How Do You Introduce A Friend?

Years ago, a family new to our area came to an enrichment program my kids and I were attending. Someone said, “Oh you’ve got to meet Beth, she dragged roadkill to the back of her yard so her kids could observe the process of decomposition.”

I knew immediately that Beth and her kids were our kind of strange. Every member of her family is clever in charmingly different ways and they quickly became integral to our lives. I don’t need to introduce her with that roadkill story because I have so many other Beth stories by now.

I don’t know about you, but I’m uncomfortable with the usual what-this-person-does-for-a-living introduction. Your friend may be amazing at her job, but she’s more than that. I’d rather introduce people by what they mean to me.  “I’d like you to meet Margaret, who is truly the most unique person I know,” or “This is Leslie, who has helped me out of more more scrapes than you can imagine,” or “I’d like you to meet Mark, an amazingly open-hearted man who also tends to make scatological jokes.”

Or introduce them by something they do that brings them joy. “I’d like you to meet David, who is a reading buddy with kids in an inner city school,” or “This is Amy, who has challenged herself to write an acrostic poem every single day,” or “This is Cynthia, who has such attuned vision in nature that she can see what most people never notice.”

Or, as in the case of Beth, to introduce someone with a story.

I suspect most of us feel awkward in a group of strangers at a party, reception, or stalled elevator. Oftentimes a conversation starts more naturally by simply sharing an observation (“I hope elevator cables only snap in the movies,” might not be the right one. Which means I’d probably say it…)

Or asking a more essential question that might lead to real connection. Maybe, “What’s capturing your attention lately?” or “What do you like to do that you don’t have to do?” (Yeah, lame. I told you I’m awkward.)

And whatever we do, by really listening to the answers.

I ran across this wonderful poem by a fellow Ohioan, Susan Glassmeyer. She says it all, perfectly.

INTRODUCTIONS

Let’s not say our names
or what we do for a living.
If we are married
and how many times.
Single, gay, or vegan.

Let’s not mention
how far we got in school.
Who we know,
what we’re good at
or no good at, at all.

Let’s not hint at
how much money we have
or how little.
Where we go to church
or that we don’t.
What our Sun Sign is
our Enneagram number
our personality type according to Jung
or whether we’ve ever been
Rolfed, arrested, psychoanalyzed,
or artificially suntanned.

Let’s refrain, too, from stating any ills.
What meds we’re on
including probiotics.
How many surgeries we’ve survived
or our children’s children’s problems.
And, please—
let’s not mention
who we voted for
in the last election.

Let’s do this instead:
Let’s start by telling
just one small thing
that costs us nothing
but our attention.

Something simple
that nourishes
the soul of our bones.
How it was this morning
stooping to pet the sleeping dog’s muzzle
before going off to work.

Or
yesterday,
walking in the woods
spotting that fungus on the stump
of a maple
so astonishingly orange
it glowed like a lamp.

Or just now,
the sound
of your
own breath
rising
or sinking
at the end
of this
sentence.

— Susan Glassmeyer

How To Listen & How To Be Heard

what's real listening, are you listening, how to pay attention, being ignored,

Katerina Omelchuk “Beginning”

“Do you really want a dead cat on your desk?”

When a teacher took a parent’s phone call at the end of another busy school day, she was taken aback by the question. She couldn’t figure out why a first grader in her class came home telling his mother that their recently deceased family pet had to be on the teacher’s desk the next morning.

Then she realized what must have happened. At the beginning of each school day, children clustered around her desk in the few minutes available before the bell rang. They were all eager to talk.

“Fish sticks are yucky so I want to change my lunch ticket.”

“Want to see me do jumping jacks?”

“This picture of me and my bike is for you.”

“Here’s a note from my mom.”

Any of us would suffer from limited focus if we tried to listen to kids clamoring for attention while also monitoring a classroom. To compensate, this teacher tended to look only briefly at the child doing the talking. She often told them to put whatever they had to offer on her desk. Thinking back, she realized she never even heard the little boy say that that his cat had died. She just gave him an automatic response. “Put it on my desk.”

It doesn’t feel good to be disregarded. It shuts us down, diminishes our sense of worth, even leads to misunderstandings that can be epic in scale.

And you know when you aren’t being really heard.

It goes both ways. We may not be heard often or heard well. We also may not be very good listeners.

Like that teacher, we’re often wedged into circumstances that aren’t conducive to listening. The potential distractions are greater than ever. Ear buds in, smart phones on, screens blaring in all but a few restaurants and waiting rooms, we multitask our way to fractured attention. And limited listening. As a result we don’t hear, really hear. And we don’t feel heard.

We can consciously enhance listening skills. It’s about paying attention, tuning in to others, and limiting distractions. That helps us to hear and to be heard.

Psychiatrist Daniel N. Stern is an expert on attunement, particularly as it develops in infancy. And Dr. Stern’s research has led to this resounding conclusion. When a child or adult doesn’t give as well as receive sufficiently empathic responses they tend to resort to less healthy methods of filling their needs.

A woman who took one of my non-violence workshops turned in a paper containing an excerpt from the book Soul Work: A Field Guide for Spiritual Seekers, which explored Stern’s work. I take the liberty of including a passage here. Check yourself against Stern’s scale of attuned responses in your interactions with your partner, co-workers, children, extended family, and friends.

Scale of Attuned Responses

Beyond Unresponsive: The person you are talking with interrupts you in the middle of your sentence and shifts to a different topic.

Unresponsive: The person obviously isn’t listening, only waiting for you to stop talking. When you finish, the person shifts to an entirely different topic.

Indirectly Unresponsive: The other person says or implies, “Well, you shouldn’t feel that way.”

Self-Referential Free Association: The person says something like, “Oh yeah, that reminds me of the time when I…” or “Well you think you had it bad—listen to what happened to me,” and makes no other reference to anything you have said.

Free Association: The person responds to your statement by going off on a tangent and making only an indirect reference to what you said.

Impersonal/Nonnurturing: The person indicates she has heard you but offers no sympathetic or empathic response. Basically her stance is, “That’s the way the cookie crumbles.”

Superficial: Although the person responds by saying, “Yeah I know what you mean,” she does not sound sincere or empathic.

Adequate: The person shows evidence that he heard what you said but does not show interest or follow up your statement by encouraging you to expand upon it.

Responsive: The person not only hears what you said but also inquires further so that you can elaborate. He asks questions that demonstrate interest.

Resonant: The person indicates that she emotionally resonates with what you have said by responding with statements that show she is trying to imagine what you are experiencing (e.g., “I can imagine that you feel terrible…”).

Really listening and really being heard. It spares us from more than a dead cat on the desk. It’s an eyes open, hearts open path to wholeness.

Half Life

We walk through half our life
as if it were a fever dream

barely touching the ground

our eyes half open
our heart half closed.

Not half knowing who we are
we watch the ghost of us drift
from room to room
through friends and lovers
never quite as real as advertised.

Not saying half we mean
or meaning half we say
we dream ourselves
from birth to birth
seeking some true self.

Until the fever breaks
and the heart can not abide
a moment longer
as the rest of us awakens,
summoned from the dream,
not half caring for anything but love.

Stephen Levine, from Breaking the Drought: Visions of Grace

 

how to listen, how to know if you are heard, attuning yourself to real responses, what it means to listen,

Alfons Anders “Begegnung”

 

 

 

Mom Knows Nothing

open to questions, don't know answers, kid's questions, being a mom,

“Why don’t you know any answers?” my then three-year-old asked me.

He was exaggerating. I always gave him a straight answer when he asked what we could have for dinner or when we were going to the library. But it was true, sometimes I had to look things up. That’s because I really didn’t know answers to questions he posed like, “Do bees have intestines?”

Still, I knew what he meant. I tended to respond to his questions with inquiries of my own. “What do you think?” or “Let’s find out.” Of course I was intentionally vague in order to spark the process of discovery. I didn’t know such a tactic might annoy a toddler who sometimes just wanted to know. Yes, I modified my approach, although he’ll tell you today that I’m just as annoying in other ways.

However the habit of putting questions where answers might be continues, at least in my head. The more I experience the sorrows and delights of life the more I recognize that answers aren’t the aim. So much is better understood as a question.

Today I walk out back with a pail of vegetable peelings and leftover oatmeal for the chickens on our little farm. Chickens look perpetually quizzical, perhaps that’s one reason I like them so much.

Our cows graze in the sunny part of the pasture. I can’t get past marveling at the mystery of plants eating sunlight, cows converting grass to milk, and milk transforming into cheese on my stove. I simply stand watching the cows in wonderment.

While I stand here I know that what we call gravity bonds me and everything I see to the planet. Without this force all of us would drop into the darkness of space. Earth holds us. Yet here on this perfect sphere we humans find reasons to hurt one another and harm the Earth. I hear humanity’s questions asked over and over in songs, poetry and the scriptures of many faiths, and I am comforted by our common quest for understanding.

There’s peace to be found right beyond the need for answers. This sense of calm I find puts the emphasis on love, not on what’s right. (It doesn’t hurt to recognize that those who have all the answers actually don’t.) I walk back to the house, taking in the way the water flows along the creek and the mud squelches around my boots. I’m glad to live with people who are astonished daily by this world’s wonders. Even if they continue to ask me what’s for dinner and expect an answer.

inchworm, questioning everything, appreciating the moment,

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Question tree photo courtesy of Type Zero

To Be, Or To Multitask

multitasking, busy, mindfulness, I.Q., cell phone, distraction,

I did it again. Deleted unwanted emails while on the phone, just trying to be efficient. No, I wasn’t reading the emails. Honestly I started out just deleting. But I had to scan quickly through a few to make sure I wasn’t missing something important. And next thing you know it was time to end the conversation. Sadly our entire interaction felt flat, as if we never really connected. I know why. I wasn’t really part of it. Chances are the very busy person I was talking to wasn’t either. Yay for multitasking.

This is the opposite of my true intentions. I keep writing about the importance of paying attention, connecting with nature, and centering our lives on what’s positive.

I try, I really do. But even when we live simply it takes real effort to avoid being rushed and over-obligated.

My mother was an early adherent of multitasking. She liked to say there was no sense doing just one thing at a time. I wasn’t too thrilled about it, however, when she spent requisite quality time playing a board game with me while heating her curler-bedecked head under the hairdryer (those 70’s models were as loud as leaf blowers) and talking on the phone. I was never sure how the person on the other end of the phone heard her over that hairdryer; that person may have been loudly washing dishes, making them both disconnected multitaskers.

It’s much easier to multitask now. In fact, we’re rewiring the way we operate minute-to-minute. We’ve tuned ourselves to distraction. That seems to make us uncomfortable with distraction’s opposite—-the powerfully real time spent in contemplation or conversation.

A recent study found that people asked to forgo media contact for 24 hours (no texting,email, Facebook, TV or cell phone use) actually suffered withdrawal symptoms. They experienced anxiety, cravings and preoccupations so overwhelming that their ability to function was impaired.

When we multitask it feels as if we’re accomplishing more. Who can’t stir a pot of noodles, listen to music and still maintain a decent conversation?  That’s easy.  Although we’re not really paying attention to that music or honoring the conversation with eye contact and full awareness (let alone mindfully attending to the noodles).

The major multitasking whammy comes from doing similar functions at the same time, as I was doing by talking on the phone and checking email. That’s because the brain doesn’t really do both task simultaneously, it goes back and forth, relentlessly switching attention.

All that switching causes our performance to plummet.  Studies show multitasking makes us up to 40 percent slower or causes the same lack of concentration as giving up a night’s sleep.

Perhaps even worse, we don’t recognize the stress it imposes.  As our brains focus and refocus, our bodies release cortisol and adrenaline.  We may work faster, but also feel more frustration and pressure, and the ability to concentrate becomes increasingly impaired.

Talking on the phone and reading email doesn’t just make me somewhat inattentive, studies find that multitasking can functionally lower one’s I.Q. by as much as ten points.  In my case, I suspect it’s quite a bit more.

So many parts of our lives seem to require multitasking. Parenthood certainly does, nearly every job does too. But I want to be, really be. Multitasking subtracts from that.

I’m taking a vow to walk away from any screen any time I pick up the phone. I’m vowing to spend less time using technology, more time in nature. Any vows you’ve taken? How’s that going for you?

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“To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.”

Thich Nhat Hanh Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living

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photo courtesy of Jayo

Open-Eyed Optimism

hillside

Our dinner table topics tend to be obscure and in-depth because my kids delve deeply into their own interests. Detailed conversations about plant classification, advanced computer cooling methods, arachnid behavior and diesel fine-tuning require little from me except that I keep my eyes open.

But elections are coming up and we also tend to talk a lot about politics. These are conversations I can get into. These are also conversations where I need to temper myself. I know it’s important to stay open to everyone’s perspective around the table so I can hear what they have to say. This is difficult when I have strong opinions built on years of activism.

It’s easy to utter pat answers and give what may seem like trite explanations. It’s more valuable to build bridges of understanding than to be “right.” So I try, often unsuccessfully, to keep myself from snorting in derision about moneyed interests and short-sighted politicians. I want my family to continue to care deeply about things.

I also have to temper myself because politics are one of the few areas where my natural optimism wears thin. Still, it’s terrifically important to me that my family remain optimistic. According to The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and BuildLifelong Resilience by Martin E.P. Seligman, there are major differences between pessimists and optimists. People who are cynical believe negative conditions will last a long time. They give up easily and tend to blame themselves when things go wrong. In contrast, optimistic people look at negative conditions as a challenge and look for ways to prevent the next misfortune.  In fact optimists find life more fulfilling and rewarding. That’s an outlook worth cultivating.

Seligman recently spoke about infusing meaning and optimism into education. In one study, high school students not only read the classics but focused on the strengths of main characters. They also turned good intentions into actions benefiting others. The result?  Greater love of learning and increased social skills.

Looking for what’s valuable, what works, what brings joy is something we can do in all aspects of our lives.

Every day our children observe the direct kindness we demonstrate. They also witness the generosity of spirit we express as we talk about others, discuss issues and yes, listen. Our words and actions show them how to approach to the world.

For the Children

The rising hills, the slopes,

of statistics

lie before us.

the steep climb

of everything, going up,

up, as we all

go down.

In the next century

or the one beyond that,

they say,

are valleys, pastures,

we can meet there in peace

if we make it.

To climb these coming crests

one word to you, to

you and your children:

stay together

learn the flowers

go light.

Gary Snyder

from Turtle Island (A New Directions Book)