What To Say in Terribly Tender Times?
The past week has been so hard for so many that I could not imagine posting any of the usual on what science can tell us about how to live more satisfying and successful lives. Who cares, I thought, what could possibly seem anything but tone deaf or out of sync with everything right now?
Not surprisingly, I just saw a tweet pointing out how awkward it is to hear political speeches about some of the more mundane domestic issues in the context of what is going on in the world.
On Instagram last week, someone else struggling with what to say announced something like, ‘I’m out, I just can’t right now, nothing I would write about would seem anything other than ridiculous right now, so I’m out.’
And Jen Gottlieb, author of BE SEEN: Find Your Voice, Build Your Brand, Live Your Dream also posted a beautiful message last week on how hard ordinary, everyday business discourse can feel at this time.
Some people are huddling with like-minded others, people with whom they can speak freely, but even with like-minded others there can be a question of how much is too much. And at work, or even in our own families and communities, there may be people who matter to us but simply do not see the current situation as we see it ourselves.
Not something I usually do, I ran the first draft of this post by two dear friends who see things very differently from each other right now. These are two people who matter to me a lot, and two relationships I very much want to protect in these terribly tender times.
One said she thought I was advocating for a kind of neutrality that she was not feeling. The other on what to say, said no words but sent an emoji with faucet tears that left me wondering whether she was laughing or crying, or both.
To be clear, I am not at all advocating for neutrality for people who are feeling anything but. And, if my other friend’s laughing or crying, or both, meant that she thought what I was proposing is not possible — a way for people to protect relationships that matter in these terribly tender times — well then, there we have just another difference among friends.
On Intensifying Differences
Let’s start with the differences. This is a favorite story of mine on how differently we may each see the world and what goes on among us in it. It is the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant, as follows with a version from textbook editor and author James Baldwin:
The Blind Men and the Elephant is a parable from India that has been adapted by many religions and published in various stories for adults and children. It is about a group of blind men who attempt to learn what an elephant is, each touching a different part, and disagreeing on their findings. Their collective wisdom leads to the truth.
There were once six blind men who stood by the road-side every day, and begged from the people who passed. They had often heard of elephants, but they had never seen one; for, being blind, how could they?
It so happened one morning that an elephant was driven down the road where they stood. When they were told that the great beast was before them, they asked the driver to let him stop so that they might see him.
Of course they could not see him with their eyes; but they thought that by touching him they could learn just what kind of animal he was.
The first one happened to put his hand on the elephant’s side. “Well, well!” he said, “now I know all about this beast. He is exactly like a wall.”
The second felt only of the elephant’s tusk. “My brother,” he said, “you are mistaken. He is not at all like a wall. He is round and smooth and sharp. He is more like a spear than anything else.”
The third happened to take hold of the elephant’s trunk. “Both of you are wrong,” he said. “Anybody who knows anything can see that this elephant is like a snake.”
The fourth reached out his arms, and grasped one of the elephant’s legs. “Oh, how blind you are!” he said. “It is very plain to me that he is round and tall like a tree.”
The fifth was a very tall man, and he chanced to take hold of the elephant’s ear. “The blindest man ought to know that this beast is not like any of the things that you name,” he said. “He is exactly like a huge fan.”
The sixth was very blind indeed, and it was some time before he could find the elephant at all. At last he seized the animal’s tail. “O foolish fellows!” he cried. “You surely have lost your senses. This elephant is not like a wall, or a spear, or a snake, or a tree; neither is he like a fan. But any man with a particle of sense can see that he is exactly like a rope.”
Then the elephant moved on, and the six blind men sat by the roadside all day, and quarreled about him. Each believed that he knew just how the animal looked; and each called the others hard names because they did not agree with him. People who have eyes sometimes act as foolishly.
Thoughts are not facts. They are events of the mind, based on some mix of who we are when we come into the world and then all of what happens to us once we are here. Nature and nurture as they say.
But all day long they argued, as some now do too, about how much more right than the other they are sure they are.
What to Say
What to say can be a dilemma. On the one hand, people are saying it is hard for them to talk about everyday things. Given the suffering we are witnessing, who are we to be complaining about our broken dishwasher or broken toe? Who are we to be talking about the great meal we just had on our glorious vacation, or the new program we just launched?
But then, when we talk about what we really feel about what’s going on in our nation and our world, like the blind men with the elephant we can wind up arguing with the very people we really don’t need to be in conflict with right now.
Ohio State just published a new study on what to say when values clash. The study focused on values clashing in the workplace, but its findings may be applied in families and communities, if not universities, where ramped-up values clashing is all over the news.
From an article on the Ohio State study quoting the lead author of the study:
“Organizations know that it is valuable to have employees with different perspectives. But if those with different perspectives feel they aren’t respected and so aren’t fully participating in their jobs, organizations aren’t fully reaping the benefits of their unique perspectives.”
For both the studies in the experimental lab and in real-life work situations:
The key in all the studies was the importance of people talking about themselves in the workplace — not about areas where they disagree, but just about their everyday life experiences.
In short, rather than retreat unto themselves when they don’t know what to say that is okay, to the detriment of themselves and their organization; nor, conversely, to openly engage in arguing about their differing beliefs on right and wrong — the ones who did talk personally about topics like what they did over the weekend reported feeling more respected, connected, and able to focus on doing good work.
And yet, that kind of small talk is exactly what some of us are avoiding. I’ve even heard people say they just can’t stand to listen to it right now. But maybe what to say doesn’t have to be either/or; that is, that either we talk about difficult things or we don’t talk at all.
What if, first, we acknowledge openly what tender times these are, and that we would, therefore, like to chat about things that more bring us together than pull us apart.
If you think this might be worth a try, practice, practice, practice…let us know what you find, and for help with this or something else, Contact Me at email@example.com
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