Conversation with a friend will only bear good fruit of knowledge when both think only of the matter under consideration and forget that they are friends.—Friedrich Nietzsche
This is more a reflective piece than an article on pedagogy. It does pertain to leadership, but mostly relationships with others and ourselves.
I am an introvert. I admit with only slightly downcast eyes that I find conversations with people I am only starting to know quite a challenge. I spend a great deal of energy looking for common ground, exchanging niceties about daily life, dancing around whether I should reveal my opinions before knowing which tunes my counterpart sings. I am unabashedly envious of those who can talk to anyone, anytime, about anything, those extroverts whose effervescent charms are the dynamo of conversation. I have really worked hard to overcome my shyness and introversion. Not that I am unhappy with who I am, but I realize that these traits are holding me back from accessing all the goodness others may have to share.
I’ve been fortunate to know many British people, professionally and personally, over the years (and of course Charlotte) and I continue to admire their gift for asking non-intrusive questions to open up conversation and deepen relationships. The British have a reputation for being masters of small talk, but I believe it’s more than that. Having you to talk about yourself allows them to explore future paths for common pursuits and experiences. Clearly this isn’t the case with every British person, but there are certain cultural traits that, when you witness them, make you want to be a bit more like those people from another land. I want to be more like the British by asking more questions. This helps my shyness by making it about them not me.
More than a few believe that leadership is about asking more questions than providing answers and listening more than speaking. Leadership is about walking the line between authorship and letting go, about being comfortable—and making others feel comfortable—with not knowing what lies beyond the “fuzzy front end,” that space and time where we don’t know where innovative practices will take us. Leadership means being the last in line at the buffet. I’m not proposing anything new, these are just bits I’ve picked up from, observations, experience, and the ideas of many others more knowledgeable than I.
What if we refused pointless arguments and asked more questions, listened more? What if learning were about developing compassion by setting aside our ego? What if that learning connected us to the whole and was not an individualistic experience?
Asking questions to get over my shyness is self-serving, let’s face it, but when I think about why I can be so uncomfortable with small talk, I realize that the reasons are anything but ego-driven (which I won’t go into). I also appreciate that what started off as a coping strategy has been one of the most enriching approaches to relationship-building I have at my disposal. It has also serves me well in my mindfulness practice. It has created and even maybe saved relationships.
I am someone who finds fulfillment in the maelstrom of inchoate ideas—which is really just a self-indulgent and pompous way (which I use it with irony*) of saying that I enjoy talking to other people about ideas because I grow from these experiences. I find that when I ask questions, I learn not only about the other person, but also about information, perspectives, and experiences that move my thinking. There is always a story to uncover.
Problems arise when that story isn’t one we like. When we hear something that rubs us the wrong way, that we disagree with, that perhaps we find offensive, we tend to react by arguing. Things might not start off as such, a polite counterpoint here, a dismissal of evidence there. When we first meet someone, after some ideological friction we will walk away muttering unpleasantries under our breath or shout invectives after we find refuge behind the closed doors of our homes. There is more potential for damaging the relationships we get closer we get to others. Maybe that slight irritation turns into a full on opposition. Maybe what started off as a hint of difference in perspectives turns into a vicious argument and hurtful words exchanged. There is a reason why many families or circles of friends ban discussion of religion and politics. I’m not suggesting that is for everyone, but it happens perhaps for good reason. (So long as we acknowledge that some issues will not be resolved unless we have frank, open, and productive conversations that may be difficult.)
Most of the time when disagreements turn into arguments, no one is listening anyway. Sure, it’s possible to have a discussion with someone with whom you don’t share perspectives that is productive, civil, and stimulating—cherish those occasions. These exchanges stop being productive when each side only waits for an opportunity to speak, sometimes seized from the other mid-sentence. No one is listening. One person makes a point, the other counters. It’s more of a boxing match than a constructive endeavor. Is there any space to change minds? Is anyone open to possibilities for new ways of thinking? It’s back and forth, back and forth. I say this this, you say that…Afterwards, when voices calm and tempers subside, what is left? Often acrimony, bitterness, and envenomed relationships. Maybe not noticeably just then, but what will happen after you rinse and repeat?
Some situations naturally provoke us into arguments. We have strong opinions and sometimes we feel an impulse to project them. Generally, little comes from that impulse and arguments do very little to sway anyone’s opinions or bring them into your fold. This is certain to cause emotional suffering and damage relationships… .and for what? Minds that don’t change but relationships that sour?
Shenpa is a Tibetan word for “hooks.” They are like triggers, urges we follow even though they cause us pain or pain to others. When we feel anger, fear, or insecurity, we are particularly likely to take the bait of these hooks, to latch onto them for relief, relief from the tightness we feel physically when the urge arises. Pema Chödrön explains that this tight feeling has “the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.” Arguing is scratching that itch: it feels so good to counterpunch with a juicy piece of evidence or jab by pointing out an inconsistency.
But these punches fall nowhere because the other person isn’t listening. You may be in the same space, but you are not together. You can find yourself so far apart from another that you can’t hear each other anymore. You may as well be speaking different languages.
That’s not to say that I won’t listen to or am closed off the ideas of those whose views I do not share (they are illusions anyway, see below). We have different stories we cling onto, told in a dynamic interplay with our values. There is a learning energy that is transferred from the friction we encounter from others’ ideas. Yet when we don’t speak the same language, when we are so far apart that we cannot see the middle ground, the friction risks to set fire to the relationship. I am attracted to the Nietzschean belief in confronting our ideological opponents as means of testing our mettle, of becoming who we are—this endeavor may be worthwhile with a stranger—but I mindfully hesitate to enter the ring with someone I know, work with, or love. Relationships precede ideas and while some may be built on ideas, no relationship can withstand multiple assaults on the core of we are. Sometimes it is best to walk away, to avoid the hook. (Whether we wish to end a relationship is another topic.)
There is also another way to proceed; we can bypass the urge to showcase our ego and we could ask questions. When avoid the temptation to get our point across at all cost, when we open ourselves up to asking questions. This not has the potential not only to preserve the relationship, but we may just learn something from the other person. When we learn from another, we nurture our wisdom, we expand our possibilities by adding to the sophistication of our thinking. Asking questions while resisting the temptation to spar with the other is a much more fruitful way of learning and growing intellectually and emotionally. This can be more than a self-serving process if we have relationships based on reciprocity.
(Maybe we should ask more questions of the earth in order to cultivate reciprocity.)
Asking questions is more than for the pedestrian, even saccharine trope about growth-mindedness (nothing against growth-mindedness, but I tend to think it’s more complex than just wanting to grow our minds). Asking questions is about leading our own learning and spiritual growth to break down the barriers with the other by putting aside our ego, our self. Questions open us up to compassion, which is neurologically more powerful than empathy in breaking down barriers.
There is no binary, there is no difference between me/you; him/her; us/them. There are only perspectives, which shift and change every moment as consciousness and subconsciousness make sense of and write stories from the bombardment of sensual signals we receive and in turn shape these perspectives. Our realities are momentary illusions.
All we have is our ability to interpret the words we hear—listen!—from the other person and catch the ideas that the other puts forth. These ideas may have undergone a process of transformation on the journey from their mouth to our ears, from their neurological activity to our neurological activity, from their consciousness to our consciousness. Language itself limits our thinking and interpretations. Language places limits on the infinite complexities of ideas by encoding these ideas as sounds and symbols. We may use the same words but our understanding of their meaning may differ. Have we come to an agreement on what learning, democracy, freedom, justice, fairness, happiness, success, and hope mean? Vocabulary is a personal possession, rarely shared with others.
When we accept that there is no binary, no permanence in the opposition of our views (since they are the products of stories we tell ourselves, shaped by changing perceptions), we can move beyond questioning as a self-serving process of wisdom acquisition. We open ourselves up to the other, to their world, to their struggles and hopes. We cultivate a selflessness that engenders humility, generosity, and openness, and so to compassion. We become leaders of our learning by putting the other first. Our learning is about how we are connected with the world, the highest form of learning because it has the most impact.
From there, accepting that there is no binary, we can rapidly move from putting the other person first, to seeing both them and us as one. We are all connected. I am coming full circle here, back to questions. From a coping mechanism to overcome my shyness, I realize that asking questions are a way to move beyond the binary, to be closer to the whole through compassion, to transform understanding into the potential for action.
All this looks great on paper, but it’s far from easy. It requires constant mindfulness, which we practice for a reason. All we can do is take one step at a time and I am committing to asking more questions in order to become a better leader, a better colleague and friend, and slowly connect with the whole.
- One of my commitments to myself this year is to write more clearly, using descriptive but not unnecessarily complicating language. I recently re-read Politics of the English Language, 30 years after I was introduced to Orwell’s essay as a freshman in college. It’s going to be a process of unlearning.