In this interview, Reggie and Kent explore the role of “cultural givens” in how we engage in conversation.“Enough with the…Talking Points: Doing More Good than Harm in Conversation” Chapter 1 – Kent Frazier interviews Reggie Marra.
In this initial interview, Kent Frazier and I discuss the genesis of Enough with the … Talking Points: Doing More Good than Harm in Conversation.“Enough with the…Talking Points” – Kent Frazier Interviews Author, Reggie Marra.
Stay tuned. In our next conversation, we’ll explore Chapter One: Who (You Think) You Are in Conversation: Part 1 – The Culture Thing.
Here’s Chapter 12 from Enough with the … Talking Points: Doing More Good than Harm in Conversation, which is now available for pre-order in Kindle edition. Stay tuned for updates on paperback availability before the end of June.
Chapter 12 – Understanding, Feeling, Embodying and Telling Another’s Story as if It Were Your Own
Most of us, during our ‘single-digit years’, hear a parent or teacher talking about the importance of never criticizing someone until we’ve walked a mile in his or her shoes. My first exposure to this 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 this 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 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 cultural givens, 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, etc., 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 in 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). Making this move does not prevent us from sharing the benefit of our own story and learning, from which our neighbor might actually benefit at an appropriate time and place. Rather, again, it ‘simply’ allows us to differentiate what is ours and what is his or hers, and to honor both – an honoring that comes in handy the next time the roles are reversed, when our neighbor offers to help us through some difficulty.
As we become increasingly competent looking first at and as ourselves, and then looking 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 another disagree.
Try This Story on for Size
One way to begin to explore is to convene with a friend, family member or colleague with whom you have a longstanding and trusting relationship. Select a topic that is of interest to you both, whether you are in agreement or not, and take turns listening to each other, asking each other questions, and getting as clear as you can on each other’s position and reasoning. Then take turns speaking as though you are each other. This mostly risk-free exercise allows you to begin to build the muscles required to tell another’s story as if it were your own.
Chapter Thirteen explores 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: http://www.metaintegralstore.com/spring-2009-vol-4-no-1/looking-at-and-looking-as-the-client-the-quadrant-as-a-type-structure-lens. Laura Divine is a co-founder of Integral Coaching Canada. I completed their coach training program in 2011 and currently (2015-present) work with some of their students.
2See Chapters One, Two and Three to review personal history, personality, worldview and who (we think) we are.
3Some meeting or workshop “icebreaker” exercises skim the surface of this experience: a new acquaintance and I briefly share who we are with each other, and then introduce each other to the larger group – each of us speaking in first-person, as though we are the person we’re introducing. For a much deeper dive into 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 (and old) 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.”
Welcome to Episode 10, in which we’ll invite you to “talk back to” Robert Bly’s poem, “People Like Us.”
As we discussed in Episode 3, talking back to a poem involves responding to a word, phrase, image, metaphor, sound, line or the poem as a whole, and beginning your own poem in response. Select anything that resonates with you and begin to write. Your poem need not be anything like the poem to which you’re responding.
Enjoy!Grave & Goofy Poems Episode 10: “People Like Us” by Robert Bly from Reggie Marra on Vimeo.
Here’s the introduction to Enough with the…Talking Points: Doing More Good than Harm in Conversation. The book is in production now with a mid-/late-June anticipated release date. It went into production when the global COVID-19 number was approaching 5 million, and before George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. Without being overly dramatic or presumptuous, among many things we need as a species right now, doing more good than harm in conversation is one of them. And that’s a deliberately low bar.
The title of the series of sixteen blogs from which this book emerged was Guidelines for Adult Conversation. Perhaps clever (or not) when the blogs appeared from January through May, 2019, that title required an increasingly clear definition of “adult,” which, over time, proved problematic at best. Other prospective, serious and less serious titles for the blog and this book include:
- Disagreeing (and Agreeing) With Civility
- Blah, Blah, Blah: Just Another Talking Point
- Silence May Have Been Better
- Who (Do You Think) You Are, and What (in the World) Do You Mean by That?
- I’m Right and You’re Wrong
- You Can’t Be Serious
- Why Don’t You Shut Up?
The intention of this writing is for all of us who speak or write to become increasingly better able to deeply listen to others, and authentically express ourselves, in ways that foster understanding, appreciation and respect for everyone who is present, and everyone who is not. With some few exceptions, “we” seem to have lost the ability to disagree with each other without engaging in personal insult, labeling and sweeping generalizations. We also seem to have lost the ability to agree with each other without engaging in personal insult, labeling and sweeping generalizations directed toward those who are not present, with whom we disagree.
This loss of ability (or lack of skill, or chosen laziness, or (in)-vincible ignorance…) is evident with just about anyone who wishes the world were different, who knows who’s to blame for how the world is, and who’s sure that he or she is not part of the problem, but rather a victim, a prospective savior, or both. It is tempting to begin listing specific groups (elected officials, news commentators, pharmaceutical executives, billionaires, etc.) after “…is evident with…” above, but the list would be too long, inevitably incomplete, and in some ways contrary to this book’s intention. So, whether you believe that Conservative-Republican-Capitalist-Homophobic-Fascists, Liberal-Democrat-Socialist-LGBTQ-Bleeding Hearts, Independent Infidels or some combination of these is to blame for everything that’s wrong, YOU are part of the problem. That sentence is an example of what this book argues against saying or writing. If you’re interested in engaging what the book argues for, I invite you to keep reading.
Chapters One and Two explore the essential task of knowing ourselves, with Chapter One’s focus on the often invisible hand of culture and collective worldview, which is complemented by Chapter Two’s focus on the often just as invisible hand of individual genetics, direct experience (especially, but not only in childhood), personality, health, work, finance, friendship and other factors that further impact how each of us sees and experiences life. More simply, each of us sees through a worldview that is influenced and formed by both the larger cultural and our smaller individual characteristics. To the extent we are aware of this, we can be increasingly conscious and intentional with our thoughts, emotions, words and behaviors. To the extent we are unaware of these multiple influencers, they can, quite literally, run our lives. It comes down to whether we are aware that we have these influencers in our lives, or, unaware of them, they have us.
To the point of this book, it’s essential to get to know ourselves and our worldviews – our values, beliefs and biases, and the experiences and other learnings that inform them, and to commit to this learning and knowing as an ongoing, lifelong process – especially, but not only, if we want to engage in meaningful conversation with others.
Directly related to our awareness of worldview or lack thereof, Chapter Three explores our ability to recognize and suspend our preconceptions, judgments and assumptions in order to better differentiate what is truly ours and what belongs to the other(s) in conversation.
Chapter Four zeroes in on that example of what not to do (above, page ii, first full paragraph) and provides both the why and some of the how we need in order to avoid insults, labels and sweeping generalizations in both our disagreements and our agreements.
In Chapter Five we’ll work on getting clear on and honoring the difference between opinion and fact, where fact refers to an event or characteristic that reasonable, competent individuals, regardless of their beliefs or opinions, agree on, and opinion refers to the meaning(s) an individual ascribes to a fact or another opinion. This room is too cold! is an opinion. The thermometer reads 68 degrees is a fact (even if the thermometer is broken). And yes, it’s often more complicated than that.
Chapter Six follows and deepens the preceding two chapters’ explorations of insults, labels, generalizations, facts and opinions and makes the argument for providing specific, factual and whenever possible, personal examples to support our opinions – as opposed to characterizing, generalizing and interpreting the opinions of others.
Chapter Seven revisits the first two chapters’ work with worldview and explores the rationale for and possible ramifications of getting and staying genuinely curious about ourselves, others and the world – and engaging and embracing the at-times paradoxical gift of ‘not knowing’ as we learn in our attempts to ‘know’.
Chapter Eight explores conversational intention – what it is we intend in conversation with others, and recommends listening and speaking in order to learn, understand and clarify, rather than to teach, persuade or discredit (unless teaching or persuasion has been agreed upon by participating parties in, or is the explicit purpose of, the conversation). For example: in the “expert model” in medicine, in which doctors have knowledge and expertise, they explore and address patients’ symptoms, and try to cure them – curing is the explicit intention. A different intention invites doctors to actually listen to their patients and their stories and see them as fully human beings, rather than symptom carriers that need to be fixed – not to ignore or minimize the doctors’ expertise, but to orient the conversation in a different way – toward ongoing, intentional, integrated health and wellbeing, rather than waiting and then fixing what is perceived as broken.
Chapter Nine invites us to commit to finding those places where we actually agree with the other, and not just where we disagree. Seeking and acknowledging similarities as well as differences can be a remarkably simple step toward healing in a difficult conversation.
In Chapter Ten we’re asked to agree to, and actually stay focused on, the specific content of the current conversation. Creating conversational boundaries allows us to avoid the traditional political debate perversion: a moderator asks a specific question (which is often a ‘gotcha’ aimed at one or more candidates), and the candidates ignore the question and spew forth their prepared talking points about whatever they want. Success with this work relies heavily on the conversational parties’ intention (Chapter Eight). We are more likely to agree to and stay focused on a particular topic if our intention is to understand, learn and clarify.
Chapter Eleven invites us to feel into and listen for the emotion(s) behind our own and others’ words. Much has been written and said about the importance of “emotional intelligence” since the 1990’s. The abilities to recognize, differentiate, name and regulate our emotions, as with our stories, assumptions and biases, allows us to have emotions rather than being had by them – a crucial skill amid a disagreement.
While the work in chapters one through eleven is not particularly easy to engage, Chapter Twelve asks us to significantly up our game by learning to understand, feel, embody and tell the other’s story as if it were our own, which challenges us to move beyond the idea of walking in another’s shoes – which is a good place to start and useful, and which has limitations that we’ll explore.
Chapter Thirteen, in the spirit of the late Neal Postman and others, asks us to honestly explore and assess how what we promote and what we protest impacts others, especially others who are “not like us” – in the broadest meaning of those last three words. Put differently, “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 we promote truly manifests and what we protest truly disappears?”
Chapter Fourteen complements Chapter Five’s differentiation of fact and opinion, and engages our navigation of “the truth,” all of it, with no additional additives, or as the traditional oath puts it, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Chapter Fifteen steps back and reflects on what has preceded it in an attempt to honestly assess what might be both relevant and beyond the scope of this book.
Finally, as the final draft of this book was coming into view in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to make itself known on the planet. As I type this sentence this morning here in Connecticut, about 90 miles from New York City, the death toll on the planet is over 300,000 and the number of confirmed cases is approaching 5 million. Those statistics will be different and higher, unfortunately, by the time you hold this book in your hands.
The pandemic is bringing out both the best and the worst of our species at the same time it confirms, validates and reminds us that we really do share this planet and rely on each other in many ways. We get to see in real time the diversity of responses to both the virus and the attempts to contain and treat it – responses that are grounded in diverse levels of awareness that include “it’s about me,” “it’s about us,” – to whomever “us” might refer; “it’s about all of us,” and “it’s about all that is” – each of which has a unique impact on those who see that way, and on how they see others.
It’s not too late to learn how to listen to and speak with each other.
Welcome to Episode 9, in which we’ll very briefly explore the distinctive traits that characterize a particular poet, or the unique speaker in a given poem.
Enjoy!Grave & Goofy Poems: Narrative Healing in Uncertain Times – Episode 9 – Voice 5.18.20 from Reggie Marra on Vimeo.
Welcome to Episode 8, in which we explore those first two words in the subtitle, “narrative healing.” If you’d like to read a bit more about narrative healing, check out the following posts:
Welcome to Episode 7, in which we’ll explore the music of language – some of the ways the interaction of rhythm and repeated sounds contribute to (and occasionally detract from) what’s going on in a poem.
Welcome to episode 6, where we’ll explore the line as a basic building block of the poem. How long should it be? Where and how should it end? What’s a good reason to end it?
Enjoy!Grave and Goofy Poems: Narrative Healing in Uncertain Times – Episode 6 – Line 4.29.20 from Reggie Marra on Vimeo.
In this 20-minute episode we’ll explore metaphor and simile – using comparison to explore one thing in terms of another. Toward that end, we’ll take a look at poems by Billy Collins and Jack Gilbert.Grave & Goofy Poems – Narrative Healing in Uncertain Times – Episode 5: Comparision 4.22.20 from Reggie Marra on Vimeo.