Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Taking a Hint

You know how some people can't take a hint? Normally, I don't experience this phenomenon. The people around me always seem able to get what I'm hinting at. Even my more subtle hints like, "Look, if you use a plate, or a glass, or a fork, clean it and put it away when your're done", or, "I've got some work I really want to get done and need some uninterrupted time to do it", or, "Absolutely DO NOT leave anything combustable close to the wood stove."

You know, hints.

There are times when subtle hints just don't work. They reverberate through the air but find no place to perch. Eventually they die, fall to the floor and dissolve into pools of cluelessness.

It's at times like this, where I'd likely do better to consider Iris' post on understanding the Motivations of others before trying to communicate with them. But alas, that would be wise, at least more wise than I've been of late.

So, rather than slowing down and taking time to work through the not-so-complex matrix of motivations that leads to better understanding and communication, I chart a more direct and less time-consuming course, one in which I simply abandon subtlety altogether. It doesn't always effect the kind of warm, hand-holding, let's-sing-Kumbaya type of communication that mutual acceptance and understanding achieves, but it does effect something: something between earthquake and typhoon.

You know, if a 12-ounce hammer is too subtle, try a 16-ounce one. If that's too subtle, try a 24-ounce one. And so on. Despite my strong belief in a system of reconciliation based on mutual understanding, there are times when nothing beats the subtlety and nuance of a well-placed crate of verbal dynamite.

Last night, I was talking to a friend whom I hadn't spent much time with in years. She and her family stopped by for a visit, her two teenaged sons (whom I've know since their births) both having developed into remarkable young men. Like most kids, hers struggled with learning challenges along the way, challenges that they've overcome or are overcoming.

There's nothing extraordinary about struggling with challenges like dyslexia or attention deficit disorder or anorexia. Everyone is challenged in one way or another. However, to hear my friend describe the challenges faced by her and her children (more her), were you to leave out the details, you'd swear she was describing forced internment in labor camps, deprivation of food to the point of starvation and torture at the hands of insatiable sadists, not the reluctance of a school system to allocate the resources that she felt would have best served her children.

And although I'm up for a dramatic portrayal every once in a while, by the tenth time my friend launched into her lament, I decided to become less subtle in my responses.

The escalation path went something like this...

"Wow, Kate, despite all the difficulties they faced, the boys have turned out great!"

"Oh, I don't know about that. Jimmie still has difficulty with math and the school still refuses to provide him a tutor more than twice a week."

"Still, given how far he's come, I'm sure he'll continue to overcome the remaining challenges."

With a sense of indignation, she responded, "How can you say that! You don't know that he'll be alright. He may never overcome his dyslexia."

I paused considering what to say next, but never got the chance to speak as she continued, "People just don't understand how difficult it is for a child with dyslexia, how hard it is on his self-esteem. The school systems just don't care."

"Teachers don't care. Once they get their tenure they couldn't care less."

"Lord knows I've tried to get through to them, but know one listens. They just don't care!"

I tried to interject here and there, but was thwarted at every turn, my imaginary hammer increasing in size each time a specific lament was repeated.

Finally, I took a deep breath and blurted, "Well, you gotta admit, in the grand scheme, dyslexia ain't no big thing."

It was as though I'd cut the fuel line supplying her diatribe, her verbal engine sputtering to a halt. Her eyes welled with tears and she responded, "How can you say something like that! I'm offended that you can be so dismissive of something so terrible."

Seizing upon her rhetoric as a question, I responded, "Well, I've always been significantly dyslexic and in the end, it ain't no big thing. You just learn to deal with it." And then increasing the hammer size a bit, I added, "The biggest challenge for me occurred when adults decided to translate 'he sometimes mixes up letters' into 'he is dyslexic'. My casual challenge became a syndrome, it went from something I did to something I was."

Taking advantage of the sudden silence, I pressed on saying, "Probably the worst thing you can do for a kid facing the challenges of dyslexia is to make a big deal of it."

I stopped and braced myself as Kate's response escalated in seconds from dead-calm to gale-force winds. She was hurt. She was offended. She was amazed at my lack of caring and sensitivity.

I thought, "Hmm... now we're getting somewhere."

Seizing upon a pause to breathe, I said, "Kate it seems that you've made this more about you than about your kids. It's like you're craving recognition for all that you suffered through and overcome."

Sputter... sputter... traction... acceleration... gale-force.


"If you spend as much time lamenting your situation with others as you do with me, never really listening to what they have to say and never showing interest in their situations, I can't imagine that people would want to spend a hell of a lot of time with you."

Sputter... sputter...

At this point, her boyfriend chimed in mentioning that indeed a lot of people seemed to no longer be that keen on hanging out with them. He went on to say, "You know, when it comes to this, you really don't listen to anyone or give them a chance to express their thoughts and opinions."

As we sat there, it occurred to me that of all the friends who'd slowly begun to avoid Kate, who'd stopped calling and failed to return her calls, none of them had ever expressed what they were really feeling or why they were shutting down on her.

As I write this morning, I'm not sure that my response to situations like last night is good or optimal. Okay, I'm pretty sure that it's not optimal and based on how some people respond to me, I can see where at least they don't think it's good.

But I'm not sure. I like the freedom that comes with having no secrets and being someone with whom you know there's not some hidden opinion or agenda. Still at times I wonder.

What do you think?

Happy Wednesday,


  1. I thought, "Hmm... now we're getting somewhere."

    This statement is why I asked you to explain during that conversation what your motivation was. It was clear you wanted to get "somewhere" but because you had not stated your motivation, your comments were perceived as attacks.

    When you shared your motivation and attached judgements (you want the best for Kate and her family and you think Kate would do well to get help working through her own issues) I believe the conversation became clearer.

    Naturally, we can dive into the judgements and discuss if this is right or wrong, or but I suggest you first look for commonalities in motivations.

    I believe you have a wonderful common motivator: you both want the family to do well, be healthy and happy. By acknowledging that, I believe there is common ground for wonderful communication.

  2. I can relate to the notion of 'now we're getting somewhere' and the unspoken word(s) 'different,' 'towards exploring what is really going on here.'

    To me the example shared depict's the essential role and stance of a benevolent-warrior to which I too aspire.....thanks again for sharing this wonderful dynamic. bw

  3. Iris, i haven't had a chance to digest & respond to your post on Motivations yet, but I wanted to jump in with a quick note on this one. Tef, I often find myself with this quandary, where my usual modes of responding to a certain behavior pattern have not yielded the effect I wanted, and I'm tempted to exercise the nuclear option. However, my breaking point is much farther than yours, it seems, so I've usually just let it pass. However, there's another modality called NVC that I'm slowly learning and that I strongly suspect could be useful. It calls for expressing empathy first, but in a deeper way than we usually might. For instance: "sounds like you really want me to know how much you've suffered and overcome", and further to articulate the 'how much' till she knows her communication has landed.

    However, I gotta tell you - even though I thought I was fairly expert at this soft skill of expressing empathy, I've found it super-hard to actually do it when what I'm really wanting is to throttle the other person.

  4. Sree,

    Thank you! That was really helpful.

    As I replay our interaction, I see that it would have been quite easy to interject the empathy component. There was much that was apparent to me that I could have voiced in terms of Kate's simply wanting this and that.

    I used to employ empathy all the time back in my days of spinning pretty much anything. When I decided to go spin-free, I stopped using empathy as well. I was really good at it and felt manipulative to me, particularly when people translated my ability to express what they were feeling into some kind of deep emotional bond that didn't exist.

    Perhaps tossing empathy altogether was a case of baby and bath-water. I'm going to re-explore this one.



Read, smile, think and post a message to let us know how this article inspired you...