I’ve spent the last few weeks writing about my childhood memories, things I learned from aunts, from uncles, from my Daddy. All of them good people, generous within the family and beyond it.
They lived in community in the truest sense of that word: “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals,” to quote Webster’s.
My own memories of such community come from a small town, a farming community, but I believe — or hope, at least — that most of us have memories of that feeling of fellowship with others. And I think most of us these days, with our country more divided than it’s ever been, wonder, Where has that feeling of fellowship gone? What has happened to our common attitudes, interests, and goals?
When I think back on the sense of community I knew as a child and try to figure out how that feeling was created, I get one clear answer: conversation. Two people, maybe even a dozen, all sitting together, talking to each other at a Sunday dinner after church. We had no smartphones on the table or in our pockets to distract us, and even if the old hardwired phone rang in the middle of our talking, we were likely to just let it ring. Whoever it was could call back. We could look into each other’s eyes, read each other’s body language. We learned how to know each other, at the deepest levels of our heart.
And now, in 2020, conversations like that seem a lost art. We tell ourselves it’s easier, more efficient, to pick up the phone and send a text. We scroll through social media and see all the conflicting viewpoints of our online connections, not to mention all the trolls and pundits, and all we see is stuff that scares and divides us. And when was the last time you used that phone as a phone and dialed a friend or family member just to chat, to ask how they’re getting along?
We’ve become afraid to talk to each other, it seems. But as luck would have it, I have a good friend, Celeste Headlee, who has found a way through that fear. In 2017, she literally wrote the book about it, “We Need to Talk,” and she put herself through more than a year of study to do it, consulting the work of psychologists, physicians, neuroscientists, and researchers all over the globe.
So, I spent a week or so re-reading Celeste’s book, and I called her up to see if she would give me some time for a conversation about conversation. I’m grateful she said, “Of course, Chuck.”
And the first thing she told me is that the title of her book was intended to go straight at this fear of conversation we’ve developed.
Celeste Headlee, author of "We Need to Talk"
“Most of us hear those words, ‘we need to talk,’ and it strikes fear into our brains,” Celeste says. “So to a certain extent the title of the book was intended to meet people at that fear.” But science, she says, suggests our 21st century fear of conversation is misplaced.
“The fact of the matter is that we are so strongly primed, evolutionarily and biologically, to take benefit from conversations, the fear in the end may not even matter,” she says. “We've studied conversations in so many different situations. We've studied conversations between people who know each other well, people who live together, people who love each other, people who don't like each other, even those 30-second exchanges that you have with the grocery store clerk and you're just saying, ‘Hey, nice weather, huh?’ Even in those, your brain responds almost immediately by lowering cortisol levels and pumping you full of hormones that make you feel better, lifting your mood, improving your cognitive processes, that to a certain extent the fear doesn't matter. Of course, it matters — but if you ignore it and have the conversation anyway, you'll most likely feel better.”
So, conversation is good for us. We don’t need to be afraid of it.
We’re on the verge of a holiday season when we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas not only constrained by the pandemic, but perhaps also worried about how the divisiveness in our country has leaked into our family. I’ve heard dozens of stories from friends over the last few years who have changed their holiday invitation lists — or chosen to celebrate with a different side of their family — to avoid political discussions over the holiday table. Maybe someone called somebody else a “libtard” or “hateful” or “clueless” or take your pick from a thousand other jabs that we’ve been bombarded with in these times.
We don’t have to make such choices. We can still have pleasant conversations with our kinfolks, even the ones we disagree with, provided we make two positive choices: to be patient and to actually listen.
“You have to be more patient with yourself, and you have to be more patient with the other person,” Celeste says. “If you are saying, ‘I'm just going to cut this person out of my life rather than ever speak to them again,’ [you’re saying] there’s the possibility you honestly believe you have nothing to learn from that person. And that's not true. You may disagree on politics. There may be nothing you will ever agree on about politics. But still, they got stuff to teach you.”
That is, if you’re willing to listen. And listening means putting aside your preconceptions and becoming willing to learn.
“We focus so much on worrying about what the other person is going to say or what we're going to say,” she says. “We don't think very much at all about what it is we want to know or hear. What is it you want to know from that other person? You could ask them any question. What would it be? People will have these entire conversations in their head where they think through, ‘Well, I'd say this, and then they'd say that, and then I'd say this.’ I mean, people will absolutely act out these conversations in advance, but we don't often think to ourselves, what do I wish they would say, what would I want to know? What do I hope they say?”
What we all want out of any conversation, Celeste says, is to be heard, to feel valued for who we are. And if you are in a conversation that you anticipate will be difficult, the right thing to do — for you and for the person you’re talking to — is to drop your preconceptions and ask questions.
“The more questions that you ask, the happier they are and the more they feel heard,” she says. “So if you ask more questions than make statements, they will feel heard in a way that may not be true if you're just focused on saying what you think. And there's real value in them being heard. It tends to put them in a better frame of mind. It tends to make them more open to letting you be heard, and it just makes them feel better.”
And when you get an answer to your question, listen to it. Really listen. And then give yourself a second to pause, not so you can come up with what you want to say in reply, but so you can come up with a follow-up question, one that will bring the both of you closer together.
“You can ask the questions in a way that lets them know you're listening,” Celeste says. An example might be if you ask someone the simple question, “How are y’all doing these days?” Let’s say the answer comes back, “Well, it’s been a pretty difficult few months for us.”
In this year of pandemic, that seems a likely scenario, right? Does it also seem likely that you might respond by saying, “Yeah, it’s been hard for us, too,” and then proceed to talk about your own difficulties?
Resist that temptation. Imagine that instead, you responded with another question: “What’s been the hardest part about it for y’all?”
“You can ask questions in a way that forces them to articulate specifics and also lets them know that you really are listening to them,” Celeste says. She offers another strategy, too, with more science to back it up.
“Neuroscientific studies show that a conversation is more likely to go well — and someone is going to be more open to what it is that you're saying — if you allow them to start by feeling proud in some way,” she says. “So if you start a conversation by asking them, ‘What's the best thing you've done this month?’ or ‘What is it you're proud of recently?’ we know that for at least the short time after that, the conversation is more likely to go well.”
The longer Celeste walked me through examples like these, the more I felt her suggestions might offer me a taste of everything I’d loved about those conversations around the family tables of my childhood, uninterrupted by technology and unsullied by the meanness of social media. And I began to think they boiled down to a simple quality we too often forget these days: grace.
So I asked her, “Isn’t this all, in a way, just golden-rule stuff?”
“Absolutely,” she replied. “We give ourselves license to ignore the golden rule when we think we're in crisis. It’s like saying I’m not able to do what I know I should do and what is good for me. Some people are going to go to Thanksgiving and say, ‘I am sick of this. I am tired. I'm overwhelmed. I don't want to talk about it. So I'm going to give myself license to behave in ways that if I were healthy or in a good place, I would not behave.’ But this is what's so backward about it, because in fact, if you have the conversation and you can keep it from being hostile, it will actually relieve a lot of those feelings like stress and anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed that are bothering you.”
To do otherwise, she concluded, “it’s like you're literally turning away from the cure.”
The holidays are coming, y’all. Don’t turn away from the cure.
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