Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What's Your Point?

Yesterday, we spent a delicious evening with two sweet couples (Kat and Alexander, and Carolina and John) whom we've grown to adore and cherish. We ate, we talked, we sang. It was wonderful.

One of the factors that made the evening so rich and warm was the diversity of experience and perspective that we together represented. For example, Alexander routinely practices meditation. He regularly experiences and enthusiastically touts its benefits. I, on the other hand, never meditate, or at least not in the sense that Alexander does.

Alexander did his best to explain how I really should try meditation. As he explained, I would fairly consistently interrupt him to clarify what he was saying before allowing him to proceed. For example, at one point he mentioned how kinetic energy causes stress. I stopped him to make sure that he really meant kinetic energy (energy being spent), or if he meant potential energy (unspent energy being built up). If he meant the former, then I had no idea what he was talking about; if he meant the latter, then I was tracking pretty well.

As our start-stop-start-stop discussion proceeded, we would often get sidetracked by my interruptions as others jumped in to discuss my question, not the the benefits of meditation. Occasionally Alexander would remark about my having corrected him.

The brief sidetracks often became full-blown detours, complete discussions in their own right. Yet, we always managed to return to the original thread and Alexander would patiently pick up where we'd left off. I found the whole experience fascinating. In addition to learning about meditation, I learned a lot about each of my friends and about myself.

Right Brain, Left Brain
I grew up a right-brained kid with a left-brained father and a left-brained brother. I was the emotional, intuitive, creative one; my brother was the rational, logical, structured one. Although he was two years behind me, I couldn't get into the calculus class that my brother Dave taught in high school.

I remember standing in the garage with my dad and Dave as we worked on the car. Diagnosing what was wrong with the car, dad and Dave would speak expertly about different potential causes of the problem using precise terminology for each component and potential malady. I on the other hand would guess based on my experiences having no idea what this or that was called. For example, I might smell an excess of gasoline and then remove the air filter to get to the carburetor to prop open the air intake, but I wouldn't have had a clue as to what any of those things were called or why it helped start the car.

Often, when I would join in the discussion offering my hypothesis of what the problem was, my dad and Dave would look at each other, roll their eyes and laugh. And for some reason, I would lose interest in working on the car.

Switching Sides
As a result of circumstances and activities that I've described in other articles, people who meet me today are surprised to hear that I was ever a right-brained person. I've really got the left-brained thing down. I can do math, I can approach situations logically and methodically, I've even been accused of never showing emotion.

I tend to see myself as ambidextrous; if I'm working on marketing materials or playing music, I operate more from the right. If I'm trying to understand something new, I tend towards the left.

Last night, as I listened to Alexander, I was in left-brain mode. When I'm in left brain mode, I listen with precision, I catalog everything that's said, and I build a mental framework from which to reference it. This approach works really well for me. It let's me simultaneously maintain many discussion threads that may go far afield from one another; regardless of how far afield we go, I can always return to any one thread right where we veered off.

However, if I'm listening to a right-brained person, it doesn't always work so well for them. They often take my seeking clarification as a rudely interrupting them or getting off point or correcting them or making fun of them. Not everyone is as sweet-natured and patient as Alexander, so the responses I sometimes get can get emotional, even hostile.

As we talked, Kat (who is the perfect left-brain complement of Alexander) looked at me and said something on the order of, "Don't worry about understanding everything Alexander is saying in the moment. Just sit back and take it all in."

So I did.

Kat's really smart.

All this got me to thinking this morning on how to bridge the right-left gap. I came up with some thoughts that may help right-brained people better communicate to their left-brained partners, friends and colleagues, and left-brained people better listen to their right-brained counterparts. (If you're a left-brained type, you probably noticed that I've only listed two of four potential pairings). Relax!

Speaking to a Left-brained Person
If you're a creative, emotional, intuitive right-brained type who wants to be understood and respected by the left-brained world, here are some thoughts that might make your life easier.
  1. Never use words, examples, references or analogies that you don't fully understand. Nothing discredits you with a left-brained person faster than malapropisms, confused references, or misquoted facts.
  2. Speak without using adverbs or adjectives, especially superlatives. In the moment, simply forget that words such as awesome, really, amazing, biggest, most, least, worst, every and any exist.
  3. Don't justify or support your beliefs using scientific, statistical or technological references. Nothing gets the eyes rolling or the feet moving faster out the door than a misappropriated or seemingly fabricated reference. I've heard right-brainers who were trying to prop up their beliefs make completely ludicrous statements such as the juxtaposition of quantum mechanics and the industrial revolution, or something being "at least an order of magnitude greater, like 30%."

    Better yet, just avoid justification all together. Simply say what you think.
  4. Before you try to make a point, stop, breathe and decide what the point is that you want to make. Then, before explaining it or building up to it, say what the point is. When your left-brained partner knows where you're going, he or she will have a much easier time following you.
Listening to a Right-brained Person
If you're a down-to-business, structured and organized, mathematically inclined left-brained person, you might better enjoy and learn from conversations with your right-brained friends by adopting some of the following practices.
  1. Don't worry about the destination (i.e., what the point is), just sit back and enjoy the ride. There may be no point other than talking.
  2. If there seems to be a bunch of steps missing as your friend proceeds from one point to the next, wait until he reaches a point of relative repose in the conversation before asking about them, or perhaps better, use your left-brain powers to maintain an inventory of questions that you can ask her after she finishes. If after hearing it all, the questions are still meaningful, ask them.
  3. Clarify through active listening (reflecting back in your own words what you think was said), rather than open ended questions. For example, you might say, "What I think I hear you saying is thus-and-such. Is that correct?", rather than saying, "What are you trying to say?" in which case the comma-the-hell following 'what' is implied.
  4. Avoid activities such as smirking, laughing, rolling your eyes, sighing or saying things like, "Do you have any clue as to what you're talking about?"
Common Ground
Of course, these are just things I thought of this morning. I imagine that you can come up with many more. Probably the best thing to do (whether you're left- or right-brained) is to make your priority loving and enjoying the company of the other person first, understanding them second, and getting them to understand you third.

Happy communicating!

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