Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation, #13 – Understanding, Feeling, Embodying and Telling Another’s Story as if It Were Your Own

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at

Most of us, during our ‘single-digit years’, hear a parent or teacher talking about the importance of never criticizing someone until we have walked a mile in his or her shoes. My first exposure to it directed me to never criticize another warrior until I had walked a mile in his moccasins. The message was and still is clear and valuable, and my adolescent self eventually saw it as another iteration of not judging my neighbor – of getting the plank out of my own eye before I pointed out the speck in someone else’s, of seeing someone else, another warrior or my neighbor in the context of his or her own life and history, and not just through my own.

There is, however, as I’m sure you know (gentle reader), a big difference between eventually being able to see something and authentically embodying and living it. In my direct experience of sincerely trying to walk a mile in someone’s shoes – of understanding him or her amid his or her unique circumstances, and in my observing others attempting the same task, it is clear that a significant majority of us who attempt this often succeed reasonably well in fitting into the shoes and walking the mile, but we do so as ourselves and not as the other. More concretely, and somewhat over-simplistically to make the point:

Our neighbor is navigating some troubling behavior with his 16-year-old, we feel judgment arise because we imagine we might navigate it differently, but then diligently remember the old moccasin-mile lesson from childhood and attempt to put ourselves into the details of our neighbor’s and his kid’s circumstances in order to better understand – and perhaps provide support. More often than not that’s exactly what we do. We put ourselves into their circumstances, but we have no idea what those circumstances look and feel like through their history and view of the world. What we need to do is find a way to feel and see things as our neighbor does while he’s wearing his shoes, and not just feel and see things as we do when we try them on.

We are taught to look at things and people and to try to understand them, and if we’re sincere in our looking and trying, we can understand some things and people in increasingly deeper ways – and that’s great. What we’re talking about here, however, is celebrating and building on this looking at people and learning to look as them – to see as they see, feel as they feel, in order to better understand what it’s like to be them in their circumstances (again, rather than be ourselves in their circumstances). No small task. So, while it’s helpful to try to feel the impact of the rebellious adolescent, divorce, diagnosis, pink slip, lottery win, lack of basic healthcare, sense of being inadequate or unloved, it’s more helpful if we can do so with an embodiment of the other’s sense and way of being in and moving through the world.

Laura Divine writes that this looking as another “involves being able to look through their eyes, from their body-mind-soul in order to get a sense of their unique way of seeing and relating…. This process of Looking AS is a powerful practice of embodied perspective taking.”1 It’s not something we can simply decide to do; it requires that we first become competent at looking both at and as ourselves – recognizing and embodying what it feels like to be who we are with our history, personality, biases and overall worldview, a competence that allows us to better differentiate what is ours and what is someone else’s.2

Now, when we see our neighbor struggling with his kid, we can differentiate the influence of our own experience of adolescence and parenthood from our neighbor’s particular history and experience, and better see and feel the current issue through his eyes and body, and perhaps revise our navigational advice (or keep it to ourselves).

As we become increasingly competent looking first at and as ourselves, and then at and as others, what we and others say and do begins to make increasingly more sense – even if we believe it would be best to revise (or end) our or their sayings and doings. When we take the time to listen, look, recognize, understand and attempt to embody, we can put ourselves into their story and tell it as though it were our own.3

Imagine being able to do this amid a conversation in which you and an other disagree.

Essay #14 will explore the question, “Who stands to lose, and how and what will they lose, and who stands to win, and how and what will they win, if what I promote truly manifests and what I protest truly disappears?”


1Divine, Laura. “Looking AT and Looking AS the Client: The Quadrants as a Type Structure Lens” Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 4.1 (Spring 2009): 21-40. For more information: Laura Divine is a co-founder of Integral Coaching Canada. I completed their coach training program in 2011 and currently work with some of their entry-level students.

2See essays two and three for more on personal history, personality, worldview and who we think we are.

3For more on the idea of telling another’s story as if it were our own, see the work of Narrative 4, an organization that uses “story exchange” to help young people develop empathy. “Narrative 4 harnesses the power of the story exchange to equip and embolden young adults to improve their lives, their communities, and the world.”


Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation, #12 – Listening for and Feeling into the Emotions that Lead to and Emerge from Your Own and Others’ Words (and Actions)

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at


Information regarding emotional intelligence or competence is abundant. Different definitions and models make it clear that researchers don’t agree on exactly what it is, and the scientific (research-based) definitions are often very different from definitions that are popular in the media. For this essay, emotional intelligence refers to the ability to understand and manage emotional encounters, an ability that includes noticing, understanding and regulating emotions in oneself, noticing and understanding emotions in others, and directing emotions toward constructive behavior.1

This essay explores the value of understanding emotional encounters in conversation, and does not attempt to “teach” emotional intelligence. Toward that end, one of the simplest and most useful (in the best meaning of that word) models of how our emotions emerge from the stories we tell and our interpretations of events and language appears in Crucial Conversations, where the authors depict a “path to action2 in which something happens, we quickly tell ourselves a story about/interpret it, we feel an emotion based on our story/interpretation, and then we act or speak based on the emotion (that’s based on our story, and not on what actually happened). Learning to recognize and interrupt this “path” is an essential step toward understanding, managing and regulating our emotions.

A more detailed version of this process is the late Chris Argyris’s “Ladder of Inference,”3 which zeroes in on the impact of what we do with our stories/interpretations. Argyris offers us a “reflexive loop,” in which we first select data from what we observe, then add our personal and cultural meaning, followed by assumptions based on the meaning we add, from which we then draw conclusions and adopt beliefs – which will impact what data we select the next time we observe something or something happens.

Both the path to action and the ladder of inference make it clear that our emotions are often, if not always, based on our own responses to, stories about and interpretations of what happens in the world – what someone else does or says, and rarely on the actual, external doing or saying. Here’s a current example. Less than 48 hours before this post went live, Tiger Woods won the 2019 Masters tournament (a factual, external event). Thomas Friedman’s column (based on his own observations, selected data, assumptions, conclusions and beliefs) about the win led to over 400 comments from readers who responded according their own reflexive loops.

Our work here is twofold: first, to listen for and feel into the emotions behind Friedman’s piece and his readers’ comments – some of whom respond to the column, some to the win and some to both. What selected data, added meaning, and consequent assumptions, conclusions and beliefs are operating behind these diverse amazed, compassionate, angry, resentful, frustrated, proud, disgusted, inspired, irritated, thrilled, grateful, discouraged, apathetic, etc. responses? Second, we can apply that same listening for and feeling into our own emotional responses to what we read (and how we feel about the win).

While any one of us can begin to answer the above question for a given respondent, our ability to answer with some basic level of accuracy and competence is tied to our awareness of and ability to name, understand and regulate our own emotions. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence4 has developed a research-based RULER program that helps participants Recognize, Understand, Label, Express and Regulate emotions. The process includes rating from 1-10 how one feels in a given moment on two scales – from low to high intensity/energy, and from unpleasant to pleasant. The rating leads to one of 100 emotion labels for how we feel – providing an opportunity to build our emotional vocabulary as well. The center has developed an online app as well.

In conclusion, emotions can run high in robust conversation – especially, but not only, when characterized by disagreement. Our ability to recognize, understand, name and regulate our own emotions can help us understand what happens to us in highly charged encounters, and is an essential step if we want to understand others’ emotional responses.

In the next essay, we’ll explore the possibility and process of understanding, feeling, embodying and telling another’s story as if it were our own.


1Paraphrase from Emotional Intelligence: A Coaching Masterclass (online)

2Patterson, Kerry, and Joseph Grenny, et al. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002, pp. 93-118.

3Ladder of Inference / Path to Action PDF:

4Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence/RULER:

The Emotion Meter (Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence):

Mood Meter App through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence:

Guidelines for ‘Adult’ Conversation, #11 – Committing to and Actually Staying Focused on the Topic of the Current Conversation

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at

Alert: this post’s focus on staying focused raises more questions than it answers and points to additional reading that informs the topic.  

Think about any common family or workplace disagreement, where the initial statement addresses some specific transgression (real or imagined) like clothes not put away, lights left on, staying out later than expected without calling or texting, arriving to work late, not getting a task done on time, etc. Often, when the accused responds to the accusation, what follows may include the accused’s pointing out some flaw or transgression of the accuser, and/or the accuser’s expanding the initial, specific complaint about the accused to an overall criticism of who and how he or she is.

Many arguments about abortion are characterized by people’s positions on several related, but separate issues: a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body; a human fetus’s right to life; and law as handed down and/or interpreted by various religions, governments and science, among others. Rarely, if ever, is one of these the single focus of a conversation.

Arguments about proposed, and opposition to, gun legislation intended to reduce the number of gun-related deaths in the United States include disagreements on how to interpret the second amendment; whether or not it’s guns or people responsible for these gunshot deaths; contrasting U.S. laws and culture with those of other countries that have significantly fewer gunshot deaths; and how gun manufacturer’s profits are used to lobby and support lawmakers’ political campaigns, among others.

Listen to or read the rhetoric around the accessibility to affordable health care debate in the U.S. Among the directions that conversation might go are whether health care is a right or a privilege; why the alleged wealthiest country in the world does not provide its citizens with the same level of health care as most other post-industrial countries; why the insurance industry wields more power than healthcare professionals when it comes to what services can be provided and under what conditions; why pharmaceutical companies produce billions of profit dollars while many drugs remain unaffordable to those who would benefit from them; there are, as you know, more.

Finally, if you have the stomach for it, read or listen to virtually any political debate or press conference. Rarely are the questions asked actually answered; often the moderators or journalists are engaged in proving a point rather than genuine journalistic inquiry; most of the politicians give short shrift to what they hope to avoid and ‘much longer shrift’ to the sound bites and slogans that their handlers believe are most expedient.

What’s someone who deeply wants to engage authentic dialogue on one thing at a time to do?

The answers to this are complex and manifold. Culture (beliefs, worldviews, values) and society (systems, infrastructure and environment) play a major role in creating the disadvantages of staying focused on a single issue in conversation. Whether we’re speaking about in-person disagreements, social media slugfests, televised or streamed eye-rolling contests among ‘experts,’ or any other conversational exchange, the combined effects of limited time, limited attention span, complex issues, dissimilar knowledge/ignorance*, training, experience, awareness, purpose, etc. among participants, the relative ‘safety and anonymity’ of social media and the pressure to perform in public and perhaps win (or not lose) something, are not conducive to engaging in conversation in order to learn, understand and clarify.

One approach to beginning to address these issues is to ‘simply’ agree on some ground rules regarding the focus of a given conversation – what is within and outside the context of this particular exchange. Of course this is not particularly simple to do – especially on social media or within the confines of televised time slots bounded by advertisers’ appeals, and in light of any of the above mentioned dissimilarities among participants. Still, it is doable for folks who, indeed, have a shared purpose in their disagreement.

For more reading on this topic, see Jesse Singal’sThe New Science of How to Argue—Constructively,” and one of his sources, John Nerst, who coined the word erisology to capture the study of unsuccessful disagreement. Full links below.

In essay #12 we’ll explore the usefulness of listening for and feeling into the emotion behind your own and others’ words.


*ignorance in the denotative meaning of the word – not knowing something. We often throw words around (and at each other) without agreeing on what they mean. This includes, but is not limited to, the generalizations, labels and insults referred to in essays five and seven.

Jesse Singal:

John Nerst:

John Nerst:

Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation, #10 – Finding Similarities as well as Differences in Disagreement

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at

Often in disagreement both sides get so caught up in defending their positions and attempting to prove the other wrong in order to ‘win’ – whatever that might mean, they simply cannot imagine, or aren’t interested in speaking about areas in which their views are similar – or even the same. This is especially true when there’s an audience for their exchange. Two generic and general ways to express this are:

  1. Both (or all) parties in a disagreement disagree about which trees are most important, where these specific trees are, and how they should be cared for. In their focus on the which, where and how of the specific trees, they never notice that, in fact, they agree that all the trees together make up a specific forest, and they agree on where this forest is located and on many of its characteristics.
  2. Both (or all) parties in a disagreement disagree on how to do something and never notice that they agree on what needs to be done. There are exceptions to this, of course: an ongoing example is the state of the U.S. insurance-pharmaceutical-medical-government industry before the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (tens of millions of Americans had limited or no access to affordable health services for decades; some people were fine with that and some weren’t). After the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, many (not all) of those tens of millions did get access to health services, and the insurance companies raised the rates on others – in many cases making insurance unaffordable for a new population. On this issue, it seems there is disagreement on both the what and the

In essay six I briefly mentioned Ken Wilber’s concept of orienting generalizations,1 which, simply put, refers to stepping back from an issue far enough in order find a level at which opponents can agree (oh yes, we’re definitely talking about the same forest). Consider this rather striking example from Salvador Sanabria, former Salvadoran guerrilla, and law student when he served as part of a reconciliation team visiting Bosnia in 1997:

“These people don’t want peace. They want revenge. After 12 years of war in my country, we realized that no one could win. Both sides were exhausted, so we settled for peace. These people have not reached that point. They still have two or three more years of killing in them.”2

Sanabria spoke from the perspective of a war veteran who, along with his opponents, had recognized a shared desire for peace amid a shared exhaustion. He further recognized that the Croats, Muslims and Serbs with whom his team met were not yet able to step back far enough and find a common goal – a similarity or orienting generalization that would allow them to stop killing each other.

Fortunately, most of our disagreements do not match the scope, scale and slaughter that accompany civil war. Still, we dig in, arm ourselves with the arguments of our beliefs, and label, generalize and insult our perceived ‘enemy’ as they do us.

On a more ‘ordinary,’ practical level, each of us who is interested in conversations that minimize or eliminate differences rather than maximizing or creating them might begin to look for the relevant, respective what’s and how’s that inform our disagreements, share what we see with our perceived opponent(s), and in the best of circumstances, even agree to step back together until our views are broad and/or deep enough that we find a shared perspective – an organizing generalization. Noble work, not easy, and inevitably worthwhile – perhaps invaluable.

Two final points:

  • The process of engaging conversation that recognizes similarities and is grounded in genuine curiosity and a desire to learn and understand is easier when both (or all) parties recognize and embrace such recognition and grounding.
  • In the absence of such mutuality, it falls upon the courage, strength and vulnerability of those who do embrace this level of engagement to proceed in difficult conversations in ways that honor their embrace without putting themselves or others in serious danger – whether, physical, emotional or any other meaning of that word.

So practice looking for the similarities in situations in which the stakes are low – where the danger is slight and more of an inconvenience than anything else.

In essay #11 we’ll explore the value of agreeing to, and actually staying focused on, the specific content of the current conversation.

1Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston: Shambhala, 1995 (xiii-ix).

2Ryback, Timothy W. “Violence Therapy for a Country in Denial.” New York Times Magazine. 30 November 1997, sec. 6: 120-23. Archive:

Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation, #9 – Conversing in Order to Learn, Understand and Gain Clarity, Rather than Trying to Teach, Persuade or Disprove*

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at

*Conversations exist in which the parties agree that the nature of the discourse involves teaching, persuasion and/or proof/disproof – e.g. formal debate, litigation, scientific research, and professional trainings of various types. These are not the focus of this essay or this series.

Imagine engaging a disagreement (or agreement) with a friend, family member, acquaintance, colleague or stranger with the intention of learning from and more deeply understanding the other’s perspective and further clarifying your own. Imagine not being concerned with or interested in trying to convince the other of something, pointing out what he doesn’t know or why and how she’s wrong, ‘winning’ in some way or other, or making him or her look bad. Imagine showing up in conversation with authentic curiosity, the ability to listen deeply, and a desire to ask and respond to genuine questions, the only purpose of which is mutual learning, understanding and clarity. That does require imagination, you may be thinking.

The three general imaginings above are not a prescription for the right way to be in conversation. They are, I believe, practical and essential components for any authentic verbal exchange to have a chance of evolving beyond the alternating combative monologues, often vitriolic, that masquerade as ‘dialogue’ or ‘conversation’ in contemporary public and private life – and they would arguably have something to offer the formal debate, litigation, research and trainings exceptions mentioned above.

Engaging, as used here refers to listening, speaking and asking questions, again, with the intention to learn, understand and clarify with, from and through an authentically curious and open mind and heart. The curious and open mind helps us inquire, speak and understand accurately and skillfully; the curious and open heart allows us to accept and respect the other, and the common humanity we share.

One Approach That Helps

A deceptively simple clarifying question, even more effective when repeated, is something like1 When you say ____, what do you really mean by that / what does that really mean to you? I use this type question2 as part of a writing practice – and it works alone, with a partner or group, and also with coaching clients. For example, I’ll write a sentence, or some longer unit of writing and ask myself, What do I mean by that? I’ll respond to that question in writing, and then ask again, perhaps with different emphasis, What do I mean by that?  I’ll respond again and continue the cycle until I can no longer fine-tune my meaning. Once I get to that point, I may ask, How does this make me feel? Depending on my intention, I can then inquire into the meaning of my response to that feeling question. If you’ve never done this, try it.

To be effective in conversation, the question What does that mean? or What do you mean by that? must come from a place of curiosity and with a desire for learning and clarity. There are lots of ways to ‘soften’ these questions so they’re not heard as criticisms (What the %?*@! do you mean?!). Here’s one: The story I’m telling myself about what you just said is _______, and I’m wondering if that’s close to what you really meant. If so, great. If not, what did you mean? I really want us to be on the same page as we move forward (or something like that).

When it comes to listening through and with an open mind and heart, it’s essential to remember the importance of our awareness of the ‘lenses’3 through which we’re listening, even with our minds and hearts open. Each of us can open his or her mind and heart. Not every mind or heart is equally open.

I’ll leave you with a wonderful guideline that I first learned sitting in council when I enacted a Vision Quest in 1998. I don’t know its origin, but I learned it from Bill Plotkin and the guides at Animas Valley Institute. I believe it can serve anyone, anywhere.

                                Speak from your heart.

                                Listen from, with and through your heart.

                                Be of lean expression.

                                Be spontaneous (in the sense of being in the moment and not rehearsing).

In essay #10 we’ll explore the impact of holding the intention of finding similarities, and not just differences, with those with whom we disagree.


1I use the phrase “something like” here to emphasize that there is not exactly one correct question to use here. What’s important is what the question allows/invites us to do next.

2For more on this type of inquiry, find out more about proprioceptive writing (the example above in no way is intended to represent the teachings of Linda Trichter Metcalf, Tobin Simon).

3See essays two, three and four in this series for more on these lenses.

Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation, #8 – Curiosity, Knowing and Not Knowing on the Path of Learning

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at

In essays #1, 2 and 3, I briefly alluded to the importance of “not knowing.” In essay #3, more specifically, I wrote: 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. Depending upon your worldview and how you interpret the phrase, “not knowing” as a path of learning may sound like common sense – or like idiocy.

Students of Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn (1927-2004), among others, might readily embrace this language and approach, while students of conventional medicine (or engineering or climate change, etc.) might be more apt to prefer as much knowing as possible in order to do more good than harm in their respective endeavors. To be fair, most honest, well-meaning human beings prefer to have the appropriate knowledge before making choices or taking action in their personal and professional lives, where “appropriate” means relevant, adequate,* useful, kind and balanced.  Ideally, appropriate knowledge refers to both the exterior world – what we might know about practical applications of biology, chemistry and physics, for example, before performing surgery, building a bridge or proliferating fluorocarbons, and to the interior world – what we might know about ourselves – the worldview and lenses through which we experience, interpret and respond to life.

The relationship between knowing and not knowing that we’re moving toward here asks us to return to our differentiating fact and opinion, or, put differently, to look carefully at our human tendency to blend what we know as fact with our immediate interpretation of what the fact might mean in the moment and for and in the future. A common parable with which you may already be familiar makes this point:

In olden times a farmer was told by his neighbors how lucky he was because he owned a prized horse. He replied, “Maybe I’m lucky; maybe I’m not.” When the horse jumped the fence and galloped away, the neighbors told the farmer how unlucky he was. His reply: “Maybe I’m unlucky; maybe I’m not.” Several days later the horse returned, accompanied by three additional wild horses. “You’re so lucky,” the neighbors told him. “Maybe I am; maybe I’m not,” he said. One of the wild horses threw the farmer’s son, breaking his leg, and the neighbors told the farmer how unlucky this was. “Maybe so, maybe not,” came his reply, and when the army came through to conscript the oldest son in each family to go to war, they did not take the farmer’s son because of the broken leg. You know what the neighbors said and how the farmer replied.

When I shared that story in a high school in Tucson in 1995, one student said that something like that had happened to him. He explained that he broke his leg in a football game; in the hospital doctors noticed some things about the break and did tests that revealed evidence of early-stage bone marrow cancer for which he underwent treatment and went into remission. He now credits breaking his leg, which when it happened was traumatic and felt ‘unlucky’ at best, with finding out about the cancer sooner rather than later. What at first felt like a devastating blow to his football career and his dreams of playing in college, subsequently felt like a “lucky break” that may have prolonged – even saved, his life.

Simply put, we interpret and give meaning before we know what some event or moment truly means. Our ability to know what’s truly knowable about something, and to be comfortable “resting” in not knowing what is not yet ours to know allows us to remain authentically curious and open to learning. As we engage in conversation with someone with whom we disagree (or agree), the extent to which we recognize and acknowledge how much we truly know and don’t know about ourselves, the other, and the content of the conversation will strongly influence, if not completely determine each party’s openness to and opportunity for growth and learning.

Such recognition, acknowledgment and openness requires and cultivates vulnerability – not in the sense of weakness or being overly susceptible to harm, injury or loss, but rather in the sense of showing up fully and authentically, hiding nothing and trusting – even in the face of fear. How willing and able is each of us, in our respective roles as parents, children, significant others, students, friends, colleagues and workers – in the broadest sense across industries and professions, to let go, or at least monitor our initial interpretations of any moment, glance, smile, frown, gesture, laugh, phrase – anything at all, and intentionally explore and allow meaning to emerge** in increasingly broader and deeper contexts?

As Dorianne Laux wrote, “We think we know what each sound means” – emphasis on “think.”

In essay #9 we’ll explore the importance of engaging (listening, speaking and asking) in order to learn, understand and clarify, and not to teach or persuade (unless teaching or persuasion has been agreed upon by participating parties in the conversation).


*While it may be appropriate in certain circumstances to have comprehensive or exhaustive knowledge, it is very often appropriate to have adequate – sufficient or enough knowledge for what is required or needed, for a particular choice or action in a given moment. The roles of language, belief, interpretation and worldview allow different people to honestly embrace slogans like: Good is the enemy of great or Great is the enemy of good.

**To state the obvious, there are times when we don’t have the temporal luxury of allowing meaning to emerge – medical emergencies and other literal moments of life and death. That said, these are few and far between for most of us during most of the moments of our lives.

Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation, #7 – Antidotes for Generalizations, Labels and Insults: Get Specific, Factual, Personal and Aware-of-Others

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at

Before continuing to read, select one of the following that is consistent with your views, or come up with another statement that captures how you view an issue:

  • Mainstream media has a consistent, dangerous liberal bias.
  • Fox News is a mouthpiece for conservative views and especially Donald Trump.
  • The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act made health insurance unaffordable for many people.
  • The United States’ public education, health care, income inequality, domestic violence and ongoing war in the Middle East, contrasted with other post-industrial democratic nations, are embarrassing and having nothing to do with world leadership or greatness.
  • The United States is the greatest, wealthiest, most powerful nation in the history of the planet.

More personal statements work as well. The above capture some of the ‘factual’ tone that is prevalent amid exchanges in current uncivil U.S. political discourse. I recommend your working with something that’s important to you. What follows is my modelling one way to work with generalizations, labels and insults.

I often observe otherwise good, intelligent, competent human beings (opinions and judgments) speaking through frustration, anger, resentment or fear (i.e. speaking emotionally,* despite their capacity for rationality) about something, and resorting to sweeping generalizations, faulty reasoning (it happened to me, so it must be true for everyone, or vice versa), and/or insult in disagreement with others. Perhaps the best place to witness this is on social media | where political and celebrity scoundrels and ne’er-do-wells | fire off their (not so) clever jibes and partial truths, | which their friends and followers ingest and regurgitate like so much nutritionally devoid vomit.

Breaking that bolded sentence down: “Perhaps…social media” forms my opinionwhich is ‘truthful’, i.e. I really do believe social media is one of the best places to observe this phenomenon (as opposed to ‘The Truth’, i.e. empirically provable). “[W]here political… ne’er-do-wells” provides intentional generalization and insults. “[F]ire off their…jibes…truths” are my judgments. Finally, “[W]hich their friends…vomit” was the first image and simile that my mind produced; its tastelessness (no pun intended) corresponds with my experience of these social media exchanges.

That sentence was fun to write, and it generalizes and insults. Here’s the beginning of a more specific, personal look at what I truly want to express, and one way I might go about expressing it:

FACT: Some politicians and celebrities (among other folks) generalize and insult each other on social media. That’s not all they do, and they’re not the only ones – but they do this.

FACT: I personally resent their doing this (even those with whom I might agree) for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to, these three observations/beliefs:

  • In my experience of the world, no significant personal, national or global problem has been resolved by a tit-for-tat exchange of lies, partial truths or insults (via social media or any other means).
  • In light of the fourth bullet at the beginning of this essay, I want my elected officials to spend their time addressing issues – which impact tens of millions of people every day, rather than playing “I-got-you-last” in public (even if they have a staff member playing for them).
  • Technology is neutral: the invention of the wheel facilitated transportation and allows us to run over someone with a vehicle. The internet can be used by the local soup kitchen and the local hate group. Elected officials and members of our celebrity cult(ure) have the option not to use social media, and/or to change how they use it.

OBSERVATION: Many of us simply share what we read or hear without 1) confirming its accuracy, or 2) thinking for ourselves about the issue – allowing Merton’s “anonymous authority of the collectivity” to speak through and for us. It can be time consuming, and quite valuable, to check for accuracy and critically think about an issue before parroting someone else.

BELIEF: Technological advances that quicken and mobilize communication have diverse, positive impacts and contribute to the deterioration of language skills and communication (ask any language arts teacher who was in the classroom before smart phones, and is still there now). Something gets lost in the move from spoken, in-person conversation, to phone, video, email, texting and social media exchanges.

These will suffice for now. It seems what I wanted to express was something like this:

I worry for my family, my friends my fellow citizens and myself, and I resent those elected officials and celebrities who insult each other, state opinions as facts (whether through ignorance or intentional manipulation), and behave in ways that more or less healthy parents and teachers do not tolerate from their children and students – at any age.

Note the respective impact of each of the bolded statements. This is the beginning of a thoughtful process – one that the pace and limitations of social media, and even much broadcast media, neither allows nor encourages, and one that is difficult, if not impossible to engage in the absence of ongoing self-reflection and critical thought turned both inward and outward.


*This is not a criticism of emotion; a balance of emotion and reason tends to be more integrated. We want to utilize our brain function optimally – instinct, emotion and reason.


Guidelines for ‘Adult’ Conversation #6 – Getting Clear on and Honoring the Difference Between Opinion and Fact

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at

For our purposes here, a fact is something that competent, disinterested, unattached, “ideal” observers (i.e. those who understand something and have no interest in it other than an honest assessment of its existence) agree is true. An opinion is a statement of how someone interprets, what someone believes and/or how someone feels about something – whether that ‘something’ is a fact or another opinion.

Many of us were introduced to the difference between opinion and fact somewhere in late childhood or early adolescence. Many of us seem to have forgotten this difference or have chosen to behave as though it’s not really important. My sense of this (i.e. my opinion) is that a variety of factors contribute to this forgetting or this choice. Here are a few:

  • a genuine inability or disingenuous refusal to differentiate what happened and my interpretation of what happened. E.g. after the collision of two cars at the four-way-stop intersection, one fact is that the cars made contact and sustained damage. Often, the drivers will have different interpretations (opinions) of that collision and what caused it, and will state them as ‘facts’.
  • a tendency to accept what one hears, reads or views in various media – whether television, radio, podcast, book, magazine, newspaper, etc., or from various ‘authorities’ or ‘experts’ – whether elected officials, wealthy, successful ‘celebrities’, ‘thought leaders’, or religious leaders as true or factual. We tend to do this when the medium or ‘expert’ reinforces what we already believe. This tendency applies to sacred scripture and national constitutions and charters as well.
  • often underlying each of the above bullets is an inability or refusal to engage honest self-reflection and/or critical thinking.
  • lack of awareness of anything and everything summarized in essays two and three in this series – i.e. the impact of myriad cultural and personal influences on how each of us experiences (the moments and events in) his or her life.
  • a relentless commitment to winning an argument, defending habitual thoughts, advocating a view that’s in our best interest, or discrediting a view with which we disagree (or that scares us)

These five are more than enough to get us where we need to go in the next four hundred words or so.

One way to move toward differentiating fact and opinion amid disagreement (especially when the disagreeing parties are authentically willing to listen and reflect) is to try to find what Ken Wilber has called orienting generalizations – points of general agreement that disagreeing parties may find if they step far enough back from their immediate conflict.

Consider your views on gun control, abortion, health care, race, public education, income inequality, ongoing war and minimum wage, among many other issues. Imagine what orienting generalization(s) or larger points of agreement you and an opponent might find in the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of resolving these, or any local or personal issues.

Notice your own stances and biases as you do this. Tune in as best you can to what is fact and what is opinion. As best you can, zero in on your ability to differentiate events or issues and your interpretations of them. Note what ‘authoritative’ sources, if any, you rely on for ‘facts’. Get intimate with your level of engagement with critical thought and/or self-reflection: one way to begin is to interrogate any longstanding belief you hold. Identify the cultural influences of your childhood and your current life. Note the extent to which you want to win, defend or discredit in disagreement, as opposed to acknowledge, understand or learn.

As you can see, or may be beginning to see, the obstacles to open, civil, ‘adult’ conversation that leads to learning and growth for the parties involved can be significant – as can be the learning and growth themselves, and therein lies the value, the reason to try. Imagine walking away from a disagreement (or an agreement) with a renewed sense of respect for ‘the other’, and with a broader, deeper view of an issue, oneself, the other, or the world at large.

Our goal in this, and each successive essay is to provide a basic tool kit in order do the work necessary for anyone who truly wants to engage in discourse in ways that broaden and deepen understanding of self, other human beings and viewpoints – whether or not any disagreement is resolved.

In essay #7 we’ll take a look at how we might limit or replace our labels and generalizations with learning how to provide specific, factual and preferably personal examples to support our opinions.


Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston: Shambhala, 1995 (xiii-ix).

Guidelines for ‘Adult’ Conversation #5 – Avoiding Labels, Insults and Sweeping Generalizations

A label is a mask life wears.

                We put labels on life all the time. “Right,” “wrong,” “success,’ “failure,” “lucky,” “unlucky,” may be as limiting a way of seeing things as “diabetic,” “epileptic,” “manic-depressive,” or even “invalid.” Labeling sets up an expectation of life that is often so compelling we can no longer see things as they really are. This expectation often gives us a false sense of familiarity toward something that is really new and unprecedented. We are in a relationship with our expectations and not with life itself.

– Rachel Naomi Remen

Now, substitute in Dr. Remen’s quotation marks above words like conservative, liberal, progressive, socialist, feminist, elite, facist and any number of other labels that attempt to capture ethnic, national, sexual, skin pigmentation and other group classifications. Notice which of these substitute labels you’re sure you understand accurately, and once you’ve done that get curious about what you might be missing each time you rely on the label rather than doing the work that is necessary to truly and deeply understand a concept – or another human being or group of human beings.

We say plethora, demitasse, ozone and love.
We think we know what each sound means.
There are times when something so joyous
or so horrible happens our only response
is an intake of breath, and then
we’re back at the truth of it,
that ball of life expanding
and exploding on impact, our heads,
our chests, filled with that first
unspeakable light.

                                – Dorianne Laux

“We think we know what each sound means,” the poet tells us, and each of us understands, or could understand, that the four characters ordered in this way: love, are a far cry from the experience they intend to depict. Taste these characters together: demitasse; mmm, so good. Really? The next time you utter or write the words bottom line, and you’re not referring to the actual bottom line on a financial statement, ask yourself what it is you really mean and find words for what you really mean in the context within which you mean it.

Obviously (I hope) it can be convenient, efficient and harmless (although not necessarily best) to use labels and generalizations in our day-to-day communication, especially with people we know and in contexts in which conflict and disagreement are absent. We know what our neighbor means when she sees us on that first sunny, blue-skied, 65-degree day after a long winter, and says “Beautiful day!” Or do we? Perhaps she just got engaged, won the lottery, her cancer is in remission, or she’s on her way to the airport for a much anticipated vacation. And regardless of what it is that motivates her to utter these words, there’s no harm and perhaps a lot of good in our responding something like “Yes, it is – enjoy!” – even if we have no idea why she says this, and in fact, it’s a beautiful day for us simply because she says this.

When any one of us utters words like liberal or conservative in an otherwise friendly conversation, absent any further elucidation the words have only limited meaning outside the context of where the speaker and the listener self-identify on the political spectrum (and on how accurate their self-identities are). If Bernie Sanders criticizes someone or something as having a liberal bias, it may arouse interest; if Mitch McConnell says it, not so much. If McConnell criticizes a conservative bias, that’s unusual; for Sanders, not so much. Where I stand on the political spectrum and on specific issues controls how I use those two labels. The same is true with any label or generalization I use outside the realm of politics. If I am ignorant of where I stand, what my view is, and what informs my view (the focus of essays two and three), not only will my labels and generalizations usually do more harm than good, they will do so from a place of self-ignorance.

Note that level of formal education, number of degrees and alleged prestige of schools attended neither preclude nor exclusively lead to the ignorant use of labels and generalizations. A terminal degree can narrow and limit one’s view even as it deepens knowledge and insight in its field of focus; having no degree may limit academic knowledge and invite and allow curiosity beyond what academia finds important. Ignorance of self and self-knowing are equal opportunity statuses.

In essay six, we’ll explore the difference between opinion and fact. In number seven, we’ll take a look at how we might limit or replace our labels and generalizations with learning how to provide specific, factual and preferably personal examples to support our opinions.


Rachel Naomi Remen. Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal. New York: Riverhead, 1996, p. 66.

Dorianne Laux. From “Each Sound.” What We Carry. Rochester, NY: BOA, 1994.

Guidelines for ‘Adult’ Conversation, #4 – Recognizing and Suspending Preconceptions, Judgments and Assumptions

Previous essays in this series are available here: and here:

So, yes, culture (in the broadest view that includes race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, religion, etc.), genetics, parenting, personal experience, health, trauma, propensity to learn, and many other factors lead us to hold certain preconceptions, judgments and assumptions about ourselves, others and the world. Some of these can be helpful in navigating our everyday lives: choosing to assume that many motor vehicle drivers are somewhat distracted (not necessarily, or just, with cell phones) by life in general can keep us safe – and both minimize the chances of overreacting when someone is careless and enhance the feelings of joy and gratitude when someone is unexpectedly courteous.

Arguably the most important words in the above example are “choosing to assume.” We don’t “know” that “every” driver is distracted, but if we choose to recognize the possibility that most (including ourselves) are, this choice allows us to be less reactive (sparing both us and other drivers from us) when someone is careless, and ridiculously grateful when someone is attentive. An intentional choice to assume, while it can be harmful or helpful, is easier to eliminate or enhance once we see the harm or help.

What we’re concerned with here are those preconceptions, judgments and assumptions that we haven’t chosen intentionally: more often than not, they have chosen us. They have us,* we don’t know it, and we think we’re seeing and hearing that other person, and the rest of the world, as he, she or it is, when we’re actually seeing and hearing who and as we are, filtered through all of those lenses noted in the first sentence above and in the previous three essays.

Obviously, this is not a new idea. Versions of it have been around for millennia: stop looking through that glass darkly, and get that plank out of your eye! Still, look at or listen to most ‘conversations’ in which people are disagreeing on issues across political (and other) divides – whether in the media, on social media, or in person, and whether they’re elected officials, news commentators, celebrities (or some combination of these three), social critics, ‘thought leaders’ or just ordinary folks, and most of them are certain that 1) they see things as things are, 2) they are correct, and 3) the opponent is wrong.

Now (I hope) the significance of essays #2’s and #3’s explorations of who we (think we) are in conversation is more apparent. Before we have any real chance of opening up and seeing and hearing another human being in conversation with even a basic level of authenticity and integrity, we need to have some idea of how our glass is dark, how dark it is, and what the dimensions and composition are of that plank, beam, log or speck that’s lodged in our own eye(s).

One way into this is to gain some clarity on a preconception, judgment or assumption we have, or that has us: why do we have it, or does it have us, and what’s the impact of the having? Byron Katie suggests asking ourselves these questions:**

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can I absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do I react when I think that thought (preconception, judgment or assumption)?
  4. Who would I be without this thought (preconception, judgment or assumption)?

That fourth question asks us to explore what it might be like to suspend our preconceptions, judgments and assumptions in conversation (or forever) – even if they are provably true (right now).

If I enter a conversation with strong beliefs about the superiority of the Yankees or the Red Sox (even my choosing sports and those two teams as examples tells you something about me), liberals or conservatives, gays or straights, wisdom or compassion, justice or mercy, etc., my chances for authentic, open dialogue will be limited or enhanced by the extent to which I voluntarily, accurately and thoroughly recognize and suspend – or permanently let go, the historical beliefs and assumptions (aka scripts, tapes, films, stories, narratives, etc.) that hold me.

This is difficult, essential work if we are to speak from our hearts with, and deeply listen to, each other. Perhaps (re)read the second essay in this series, return to the six bulleted responses to the events of September 11, 2001. For each, go a little deeper with the second reflection question posed there: note your reaction to each of the six points, and explore the preconceptions, judgments and assumptions you have, or that have you, that lead to your reaction.

Do this neither to prove yourself “right” or “wrong” but to explore and get to know yourself better.

In the next essay, we’ll consider the effects of avoiding insults, labels and/or sweeping generalizations in conversation.


*For more on the idea of having assumptions vs. being had by them, see Robert Kegan’s and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.

**From “The Work” by Byron Katie. For some context, and a deeper dive into each question, visit   See also her Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life. New York: Harmony, 2002.