Hearing without understanding

Businessman in helmet covering his ears over white backgroundI share a short message at preschool chapel twice a week. It’s one of those things that I don’t always look forward to, but always leave feeling better about myself and the future.

Kids have that affect on me.

Each chapel time starts with singing. And, as you can imagine, we sing quite a few repetitive songs. And we have standards; that is, some we sing every time we gather.

For one of these standards, we have many different flavors or styles. We have “baby style,” “mommy style,” “daddy style,” (which is my favorite, since it is everyone else trying to sing really low, and me singing normally).

And, for fun, the director often invites children to offer new styles. This elicits some serious creativity!  Last week, taking requests, the director thought she heard a child request “angel style.”

What the child had actually requested, though, was “ninja style.”

An honest mistake. And a reminder that we often hear what we want to hear.

Lesson from a 3rd Grader

Yesterday I made my weekly trek to South Euless Elementary Schoolsouth euless 2where I mentor a couple of boys.  One of them is in 3rd grade, the other in 6th.  This week, I met only with the 3rd grader.

As usual, I checked in on social media. This time, I checked in with this statement: “What will I learn from a 3rd grader today?”

And my bluff was called. So, what did I learn from a 3rd grader yesterday?

That I don’t always communicate what I intend to communicate, and that if I don’t pay attention, I’ll miss something.

He and I have been meeting together over lunch most of this school year. Each time, he seems eager to sit down with me and start talking.

I learned early on that we are better off if I don’t force the conversation where I want it to go.  When I do, I quickly sound like just another older person dispensing advice and wisdom.  I know this because I see it in his eyes, and I hear it as he gently mocks me.  Sometimes he’ll parrot my words back to me. Sometimes he just says, at increased volume, “You tell me that every week!”

I don’t believe I do tell him the same think every week, but if I argue with him about that, then I’ve lost the battle for relationship before I’ve even started.

It is a challenge for a 52 year old to meet a 3rd grader on his own terms, but if I want this child to respect my experience and the wisdom and insight I’ve gained along the way, I owe it to him to try my best.

We only have 30 minutes together each week. Sometimes this will be filled with significant conversation. Sometimes it will be mostly his making faces at his friends at other tables.

But he still looks forward to my meeting him at lunch. That’s something I’ll take any day of the week.

How close is too close?

As with most Mondays, I follow Rachel to work in the mornings.  She drives the kids to preschool, then we go to work.  Sometimes We leave home at about the same time, sometimes I follow by a few minutes.  Today, I was right behind her all the way.

toocloseThe first time we reached a stoplight, I pulled up very close behind her.  Closer than I would normally do in traffic.

Closer than I am comfortable when I look in my rearview mirror and see someone else.

This was not exactly like normal traffic, though.  I was driving behind a person I know and who knows me. Once the light changed, I gave her appropriate lead time, and followed at a safe distance.

After I had pulled that close, though, I became a  little uncomfortable with what I had done.  I wondered how analogous driving patterns are for personal relationships.

You know: people have very different senses of personal space!  I remember particularly a professor I worked with at one point in my academic life.  He was, what we called, a space invader.

For normal conversation, he would stand within a foot of me.  Though I never felt threatened or endangered in any way, standing this close to a professional acquaintance was uncomfortable for me.

Thankfully, I was a good 6 inches taller than he, so could find space by looking up a little.

In addition to these, I’ve come to notice many different ways we live in space relationship with others.

Just yesterday, in fact, a variant:  I entered the sanctuary well before the next worship service and proceeded to greet the few people who were already there.  As I approached one, he asked if he could talk to me briefly.  I said yes, and as he stood he said, relatively quietly, that this was confidential.

I leaned in a little and nodded to indicate my understanding.

Then, with a raised voice (to normal conversation level, but clearly loud enough for others to hear), he proceeded to tell me what he had to say.

I thought about asking if he was familiar with the word “confidential,” but choose not to.

What he meant, I think, was that he was telling me this “for my own good,” and not for me to tell others.

I had moved close enough to listen, only to find out I really hadn’t needed to get closer at all.

How sensitive are you to the space around you, and the distances you maintain from others?

Do you really want what you want?

snowroofAfter a few fleeting moments of playing in the snow this morning, the kids were inside, warm, and dry. And ready to watch something.

Hello, Netflix!

Eliza wanted to watch Annie.

Liam wanted to watch Mater’s Tale Tales. Then Mr. Peabody and Sherman.

It turns out it was Liam’s turn to choose, so two things happened:

1) we started Mr. Peabody and Sherman, and
2) Eliza threw a small fit.

It was a very small fit: actually fairly worthy of the moment, and quickly left behind.
Within minutes – no more than 10 – both of them were enjoying the movie.

This is how it often goes with our kids.  Loudly (and proudly?) claim your preference.  Get louder if someone else claims an alternative preference.

Stand your ground

Raise the stakes

Refuse to listen, negotiate, or compromise.

Throw a fit if you don’t get your way.

I realized yesterday that we don’t necessarily unlearn this pattern as we grow up.

We don’t always want what we want. Sometimes we just don’t want to let someone else have a say.

It’s hard to listen when you are shouting, “My way or the highway!”

While this is worth considering for anyone, I particularly hope my church, the United Methodist Church #UMC, will give it thought.

We’ve not been listening so well to each other lately.  On some things, we have dug in for decades and refused to actually listen.

We want what we want. Or do we?

I know what you mean

I write and talk a lot about communication: about listening, about speaking clearly.  I believe our world, our communities, our families, would be better places if we would take the time and make the effort to articulate our own thoughts and feelings in ways other people can truly understand them.  Likewise, I believe every one of us would do well to listen more carefully to what others say as well as what they mean.

If only it were as simple as listening.  Even listening carefully, I find I do not always – or even usually – get exactly what the other person is saying.

To be fair, I don’t always know exactly what I am trying to say, so how could I be expected ( or expect myself) to know exactly what someone else is trying to say?

If we want “I know what you mean” to make sense, I think we have to allow that it is a relative statement.  Now I cannot help but think of the phrase, “I know EXACTLY what you mean!”

This, I am pretty sure, is a lie.  A well intended lie, but a lie nevertheless.

No, it isn’t a lie, but it isn’t the truth, either.  To say, “I know EXACTLY what you mean” is a statement of sympathy more than it is a claim to understand with all intricacies and nuance of human relationship, everything the other person says.

Because, remember: none of us fully grasp everything we ourselves say.

I feel a little lost right now, so I think I can imagine how you might feel reading this post.  But all is not lost.

I still believe we do well to speak carefully and thoughtfully.  We also need to develop the skills necessary to listen to others.

In addition, today I would add that we need time.  It is very likely we need more than one conversation. In fact, I am pretty sure that the more we presume we begin from a place of disagreement, the more time we owe our conversation or relationship.

Let that bounce around inside you for a while, then let me know what you think.  If you would rather not, that’s ok too.  You could just tell me that you would rather do something else.

And if you said that, it’s ok.  I know EXACTLY what you mean.

Getting past labels and first impressions

On our way out of a meeting, I struck up a conversation with the new guy.  This had been his first meeting, and I’m not sure he felt like it went all that well.

He had raised a dissenting voice more than once.

“I’m really not a negative person,” he said after a couple minutes of interaction.

A thought hit my brain lightning fast: “Then you might try saying things that aren’t negative!”

The filter held.  Just a minute or two later I realized I had a potential blog topic.

If you don’t want people to think of you as negative, don’t say negative things. Well, that’s a pretty short blog post.  Maybe I could flesh it out a little.

Fleshing out such a seemingly clear and straightforward concept quickly caught me in potential hypocrisy.  Sometimes I spout negative ideas or points of view pretty darn quickly.

Am I a negative person?

What’s more, I just began reading Wiser, a book about “Getting Beyond Groupthink.”

We need people willing to stand, to share, to question, against the status quo or the dominant direction of thought a group takes.

Do we need negative people?

Is there a difference between saying something negative and being a negative person?

Of course there is.  And I had quickly dropped this “new guy” at the meeting into the “negative person” bin of my categorizing mind.

I was ready to leave him there.

But, then, I pursued conversation.  As he and I will be serving together on a committee for at least the next year, I didn’t want to leave it at “the new guy is just negative.”

Sunstein and Hastie (co-authors of Wiser), write about the danger of groupthink.  Spending time only with people who tend to agree with you and who tend to side with you on issues has the effect of making you -individually, and as a group – more extreme.

If there is one thing we need no more of these days, it is people at the extremes.

It would do us all good to spend time with people we don’t agree with on everything.  We practice listening, and we practice saying things in ways that can be heard by someone not already on the same side of the fence we are.

Then, perhaps, none of us will be judged by the first words out of our mouths.