The Need To Be Seen

I’ve written before about how narcissistic it is to communicate. I don’t really believe that anymore (to the extent I ever did), but I think it’s interesting. What’s interesting about it is that there’s a tiny sliver of truth behind it. That sliver is this: all humans have an intense need to be seen and understood by each other.

This is one of those truths that psychologists seem to know and understand deeply but which did not come naturally to me. For me, the conflicting desire to be allowed to pass by unremarked upon was always stronger. I’m sure some psychologists would love to psychoanalyze that, but for now let’s let it lie.

I’m told from respected sources that the child’s need to be seen by their parents is one of the most fundamental. This is the theory behind the classic dysfunction of the child ignored by a parent — think the classic distant father and eager son — who spends their whole life desperately trying to impress that parent.

Where the most interesting learning has occurred for me is in the fact that simply being seen can cure most of our psychological neuroses. When someone is just feeling sad or overwhelmed or angry, a person coming along and acknowledging and accepting that they are feeling those feelings is one of the quickest ways that those feelings can dissipate. There is no need to for the other person to change the situation (in fact in most cases that’s not wanted), they just need to really understand it. It can feel like such a relief to finally have someone understand and acknowledge that you feel the way you feel.

It turns out, as I’ve been slowly learning, you can do this for yourself. You can see yourself feeling your feelings, you can acknowledge that you are feeling your feelings, and your feelings can then naturally dissipate as they do when recognized by someone else. This is magical mental jujitsu that I would never have believed if I hadn’t caught glimpses of it in myself. But back on track.

Whether or not you have any desire to be able to soothe yourself by seeing, simply knowing the need and value to others of being seen and understood is a great way to become better as a communicator. You’re more empathic, patient, and easy to be around if you know how to see without jumping to change. To the action-oriented person it feels like you’ll go crazy when you just see the situation and don’t try to change it, but for most people, with most modern problems, most of the time, it is the single best thing you can offer.


Why You Must Let People Check Out From Conversations

Sometimes in a conversation, especially a sensitive or heated one, you can tell you’ve hit a brick wall. When you recognize that, it is essential that you allow your conversational partner to check out of the conversation. If you don’t, it’s virtually guaranteed that something far worse than a lack of closure will be the outcome.

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Saying What You Mean

One of the deepest problems of communication is that we don’t actually mean what we say. Not in the sense of actively trying to convince others of things we don’t believe, commonly called “lying”, but in a more casual way. What I’m pointing at is the indirection of saying something that suggests the real issue or topic, but allows us to avoid taking responsibility for it.

That is a bit abstract, so here’s an example I’m guilty of a lot: I would like someone to do something, but I won’t ask for it. Instead, I’ll point to a problem or issue I have, and hope that my conversational partner will understand that I would like their help with that issue. What does this look like? When I mean, “Could you send an email to Joe and tell him what we decided?” I instead say something like “I see that we still haven’t responded to Joe’s question.” It’s reasonable to think that my partner can read the idea there, but putting that burden on them is just increasingly the likelihood of misunderstanding and hurt feelings. It’s not useful, and I’m communicating the wrong thing.

And while I don’t recommend that method, there are worse ones. One of the worst ways of communicating “will you help me with this issue” I remember using is the blame game. Dysfunctional relationships — most stereotypically marriages — can have this happen a lot. Rather than talking about the fact that Bob leaves his shoes in places that Sue wishes he wouldn’t, Sue will yell at Bob for being an lazy, absent-minded pig. She may not even tell him that his shoes were the issue, but instead consistently communicates to him a general disgust.

Part of the reason we’re so prone to communicating the wrong thing is that we’re not really sure what we’re meaning to communicate in the first place. It may well be the case that by the time Sue gets to talk to Bob about the problem of his shoes all she has in her mind is the fact that he’s lazy, good-for-nothing slob. It’s quite common and understandable to draw the large from the small, to proverbially “make mountains out of molehills”, and knowing you’re doing that when you are requires a great deal of discipline.

Communicating exactly what you mean is not something that’s easy to do. It’s not a switch you flip and suddenly you’ll find your communication less dysfunctional and prone to unexpected blowups. It’s a slow gradual process of learning. It’s a thing you set out to get a little bit better at, you fail to get better at, and then you try harder next time. You live that cycle a few hundred times and maybe you’ll see progress.

Clarifying what you’re really trying to communicate is an invaluable exercise. When a conversation becomes confrontational unexpectedly, there are few more effective tools than apologizing, slowing down, and expressing what you really mean. When a conversation that you think should be easy is hard, check how accurately you stated what you mean. Slowly, you’ll learn how to communicate your meaning better. If you have patience for the whole process, it pays huge dividends. Of that I am certain.


“They’re invariably nice and interesting if you actually give a shit and try”

Please excuse the profanity of the title, but it’s one of those things that’s stated so simply and undeniably by someone else that I’d be a jerk if I changed it solely for the sake of propriety. Jesse Thorn penned the tweet quoted in this title over three years ago, and it still sticks in my head.

He said it about interviewing, which is his profession, but it stuck in my head Continue reading


Complaining About Your Loved Ones

Is there anything so common and needlessly corrosive to your personal mental health, and that of your loved ones, as complaining to your coworkers about them? I’m struggling to think of anything.

When we take a problem with a person we love—he leaves his socks all around the house, she never cleans up the kitchen after cooking in it—and express it not to that person, but to a third person, we’ve complicated what is likely to be an easy conversation. It’s pretty unlikely that your significant other is unwilling to try to improve the things about them that bother you. (If they’re really unwilling, I’d begin to wonder how much they did love you. But that’s a whole different conversation.)

When we make problems we have into complaints we share we make the core issues harder and messier to solve. Two changes typically come when a problem becomes a complaint:

  • The path to solve the issue is obscured. How quickly does “You’re sometimes careless about where you leave your socks when you take them off” turn into “And he always leaves his socks EVERYWHERE! I’d be surprised if there aren’t three behind the TV.”? Real fast. Suddenly transitory behavior is rendered as an unchangeable characteristic. This means that when you express your sentiment as a complaint, even when you do so as kindly as possible, the conversation probably doesn’t lead to problem-solving. It likely leads to the cliche-level escalation of “Well you always leave dirty dishes in the sink!”
  • You’ve brought more people into the problem.  This isn’t inherently obvious—some people really do keep confided complaints quiet and invisible—but we know that most of us don’t. By complaining to a third party about something that can be solved between the two of you, you’re making the whole behavior stickier. Suddenly the person the complaint is about isn’t only responsible to you who took issue with the behavior, but instead to all the people who you’ve complained about the behavior to. Suddenly when I go to take me shoes off not just you, but the children, your visiting mother, and your best friend are all going to be carefully watching what I do with my socks. This may seem like it’ll help—and it’s possible it does in the short-term—but the likelihood of resentment about this external vigilance is high, and that typically leads to retrenchment rather than the kind of change that would have resolved your problem with the places I leave my socks.

The conversations the mitigate complaints aren’t always obvious and easy to have. Especially if you’ve already made the problem into a complaint, it can be really hard to believe that there’s any solution to it. A few perennial pieces of advice come to mind when I think about how best to have a “compaint conversation”:

  • Think and speak in terms of changeable behaviors and not intractable traits. Don’t say “You’re a slob!” What you want to do is instead observe—ideally in a neutral way—the behavior that’s leading to the complaint. “Your socks are scattered throughout the house.”
  • Keep in mind that this is a solvable problem, and you can (maybe even should) be involved in figuring out a solution. Maybe what I need is for you to remind me to put my socks in the hamper when I go to take them off. Be ready to provide that support if it’s requested. (Though probably best not to assume it’ll be necessary or desired. People like to solve things on their own, and may resent the assumption that they’ll need your help.)

This has all felt a bit preachy, but it was on my mind. I’ll close with an anecdote from Alina Tegund’s essay about her experience of being exposed to A Complaint Free World a group I’d never heard about until I found the piece five minutes ago:

I was in a class where everyone was annoyed at the teacher for regularly failing to show up on time. It was an easily fixable problem, but all of us — about a dozen — complained in whispers to one another for weeks.

A few grumbled to other teachers and even spoke to the head of the entire program. But nothing changed. Finally, one brave soul broached the subject directly with our teacher.

He responded graciously and started showing up promptly.

This is precisely the point. Simple conversations make life better far more effectively than endless complaining to people not in a position to solve the problem.


Let’s Talk About Extraterrestrials

I’ve tried this technique a few times and while the results aren’t superb, they’re good enough to share. So to explain: I like to talk about a rather narrow range of topics, and none of them are comfortable conversation topics for most company.

It’s lamentable but true that most people don’t eagerly desire to talk about our purpose in life, why we fail at things, what we truly value, why we exist at all, or what it means that we do. These are the things that really get my engine revving though, and so I struggle to enjoy most conversations.

Broaching these topics when you’ve just met someone, or never talked so intimately, is hard. It takes more perseverance than I have. But talking about extraterrestrials allows for a conversations that easily approximates one about those desirable topics but feels reasonable to broach and comfortable for people to join in on.

One of the big advantages of it is that almost no person alive today has strong and fixed opinions about aliens. About their existence, their nature or their history, almost everyone will reasonably claim ignorance. No major religion says anything about these topics, and neither does science. It’s an area where there are few bits of knowledge and few stones of belief and so we engage with it fully and don’t get sensitive if someone disagrees. Said a different way, conversation killers like “only Ron Paul can save us,” “all people are stupid and secretly racist,” or “now let me tell you how it really works” cannot be executed in such a conversation.

But we can, by proxy, discuss what it means that we humans exist at all. And why alien civilizations might be different from ours. And people’s beliefs about what aliens may do with their civilization reasonably approximate what they desire or fear for ours.

There is more than a little diversion in the technique of using talk about extraterrestrial life as a gateway to talk about our messy terrestrial stuff, but I don’t think it reaches the troubling heights of subterfuge, and so I’m publicly recommending that you try, at least once or twice, to have a conversations about aliens.


In Praise of Conversations

Charlie Rose, who is among the most respected talk show hosts, has been upset lately by the lack of good conversation in the world. And indeed, if one looks around today, it seems that little earnest conversation takes place.

Instead TV “talk” shows–and especially on cable “news” channels–seem have become havens for soundbites and little more. People seem to yell more than they talk, or listen for that matter. Public officials, even, seem barely capable of working together to understand each other, or to have much desire to try.

Indeed, when Barack Obama suggested that this country should sit down and have a talk with some of our most well-known enemies, he was chastised and made to apologize for suggesting that we should talk to each other. The world seems to have gone topsy-turvy; the quest for understanding has been abandoned and we are instead waging a war with each other that will be won by the side with the best sloganeers and banner makers.

Is this an accurate view of the world? Probably not. And is it new? Certainly not. But these two points shouldn’t stop us from giving conversations a good heaping of praise. They tend to, better than most events, give the world a helping of understanding that it otherwise lacks.

The anatomy of a good conversation is hard to pin down and even harder to teach. Ian Johnston, who wrote a good piece about the topic, lists the following necessary qualities for effective conversation:

a sense of friendship, a self-confidence in one’s own skills, a willingness to test one’s insights against those of one’s peers, a desire to listen to others and assist them if necessary, a sense of cooperative participation in a shared endeavor, even a knowledge of people’s names, backgrounds, and interests.

Though I don’t think Johnston’s list is perfect, I think he touches on most of the major requirements admirably. I would, however, simplify Johnston’s list of conversation’s attributes with the words “respectful openness.” I think that in the shortest terms, these two factors are what is necessary from all participants. With their presence, little else matters. With their absence, little else matters.

Respect, in this context, is not unlike what it is in any other context. It means caring for the other person, having no desire to do them harm, and having a sincere interest in their opinions.

For a while, I had assumed that two people must be comfortable with each other to converse effectively. And I think this is indeed a fair assessment, but comfort comes primarily from the feeling that you are respected. I, for one, have been responsible for a number of fatally flawed conversations because I dismissed the person I was talking to offhand, not surprisingly creating an uncomfortable atmosphere that I never understood was my own creation. Nothing can doom a conversation faster than that.

The other necessity I listed above, openness, usually flows from the comfort you feel when you know that your opinions are respected. I’ve often, especially when I felt unjustly put-upon, closed my input to a conversation. Surely, unwillingness to disclose details about yourself isn’t the kiss of death in all contexts, but it makes it almost impossible to come to a better understanding of each other.

Are these observations new? I should hope not. But to me, they are novel, and need to be better understood in the world at large. I can’t even imagine how much better I would now understand people and the world if I’d learned these ideas just a few years earlier.