The word “bifurcated” showed up in the news recently. I’m a communicator and a word-geek, and I think that one is a wonder – not least because it beautifully describes the tension of this time.
My “bifurcated” experience of the past several months has felt like having to choose feeling safe or feeling at risk; being dismayed or staying connected; being at ease or being anxious to the point of panic; having some modicum of clarity or feeling like I’m snorkeling through mud.
I have been desperately trying to choose one feeling, state of being, or perspective over another, as if doing the “right” thing happens at the expense of the other. I have been wrestling between this or that feeling/action/word to the point of exhaustion and depletion.
A wise woman reminded me that polarity always has been and always will be part of being human. We will never transcend the experience of this and that, life and death, joy and sorrow, yin and yang. When we accept paradox as part of the human condition, there’s a chance for peace to take root.
The key here is substituting one tiny word for another.
Rather than miring myself in the “or” thinking that requires me to dig in my heels, choose one ideology over another, and defend my little patch of ground to the metaphorical death, I can embrace polarity as natural. I can accept life on life’s terms. I can open to “and.”
“And” is inclusive, abundant and generous. It tells us there’s room here for everything, everyone, every feeling. All are welcome.
It is, though, at least a bit counter-cultural to live into what’s possible with “and.” Perhaps that's because "and" makes everything possible. Everything. And that might feel a bit overwhelming.
So we continue the hard work of expanding our inner containers to make room for all that awaits us when we open to "and." Until and unless we build greater capacity for paradox, we will continue to raise fierce resistance to life, and we will wreak havoc on ourselves and each other. Living in a world where “or” is the order of the day is living in a world of separation, “othering,” violence and war.
Choosing “and” is a way toward each other. First, though, it is a way toward ourselves. It opens space for us to more fully accept ourselves, embracing our own inner complexity and polarity. Befriending the truth of ourselves as frail, fallible and fantastic human beings opens wide the door to befriend our neighbors and begin to knit together this great human family.
To learn how to travel this path, I lean into words from the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, that have long offered me guidance and solace:
Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final.
“Bifurcated” is a beautiful word – but it’s no way to live. Just keep going. Keep going past the “or” that has defined our lives and our culture and has separated us from each other for far too long.
Lean on each other to do the good work of building your inner capacity and acceptance for the paradoxes of life and the tension they can create. Keep opening to what’s possible for you, for all of us, when we ground ourselves not on what separates us but on one tiny and powerful word: AND.
A CEO recently asked her social media connections about when it’s appropriate to interrupt someone who’s speaking. I love her courageous inquiry into whether it’s ever OK to interrupt, and it prompted some thinking from me about listening.
I believe all good communication originates with the communicator. To be effective in our communication – and I think listening is the silver bullet in effective communication – we first have to take a look inward. It seems to me that’s just what my CEO friend is doing. Love that.
So, in the case of when and whether to interrupt someone, I’d back things up and ask myself two questions: What kind of listener am I? And, What’s my intention for this conversation? I’d also contemplate conscious timing.
First, we all have preferred listening styles. Becoming aware of my default approach to listening can help me tune into the dynamic I’m creating in the conversation. It also helps me see that I have other choices.
For example, I’m a task-oriented listener. I listen to find out what I have to do as a result of this conversation. I’m also content-oriented and can get judgmental and distracted if I perceive inaccuracy in what the other person is saying. It sounds like my CEO friend might be more of a time-oriented listener. She wants to get to the point.
Each of these listening types has an upside (a time-oriented listener can be very efficient) and a downside (a task-oriented listener can miss the big picture). We can learn to maximize the positives and work to reduce the less-positive consequences of our listener type by appreciating and even adopting some of the other listening approaches.
Once I have an awareness of my listening preference, I can more easily address the second question: What’s the intention for this conversation?
Sometimes conversations are about getting things done – they’re about planning, coordinating and taking action. Sometimes, though, they’re about exploring – about going into new territory together to poke around and making discoveries together. Sometimes they’re a little of both.
Before things get rolling, ask the other person what it is that she wants to talk about. Is she focused on accomplishing a task or a project? Does he want to talk about a workplace issue that might involve discussing various office relationships and personal emotions? Do they want to run a new idea by me?
Conversations for action often benefit from efficiency. If the topic is how to get something done, and I know I have a propensity for time-oriented listening, I can use it to my advantage. I can let the person know that I may jump in to help us stay focused on the task at hand so that she can get back to working on it.
The exploratory kind of conversation – a conversation for possibility – needs more time and space. These conversations may ask me to cultivate different listening styles that will better serve me and my team in this situation. We can all learn to listen in a way that allows others to express their genius most naturally.
For both types of conversation – for action and for possibility – I’m a fan of conscious timing. Time is a precious resource that we can never reclaim. When it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s our responsibility to use it wisely, and to know that when people give us their time, our highest and best action is to respect that.
One aspect of conscious timing is scheduling. If I recognize that I can’t listen with intention and focus when someone wants to talk to me, I might ask to postpone the conversation – even a few minutes – until I know I can be present.
The other side of conscious timing for conversations has to do with their duration. I like setting time limits on conversations and committing to being present for that time. And I let the other person know by saying something like, “I have about 15 minutes to talk about this. Does that work for you? Shall we give it a go and see what we can get done?”
If the conversation can’t be completed in the time allotted, I can always extend it or set another date to pick up the conversation. My husband and I have been having a certain conversation for possibility for well over ten years!
It’s not always easy, but better listening can be learned. Get to know your preferred listening type as well as what’s wonderful and not so wonderful about listening that way. Maybe you can explore another listening type to expand your range in this critical leadership tool. And learn to distinguish the types of conversations you’re having. Then you can set guidelines for yourself and others to make those conversations as productive and meaningful as possible.
The work I do in Authentic Communication rests on three principles: BE, LISTEN and ACT. We start with self-awareness (BE) before turning our attention to the other with focus, intention and curiosity (LISTEN), and then we take mindful action for effective, productive and authentic communication (ACT). LISTEN is the central principle of Authentic Communication because it is so vital for leadership and teamwork.
I’d be delighted to have a conversation with you about how to build listening skills for yourself, your team or your organization.
Image Credit :: Pawel Czerwinski via Unsplash
Just before the 2016 election I moved to a place where the majority of people hold a very different political view than mine. And some of those people are in my family of origin.
These past four years have taught me to live with people who are genuinely different from me. I have been learning not to be in perpetual judgment and opposition. To set and defend healthy boundaries. And it is has not been easy.
Of course I want to be heard. I even want to be right. But more than that, I want to live in a world where respect, truth, dignity and peace are the order of the day. And I’m convinced that realizing a measure of that ideal requires that I listen.
Psychotherapist Esther Perel talks about the Perception Gap, a study conducted by the non-partisan, non-profit More in Common. Perel explains that, when we are entrenched in our opposing views, as the United States is and has been for years, we become increasingly binary in our thinking. We perceive ourselves through one lens and the “others” through another.
We see ourselves as complex beings, nuanced individuals. We are sensitive to our own rainbow of emotions, motivations and behaviors. We see the “others” in black and white. We call them simplistic and narrow-minded tribes. And, the reverse is also true. The “others” see themselves in all their intricate individuality and see “us” as monochrome masses.
This gap manifests itself in the workplace as well as on the social and political stage. Just think of the last time the Marketing team had to justify an expensive campaign to Finance.
So how do we bridge this “perception gap?” I believe we start with ourselves, with an honest introspection. And then, in short order, we look for common ground and common language. From there, we can build a bridge toward each other.
I work with human values, and I think this might be a place to start.
Every single person on planet Earth – regardless of age, gender, race, creed, culture, language, economic situation, sexual orientation, education, job, or political affiliation – has values.
We might begin to close the Perception Gap with an examination of our own values and an appreciation that all other humans have values, too.
I invited a friend to read this piece before I posted it, and he highlighted the way an absence of “truth” in the United States has acted like a steel spreader to keep “us” from “them.” With every act of disinformation and prevarication, the spreader turns another rotation and widens the Perception Gap.
When we talk about values, we stand in an unwavering reality: Values are as essential to every human as a heartbeat. They are always true. And that applies to every single one of us. Values offer us common ground.\
Values also provide a universal vernacular for telling our stories to each other. Storytelling has brought humans together since language emerged. Starting from the common reference of our values helps us access stories that connect rather than divide.
But a story has to be heard. To make any progress on closing the Perception Gap, we have to take the time and make the effort to listen to stories, ideas and experiences that are different from our own.
Through listening, we can open to learning about the values and stories of others and begin to bring into focus the shades and subtlety of their human intricacies and fragility.
Getting grounded in my own values is vital work in self-awareness.
Aligning my life with my values is how I live with purpose.
Acknowledging that other people – even those I don’t like or don’t agree with – also have values points the way to mutual understanding.
Working with values gives me and you common language to share our stories.
And listening – listening with intention, curiosity and courage – listening to others as they speak from our common ground and share their own values and unique stories – listening begins to build a bridge across that Perception Gap.
I know that speaking to each other about our values will not bind all our wounds or tele-transport us to a place where “truth” and “facts” mean the same thing to everyone or even where Marketing and Finance will align. It will not magically eliminate the Perception Gap.
Still – it’s a way to “start close in,” as the poet David Whyte says, and goodness knows, we have to start.
I’m redoubling my efforts to listen. To honor human values so I can see past the “monochrome masses.” To cherish my own nuances and complexity, and those of my human neighbors. All of my human neighbors.
Will you join me? We are resilient and creative and up to this. Together we can restore respect, truth, dignity and peace for everyone.
Shall we give it a go?
[Do you need a hand getting started? Please get in touch. I have tools and resources and would be delighted to work with you, your team or your organization.]
Here you'll find some of my thoughts about communication, contemplation, yoga, life and various other topics. Thanks for giving them a read.