On having better conversations | Just Reflections - Issue #3
Good to have you here for the 3rd issue.
Thanks to everyone who reached out and had a conversation with me about last week’s issue. Remember, you can also do the same by just replying to this email or finding me on social media. I’m @bhekanik everywhere. If you have nothing specific to chat about, I’d still appreciate it if you hit the thumbs up or thumbs down buttons at the end of the email to let me know whether you liked it.
Special mention to Nosipho for recommending ProWritingAid, I love it and I hope the results will show in this issue.
With all that out of the way, let’s jump in!
Better connections lead to better conversations
My sister recently tweeted about how she’s come a long way in the art of making friends:
I've really come a long way in the art of making friends and I'm proud of myself
To which my wife (also my editor 😁) responded with how 2021 has been a good year for friendships for her.
@nkazie06 I've beeeen saying that when 2021 ends, as brutal as it's been, I'll be so happy to say I met and made some of the best friends I have ever had. Friendship is the highlight of 2021 for me.
This got me thinking about how many of us struggle with making and keeping friends, especially as we grow older. I think most of it relates to difficulty in forming connections with strangers. So I thought this would be an interesting and relatable topic to explore. Let’s look at what we can do to have better friendships.
Your instincts about people are probably wrong
Malcolm Gladwell in “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know” beautifully illustrates that we’re terrible at making judgements about strangers with these two points.
First, during the communist regime in Cuba under Fidel Castro, Florentino Aspillaga, a Cuban intelligence officer, grew disenchanted with Castro’s style of leadership. On June 6, he defected, drove to the American embassy in Vienna, and exposed just how deeply the Cuban spies had infiltrated the USA’s CIA. The CIA is supposed to be one of the most sophisticated organisations in the world, with people trained to spot liars, fakes and spies, yet they worked with Cuban spies and double agents for years and suspected nothing. Revealing just how bad we are at making judgements about others even when we’re trained to do so.
Second, Gladwell explains the concept of “coupling”, that behaviours are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions. That the stranger you just met may act a certain way because of the situation or place that you’ve met them in, not because of more “obvious” reasons that you make assumptions about.
These illustrations show that even if we make the correct call about strangers, our conclusions may be a misrepresentation of who the person really is. We can’t rely on what we think about people based on the limited information we have.
Redditor Oogimauskii shared his thoughts on an unnamed book he read and I think what he said describes how complex each of us is.
“I read a book that blew my mind. The main character goes crazy when he realizes no one really knows him. The gist is that the person you think of as ‘yourself’ exists only for you, and even you don’t really know who that is. Every person you meet, have a relationship with or make eye contact on the street with, creates a version of ‘you’ in their heads. You’re not the same person to your mom, your dad, your siblings, that you are to your coworkers, your neighbours or your friends. There are a thousand different versions of yourself out there, in people’s minds. A ‘you’ exists in each version, and yet your ‘you’, ‘yourself’, isn’t really a ‘someone’ at all.” - Oogimauskii on Reddit.
The only chance we have at really knowing people is to engage them and let them tell us their stories and thoughts. However, even when we interact with them extensively, what we get to know is just one version of them among many. People are multidimensional, therefore:
“The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility,” - Malcolm Gladwell
Everyone can teach you something, listen!
Jordan Peterson — a popular professor of psychology, clinical psychologist, YouTube personality, and author — is one of the most polarizing personalities on YouTube for his political views. One thing he’s very famous for is his ability to dominate his opponents in debate. I spent a sizeable portion of this week binging his videos on YouTube and my analysis is that a key reason for dominance is that he’s a brilliant listener.
Regardless of how heated the conversation gets, when everyone is really emotional and focused on getting their points across and on winning, he still listens carefully and calmly and can therefore push back effectively. He says the reason he listens so well is that he believes everyone has something to teach him. In his words,
“… the way they look at the world and the facts that they pull out of the world aren’t the same as your facts. And even though you’re going to be overwhelmed with the proclivity to demonstrate that you’re right, it is the case that two brains are better than one. … all you need to get out of the … conversation is one thing you don’t know.” - Jordan Peterson
I think we can all learn something from this. We should live with the appreciation that each person we interact with is not the same as us. No matter how stupid you think the person you’re talking to is, be on the lookout for at least one thing they know that you don’t.
Sometimes we meet people and we consciously take away negatives from them — he has a very narrow perspective, she just talks about herself, he doesn’t notice that he is boring everybody, she won’t make eye contact. But we should realise that many times these negatives are just hard shells that people put on to cope with other things that are going on in their lives. Under all that is a person much like ourselves who is trying to do what is right in their perspective. We can benefit from doing our best to look at things from the other person’s frame of reference. According to George R. R. Martin,
“Nobody is a villain in their own story. We’re all the heroes of our own stories.” - George R. R. Martin (1948-) Interview with Christina Radish in Collider.com (April 17, 2011)
And my favourite fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson, in “Warbreaker” puts it this way.
“What I’m trying to say is that you don’t understand a man until you understand what makes him do what he does. Every man is a hero in his own story…. Murderers don’t believe that they’re to blame for what they do. Thieves, they think they deserve the money they take. Dictators, they believe they have the right—for the safety of their people and the good of the nation—to do whatever they wish. … The truth is, most people who do what you’d call ‘wrong’ do it for what they call ‘right’ reasons.” - Brandon Sanderson, Warbreaker
This is called perspective. And if we don’t understand it, we will find ourselves in continued failures of understanding. It’s too easy to dismiss others with many disapprovals. We cannot move forward if we lack the understanding that, from their perspective, they are acting with heroic nature or intent. We will continually “not understand” why someone is the way they are or acts the way they do.
The productive path forward is to understand the emotion or ‘why’ behind their stance. Why do they feel that way? Why is this important to them? Why is their view different from mine? What do they see that I don’t? Do we have common ground?
So next time you’re in a conversation and you’re getting all the wrong vibes and feeling disengaged, remember these words by Jordan Peterson:
“If you listen to people, they will tell you the weirdest things so fast you just cannot believe it. So if you’re having a conversation with someone and it’s dull it’s because you’re not listening to them properly …. If you’re communicating with them and they were telling you how weird they really are it would be anything but boring.” - Jordan Peterson,
If you’re thinking to yourself, “but I’ve been listening and haven’t gotten this result” then maybe you haven’t been listening well enough. If you know you struggle and you need a solution, Peterson makes this proposal.
“The next time you get into an argument with your wife or your friend or a small group of friends. Stop the discussion for a moment and for an experiment institute this rule: Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately. What ‘accurately’ means is that they have to agree with your restatement. … Because maybe they can’t express themselves very well but they have something to say.” - Jordan Peterson
We are a combination of what everybody we have ever met has taught us. That doesn’t mean that we’re not unique. Each one of us keeps unique elements from others and fits them in themselves in many unique ways. Everyone we meet can teach us a lesson about life!
Be genuinely interested in people
If you ask people about how to have better conversations. I’m sure many of them will give you tips about how to show that you’re interested. Things like maintaining eye contact, nodding your head, etc. Celeste Headlee in her Ted Talk, “10 ways to have a better conversation,” says you should throw all that away. You don’t need to learn tips for showing that you’re interested if you’re actually interested. Be interested in people! I really recommend that you check out the Ted Talk because she puts it across really well and gives some great practical advice.
10 ways to have a better conversation | Celeste Headlee
I watched the Disney Pixar movie Soul recently (brilliant movie, I highly recommend it). Joe — the main character who’s a middle school band teacher — is dissatisfied with his life and longs to be a professional jazz pianist. He is so focused on chasing this goal that he never really connects with the people in his life. All he ever talks about is jazz and never really listens to anyone’s story, so no one spoke to him about anything else. It’s only after he dies that he is made aware that his barber, whom he’d assumed had always wanted to be a barber, actually had a very fascinating story that included him giving up his dream for his daughter. It’s only when he watches his life being lived by someone else that he realises all the opportunities for human connection that he has missed out on.
We’d all do well to learn from Joe’s experience. Don’t miss out on the rich relationships you could have because you failed to take an interest in the people around you. Don’t be so focused on you that you fail to see other people.
I hope this helps you have better conversations.
Do you agree? Do you have some tips of your own to share? Hit reply and let me know.
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I hope I’ve given you something to think about this week and I wish you ever-increasing curiosity.
Until next week.
Impactful ideas that challenged my thinking.
I have a lot of interests so I'm always learning all kinds of things, some of which really challenge my thinking. In the Just Reflections newsletter, I'll be sharing with you a summary of the ideas that challenged my thinking recently and hopefully they will challenge yours too and we grow together.
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