Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Intensity of Interaction: What does it mean to connect?

Ok, I’m done with those worldview posts, thank goodness. They’re interesting as far as they go, but I think about that sort of thing all the time and have for years, so I want to move on to something else.

Human interactions are complex. They’re often difficult to manage or understand, and there’s always room for more misunderstanding. One of the least understood aspects, in my opinion, is what the point is. This struck me in particular when I was spending time with some friends and opened a completely unrelated story with my definition of the purpose of language. I had said communication, which didn’t seem to me a particular contentious opinion, but they instantly disagreed with me. Granted, I have very opinionated friends, but it was certainly interesting. The same applies to conversations. What is the point? To argue? To be right? To convince, persuade? To agitate? To connect? To understand? To have fun? Obviously, there’s no right answer except that the answer is different under different circumstances, and this becomes an issue.

I am a fairly contentious sort of person. I have interests I hold very dear to my heart, and I delve into them with a great deal of energy. As such, I get loud and excited when talking about things I’m interested in, and I can be sort of aggressive with the information I have at my disposal. I feel that my opinionated nature is justifiable, given all the effort I’ve put into deeply understanding that which is important to me and the importance I place on making my judgments subject to change as new arguments and evidence come forth. When I’m with other people like that, there’s no problem. We all get completely enraptured by an engaging conversation, and trade data, arguments, quips and witty banter as if it were our job. That kind of experience is a greatly rewarding one, that blend of learning, teaching, understanding and taking sheer joy in the feeling of doing so together.

However, not everyone is like that, which is, of course, fine. Because I have no intention of writing those people off, though, I face some challenges. Do I argue my point as eloquently as I can? Do I tone myself down in order to place the making of a connection over winning the argument? Putting the latter question this way makes the answer seem clear, but in point of fact it’s not at all. Allowing myself to not declare my opinions or arguments can feel intellectually dishonest, like I’m not contributing to the conversation the way the social contract might demand. I am in some way portraying myself as other than I am in order to learn from and about someone, something that could be described as respectful or a form of information extraction. I wish I could just state my opinion, get it out there, and then have us have our conversation, but it’s not always that simple. That declaration can change the entire nature of the conversation, and make it impossible to be as meaningful as I would otherwise like it to be. Also, I don’t always like to argue from “my side.” In fact, I happen to greatly enjoy suspending my opinions and taking on an entirely new set of assumptions to see where they lead.

I recently got a fortune in a fortune cookie that said, “Develop some flexibility in your point of view.” It’s one of those things that sounds perfect and sensible but is so much more complicated than that. If I try to be flexible, humble, to learn from everyone, then I am only taking rather than giving. And if I give of myself, I risk giving my opinion and teachings where they’re not wanted. Simply declaring that one must be on the lookout to understand what is appropriate when is not rigorous enough for me. I’m still figuring it out, especially because I don’t think that being an assertive person who likes to learn is in any way a bad thing, but here’s one idea:

First, there’s this, for the common sense approach:

My one addendum is that even with all this, even with the concern and tolerance and respect due other people, even if all the information is out there, intellectual honesty accounted for, I think it is a good thing to Take Up Space, to be a powerful force, in the world and in a room. Obviously, that doesn't mean steamrollering, and it doesn't mean that other people shouldn't, or that more than one person in a room can't do that. In fact, exactly the opposite. It means valuing it and appreciating it in other people and turning that shared power into a powerful connection. Which brings us back to the original point, which is, what about the people who aren't that way, who you can't form that sort of a connection with? In that case, I think the answer is, and this is very very subtle, to not make yourself less, less powerful, less meaningful, less intense, but rather to have that manifest not as an imposing, intimidating presence, but as a quiet force to be reckoned with. It's the difference between 'bothering', 'deigning' to talk to someone about their religious/political/athletic/gastronomic beliefs and employing the intensity of your feelings about it to really, powerfully, intensely listen. Because if there's one thing I can do, it's be intense about things. And that should mean not limiting those things to talking.

I’ve noticed in other people how great of a solution this is. Sometimes, when I’ve been complaining to someone close to me about what they’re doing I can watch the gears shift in their head as they consciously decide not to yell or scream or walk out, but to sit down, look me in the eye and ask me what's up. And I'll admit that it's not a perfect solution, because sometimes they’re still intimidating and frightening when they do that, but I think that's good. I think it's a good thing to live life intensely, and this is a great way to do it. When they do that, I know they're really listening.

In some ways, bothering to argue, to engage, is a way of respecting that person's beliefs, especially because you're putting your ideas out there to be criticized as well. But that doesn't always come across, and if it doesn't, it defeats the purpose of that communiqué, if you will, of that attempt at a connection. So instead I want to tell them I’m listening and then do it, and listen hard.

What’s also great is that it's entirely possible that this intense, intimidating form of listening will force people to really listen to themselves, too, to their own arguments, and make them better, think about them more, more than arguing would.

Caveat 1: There's a point at which intelligent, interesting, engaged, awesome people will always be intimidating, and I fail to see the issue here.

Caveat 2: I think that in this exploration of the issue we should be careful not to imagine that there is one way of being (whether assertive or not) that is objectively better. Beyond the fact that different attitudes are appropriate at different times, caveat 1 comes into play when we think about the fact that different people have different roles to play, and they are all important, and perhaps equally so. Or not, depending.

Confession: Maybe one reason I like blogging to much is it doesn’t require listening to other people’s opinions, although of course the only way I come to these conclusions is by bouncing my ideas off of people, among other techniques. Which is like information extraction? And now we’ve come full circle.

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