating authentically is not for the faint of heart, not for the faint of self-knowing, and not for the feint of authentic curiosity. No quick fix or magic potion works. We have to do the work, which takes time. Engaging any one of the bullet points above is a step in a good direction. Three prospective ways to start: 1) begin with what feels easiest; 2) begin with what makes most sense to you; 3) begin with what you know will be challenging. Then get curious about why you chose as you did.

Finally, and this will resurface in future essays, complement any work you do with getting to know yourself better with a sense of not knowing, especially, but not only with regard to what we call the self. Not knowing is the core of ongoing learning, growth and development. As soon as we “know for sure,” we close to other possibilities. Hold your knowing lightly. Stay open.

Thanks for reading this far.

In #4, we’ll explore the practice of recognizing and suspending preconceptions, judgments and assumptions in conversation.

Selected resources:

  • Among many personality type systems, I’ll mention three: the Enneagram; Myers-Briggs; and DiSC. Of the three, I have the most training in, and tend to use the Enneagram. If you’d like to explore it, visit or and read the details of the types – noting what feels familiar and unfamiliar. Because of how I tend to learn, I recommend not taking online assessments (free samples or paid full versions) until you have some sense of your type. Then the assessments might be helpful. Plenty of books are available as well.
  • One of my favorite authors on Howard Gardner’s work with multiple intelligences is Thomas Armstrong:;
  • For a brief overview of developmental lines, interiors, exteriors, individuals and collectives (and the rest of his AQAL model), see Ken Wilber’s The Integral Vision (2007) a “pocket edition” of which was released in November 2018. See also many additional titles by the author.
  • For an exploration of how culture, illness and trauma can intersect, see Lewis Mehl-Medrona’s Coyote Wisdom: The Power of Story in Healing. Rochester, VT: Bear & Company, 2005 (among other titles by the author); Gabor Maté’s When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, 2003; and Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Penguin, 2014.
  • For an overview of Shadow that includes how a culture can have a collective Shadow, see “Revisiting ‘Donald Trump, Collective American Shadow, and “the Better Angels of Our Nature.”’”

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