W.A.I.T.

cheerful sisters with cup of drink using laptop on floor
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Something I struggle with constantly is when and how to approach conversation mindfully.  I work in a sales role which requires me to be engaging and communicative so this is a careful balancing act. If you’ve ever encountered one of those natural sales guys you know that we like (or at least choose) to talk.. constantly. We use speak to engage, to stall, to charm, to manipulate, to be successful in our roles. It’s not unusual for people to leave a conversation with a salesperson in awe of all the talking they did with not a lot of substance.

My background complicates this a bit. I’ve experienced a lot of dysfunctional communication and don’t always understand the value of keeping some of my well-intentioned (but destructive) thoughts and judgements to myself. I’ve harped on this idea a lot in past posts, but it’s taken a lot of years for me to understand that I can’t save or alter everyone’s path and that sometimes you gotta STFU and let someone find their way.

If you’ve ever made it to an “Anonymous” meeting, you’ve probably been exposed to the acronym “W.A.I.T.” This stands for “Wait, why am I talking?” and is a valuable conversation technique reminding us to halt our lizard brain and automatic babble and be mindful about what we are saying. It reminds us that we don’t need to speak in the heat of the moment, and it is also useful in hindsight – you know that thing we all do when we overthink the conversation afterword, in my case often with regret and criticism.

Why am I talking?

  1. Because everyone else is talking.
  2. I have an urge to talk.
  3. I want attention.
  4. In order to communicate with a purpose
  5. I don’t know.

Loren Ekroth, ConversationMatters.com

The old adage, “less is more”, is often true when it comes to conversation. The most memorable conversations are usually with great listeners who know what to say and when to say it. However, like everything else, this is very much a progress not perfection kind of thing.

So what do you do when you’re W.A.I.T.’ing?

First, establish that you are actually trying to add something of value to the conversation. That your intent is to be meaningful, compassionate, and truly constructive.

Next, listen. Really listen to what the other person is saying. An alarming number of people don’t do this. At some point in human evolution it seems we all got fixated on our own sense of importance, and many of us (including myself at times) get caught up in the excitement of our own words – we don’t register what the other person is contributing, we are just waiting for our turn to speak. Stop, and really take in what they are saying – ask sensitive questions to ensure that you know where they are coming from, and make sure you are really making an effort to address their point or question.

Listen first, think second, and talk last (if at all).

And finally, remember that you always have the choice of taking a pause. There are very few occasions where it is not appropriate to ask for a break to mull it over. It is okay, and I can’t stress this enough, to take a step away and give the conversation some thought before you respond, even in business.  Acknowledge the other person’s view and ask for a respite, it’s okay to not know what to say and ask to get back to them when you’ve had a chance to look into or ponder their point more closely.

Taking a break is a valuable way to reduce any regret you may feel from speech. If I’ve made sure that my intent is good and my message is meaningful I am less inclined to wish I’d said nothing if the other person does not respond positively to my words. In those cases where emotions are running high, it gives me a chance to calm down and approach things rationally instead of impulsively.

But really, all this boils down to something that many of us struggle with: taking responsibility for our words. I think we forget, or have been mislead, into thinking that falls on the listener: “they’re just too sensitive”, etc. But that’s a load of crap, we are all responsible for what we say, write, put into the world.  Sure, not everyone is going to like what you say, but we all have a duty of care to be aware of others and ourselves and have a reasonable appreciation for how what we do and say affects and is perceived by others.

We are all entitled to our own experience and have had different experiences that would lead us to respond in different ways to a message. There are times where we will do our best, but our message will still not be received in the way we hope.  That’s okay, the important thing is to try to be mindful, compassionate, and to aware so we can learn from the outcomes and continue to grow as a person.

The Worst Part

young troubled woman using laptop at home
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I’ve read a few articles on the ongoing psychological impact of social isolation resulting from COVID. While the long term and actual effects of the unprecedented civil order to maintain distance from strangers and loved ones outside the household are still under investigation, I personally don’t know a single person who isn’t impacted and off balance.

Recently, like some kind of competition that no one wins, my connections have started speculating more and more on the “worst part” of COVID-life.  These reasons stem from the mundane and shallow to the seriously sad.  What I will say, before sharing my own “worst thing”, is that whatever challenges you are facing are valid and real. I understand the daily struggle that comes from being committed to doing the right thing, even if it is painful. And – regardless of your level of comfort with the idea of catching and surviving this disease, most of us understand the big picture of why we are taking this measure… we don’t want to hurt others.

My partner and I live in a century home in a small town in Southern Ontario which we moved into weeks before the world shut down.  Like most old houses, there have been challenges with foundation deterioration and one of our first actions on moving in was locating a contractor who could help reinforce the 100-year old joists in the basement. Unfortunately, due to this settling, the ceiling in a few of the older untouched rooms have sagged and adjusted with the home. Busy with other more critical tasks, we’ve been putting off addressing this damage.

Yesterday, we were sitting inside.  It was raining, a National holiday, and we’d exhausted all the low-hanging Netflix fruit (#fuckcarolebaskin).  Our couch time has increased steadily over the last few months as we’ve tackled all the house projects we can complete without assistance, are unable to easily acquire materials, and struggle with the tumultuous Canadian spring weather.

Mid-afternoon, after a few quiet hours of mucking around on the Internet, he turned to me and asked if I would like to demolish the ceiling in one of these rooms. I agreed and he quickly started collecting crow bars, masks, garbage bags, and other materials to complete the task.

For the first time in days we laughed easily, conversation flowed, and we enjoyed each other with a lot less effort than we have since the stress of pandemic entered our lives. It occurred to me that the worst part of this situation for our relationship is not the lack of services, restaurants, the financial strain, or the anti-aphrodisiac effect of wearing the same track pants for weeks on end.  It is the lack of spontaneity. Without personal choice and options, it is like the volume is turned way down and a grey fog has settled. Every day is almost exactly the same and while that same is much better than it has been in the past, without the ups, downs, and outside influence, it lacks perspective. I have trouble appreciating how amazing my life is compared to how it was when this blog started.

With that in mind, I remind myself to be grateful, humble, and compassionate. I remind myself to widen my tunnel vision, challenge my narrow perception, and acknowledge how far I’ve come.

I also want to ask you for inspiration; what is the worst part for you and how are you coping?

Change in Uncertain Times

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I’ve talked about my dog before on this blog.  She is a rescue mutt – sweet, loving, and scared of most things. She will startle at a pen falling off a table but shows absolutely no hesitation to go bolting off the deck into the night after an anonymous and unidentified shadow or noise. In these moments, she forgets she is afraid.

I have a similarly complicated and confusing relationship with change. Fed up with life and circumstances I can name an embarrassing amount of times in my life that I’ve bolted into the night, making impulsive and life changing decisions with very little foresight or appreciation for the consequences. I’ve cut people out, quit without notice, and generally acted like a wild and startled animal and not the intelligent homo sapien I am.

For my dog, those actions have resulted in several face-to-face confrontations with angry skunks.  For me, they have resulted in having to reinvent myself almost from scratch more times than I’d like to admit.

The irony of both our situations is that I believe we are both desperately trying to deal with paralyzing fear. Acting quickly, impulsively and desperately is often the only way for either one of us able to do anything without feeling our insecurities.

In the midst of all the pandemic restrictions, collective mental health crisis, and general world upheaval I’ve been approached with and accepted a job offer. Most people that know me well agree that this is an overdue and largely positive move. They reassure me that I am making a good decision and remind me of how much in my life has changed for the better over my last two years of getting vulnerable and uncomfortable…

But – I’m full of doubt and apprehension.

I am faced with the uncomfortable truth that I rarely feel good about my decisions. This is not about the lack of guarantees, the uncertainty, or any number of things that I believe are normal to feel in the face of change.  This is, like many things, another opportunity to examine how old habits are no longer serving me.

Even as a young and idealistic Jess, I didn’t get a lot of unbiased encouragement. I was lead to believe that even the most simple of personal needs or aspirations were selfish and somehow wrong. That things that were about me actually had a larger and more significant impact on others. I’ve spent most of my life believing that I am unable to do things myself, or rely on myself to make good decisions.

As a final carrot to stay at my old company I was offered a mentorship from a leader who told me they were sorry that I was uncertain of my value to the company and wanted to lead me to greater potential.

I know, right?

They could not have picked something that would be more attractive.

Screw money and title, VALIDATE ME and save me!!!!!

In lamenting this new offer, I was whining to a good and supportive friend, ripping apart (yet again) my decision to leave and leap into the unknown. He said, “you’ve always had to make it on your own, when somebody finally comes along to help it’s understandable that it should be both very strange and very attractive.”

It was like being slapped across the face.

I realized that I was being offered something abstract and that tying my success and perceived value to any one person was another attempt to fill the gaping void I’ve been clogging with food, alcohol, and emotionally unavailable people for the majority of my life.

It was a reminder that believing I’m not capable of things on my own is no longer an appropriate way to survive.  It was a reminder that I don’t accept that kind of emotional abuse anymore.

So here I am, sitting in my last few weeks of work ready to run and leap off of the deck into the dark again.  Truthfully, I’m still scared shitless, but at least I’m confident that I’ll make my way through it this time; as I always have before.

The Pursuit of Happiness – Part 1

I recently finished one of Jordan Peterson‘s volumous books. For those of you not familiar with Peterson, he’s a Canadian clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto. He has a number of credits to his name but received widespread notoriety over the last few years for his controversial views on political correctness.

While I admit that I find some of Peterson’s views antiquated and not up my alley, I admire his tenacity and willingness to argue and support his viewpoints. His second book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, was not an easy read. It’s full of abstract principles supported by concepts borrowed from theology, psychology, philosophy and literature. It took me much longer to get through than most books I pick up, both because it is written in a heavy academic style (each chapter represents a rule and is an essay in its own right) and because I was trying to absorb as much as possible.

I think Peterson makes some really interesting observations and suggestions about how we develop our perception of the world around us as well as our expectations for how that world will behave.

He describes the famous “Invisible Gorilla” experiment in which researchers showed test subjects a recording of a basketball game and asked them to count the number of times their team made a pass. During the game, a man dressed as a gorilla walks onto the court, pounds his chest and walks out of frame. Shockingly, more than 50% of subjects did not see the gorilla.

This study, aside from being both funny and disturbing, demonstrates the narrow field of a person’s perception. Peterson explains that perception is adjusted to your goals and reinforcing your beliefs (for more on this, please try my prior post on denial). In this case, most of the study participants are so focused on the goal of counting passes that their perception is narrowed and they are unable to see the unusual scene beyond their task at hand. This is a necessary strategy for all people. Although some of us have more capacity to take in and process external information, we all have a point where that capacity is exhausted. We need to prioritize what we pay attention to in order to be successful.

This (of course) is not a conscious process, but I think we can all think of a situation or two in our own life where perception was coloured by our mental state, beliefs, and goals at the time. For example, I’m not sure that 30 year-old Jess would find 15 year old pothead Kenny as alluring as hormonal teenage Jess did. Although some may argue that my taste of men has not changed drastically enough, with my shifting goal towards building healthier relationships my perception is focused and my tastes are slowly changing. For the first time in my life I am aware that my ideal partner does not include substance use in all their recreational experiences.

Peterson says that we are all born with an instinct towards ethics and a lust for attaching meaning to our experiences, but that it takes great courage and strength to carry the burden of moving towards those things. That is because doing this is a great undertaking that requires us to constantly evaluate and prioritize our goals, beliefs and expectations. This causes discomfort in moving our perception to meet those changes. This is part of what attracts us to underdog stories, they encourage these shifts by confirming that taking the high and long road gives us the hope and possibility of rebirth despite the inevitable suffering.

Peterson makes the point of showing the malevolence that awaits those of us not strong enough to take the torch and the higher path; we are jealous, resentful, and petty. Have you ever had the experience of sharing an off the cuff and out of the box idea with someone who immediately ripped it to shreds? While I like to believe that most of us do these things because we are trying to protect people from hurting themselves, we are effectively squashing growth and innovation as a result of our fear to a challenge to our understanding and perception of the world.

Can you imagine the reception the first guy that ate a lobster got? There is very little about those pinchy characters that look appetizing; but some guy was hungry, brave, and probably desperate enough to eat one and share it with others.

In my mind, I see his friends screaming “UGH! STEVE, DON’T EAT THAT!!” as he defiantly cracks open the shell, eventually pairing the meat with butter and winning people over by challenging their perception of what is acceptable behaviour.

… Thanks, Steve!

ANYWAY.

Approaching ideas by immediately pointing out the flaws and challenges discourages people from taking risks and entertaining change. We are not allowing them to do the work of figuring out if their idea is viable, we are dragging them back down onto the safe and flat ground with us. We are protecting our own perception at the expense of the expansion of theirs.

* * *

Next week is part two in this series inspired by Jordan Peterson.  We will examine how our beliefs, goals, expectations, and perception play into the pursuit of happiness.  I hope you will return!