Tag Archives: communication

The Honest Answer

It feels like I’ve been a student of communication forever.  The thing I tend to catch pretty easily – probably because it’s a pet peeve as much as it can be a professional liability – is when an answer to a question I’ve asked is nonresponsive.  Politicians are great at that: telling an interviewer whatever sound bites they want repeated, rather than actually answering the question that was asked.  People who aren’t big fans of direct communication or who simply have their own reasons for avoiding the truth are good at it, too.

I thought of Sifu as good at being nonresponsive, after our communication catastrophe earlier in the year, which effectively ended with a demand for my silence.  But after six months of squelching my natural impulse to simply ask for the information I want, an overflowing class of first-timers on Saturday compelled me to offer to teach again at the guan and ask Sifu if he’d allow it.  If ever there were a time to call in the teaching cavalry, it would have been with Saturday’s motley crew; so I was surprised and upset not to have been tapped.

When I first read his emailed response, all I could see was this: “I appreciate the offer to help.  But it’s not necessary at this time.”  You didn’t answer my question! I thought.  But I received the email right before having to give my attention to a group of friends for a couple of hours.  The time spent not thinking about the nonresponsive nature of his answer was a godsend.  For when I reread the exchange later in the evening, I saw more than I had upon initial reading.

He’d also told me that he understood I was willing to help and would keep me in mind in the future.  I was still a possible substitute somewhere down the line.  I just didn’t know when.  He might not know either.

So what’s the big deal, one may ask?  The episode made me wonder if I need to reconsider what constitutes nonresponsive.  Perhaps questions of mine that I think have a definitive black or white answer actually don’t.  Maybe instead of yes or no, the honest answer is I don’t know.  Maybe the question itself isn’t as clear as I think it should be to the reader or listener.  Maybe, just maybe, I misread or misinterpret the answer simply because it doesn’t contain what I want it to.

Sifu may have just been letting me down easy.  I have no way to know.  But the questions his answer made me ask myself were a worthwhile lesson for this student of communication.

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The Inventory on the Shelf

Over the weekend I was subjected to folks offering an enthusiastic assessment of what they consider to be my flaws.  It was not a pleasant experience, but truth be told, it’s an exercise I used to be painfully good at.  In one of the circles I run in, we call it taking somebody’s inventory – a fancy way of saying being openly judgmental for little reason other than that we can.  For years I was told that’s something we humans are not supposed to do.  But my experience this weekend reminded me of the importance of inventory taking and the ground rules it should carry.

When I look back twenty-five years on the know-it-all, loud mouth I was, I cringe deeply and for a good minute or so.  I was the worst kind of inventory taker: I gave opinions without being asked, and I wasn’t the least bit mindful of whether I was hurting someone.  It took a few years in the real world to figure out that people didn’t care what I thought about anything and expressing my opinion made me very easy to dislike.  Once I got that lesson, though, I made the mistake that many converts make: I went too far the other direction.  I started feeling like I needed to find a confessional every time I had a less-than-flattering thought about the words or actions of others.

Then I made the very fortunate move of mentioning my guilt over continuing to be judgmental to an older and wiser friend.  She set me straight once and for all.

“People have to take each other’s inventory,” she began.  “How else are we going to know whether a person is a healthy, positive addition to our lives or someone that we should keep our distance from?  To be completely accepting of what people do and say is just not very smart.  Taking somebody’s inventory isn’t wrong, but sharing that inventory with them is!”

I’m grateful to have that fifteen-year-old mini-lecture to remember and hold onto.  It empowered me this weekend to politely point out to the person judging me that I hadn’t asked for her opinion.  It also empowers me daily to hold my emotional distance from folks with behavior on their storeroom shelves that can be damaging to me.


The Language Dance

I struggle with communication problems.  Perpetually.  Not my own, mind you, but other people’s – and the effect their choices when speaking (or to stay silent) have on my life.

I would like to say it started with my fallout with Sifu over his response to my first tournament win or with the endless weeks it took to get a straight answer from the gym on whether I could run a kung fu class.  But it didn’t.  I would like to say I’m immune to such problems myself, but I’m not.  I’ve noticed, for decades it seems, going back to arguments with an ex-husband who excelled at passive aggression, that most people do not simply state what they want or need at the appropriate time in the appropriate way.  The burning question of my morning is: can anything be done about this?

If there’s a solution, the first order of business would be to determine why people don’t just speak when they should.  The obvious answer, of course, is fear – fear of not getting what’s wanted; fear of disappointing, hurting or angering the other person(s) in the conversation.  But the painful irony is that the language dance that must be done to avoid the disappointment, hurt or anger leaves the core of the message undelivered.  Sometimes what is said is so ambiguous interpretation is required to decipher the point – and misunderstanding is virtually guaranteed.

The flip side of the beating-around-the-bush-approach is the one I was raised with – an often-disturbing absence of nuance that unquestionably causes the hurt, anger, etc. that I would like to avoid as much as the beat-around-the-bush folks.  I just want to be clear and understood more.

I never had any problem understanding my parents or other family members.  I thought everyone was as direct as they were.  Then, I left home.

I’m not recommending my familial approach.  Regular readers know that I’ve made greater mindfulness an important part of my life in recent months.  That includes trying to be aware of how my words will be received before I speak them and adjusting accordingly.  Some days, though, I’d give an awful lot to just get through an entire twenty-four hour period without having to ask: “Why didn’t you tell me that before?” or “What does that mean?”

Surely there’s a middle ground or two, a way around both communication approaches without the entire human race having to take classes in behavioral psychology or clinical social work.  But maybe not… you know what I mean? 🙂


Just Ninety

I wasn’t going to ask her again, but my desire to know the next moves in the form outweighed all the conflicting emotions evoked when interacting with her.  It’s not one hundred percent wine and roses in my kung fu world, just ninety.  As is the case with family, there are members that challenge me in ways I don’t appreciate.

On the surface, she’s easy to like: smiley, bubbly, outgoing, talkative.  But my issues with her aren’t on the surface.  They’re rooted in the instigative, sometimes condescending comments that I’ve been hearing from her for years.  I can’t say with certainty what she’s been intending to say.  I just know that what I hear has consistently raised my cackles.

The problem couldn’t possibly be that we’re both competitive only children, theater-rats-turned-martial-artists.   It couldn’t be that we each have our moments of being hypersensitive, especially on a bad kung fu day (which is any day that an instruction is tougher to master than we want it to be.)  It’s almost like an Abbott and Costello routine that isn’t funny, the way we’re prone to misunderstanding each other, as if we’re speaking two completely different languages that aren’t even based on the same alphabet.

“Own your diamond,” she once said sternly, when I was out of position without realizing it during a synchronized form section.  From head to toe she was clearly annoyed, as if her child had just willfully disobeyed her.

Who the hell do you think you’re talking to? I thought.  “Excuse me?” is what I said.  When given the invitation to repeat it, her tone softened, but not by much – and her frown didn’t move an inch.  These types of resentment-creating moments are infrequent, but they can suck all the oxygen out of the room.

I don’t want discord in this family.  I’ve had enough of it to last a lifetime in my family of origin and families of choice.  It’s why I want to give her the benefit of the doubt when her words and actions strike a nerve.  It’s why I very much want to hear what she means to say or, perhaps, hear nothing at all.