Thursday, April 27, 2017
Here's my final article for English 201 - Non Fiction Writing. 40% of my grade!
The Undoing of The Art of Authentic Conversation
The leadership researcher, and author, Margaret Wheatley, ED.D said, “Conversation is the natural way humans think together. When we listen well, and with less judgment, we move closer together.” I am fascinated with the human connection. I would go so far as to say that it is a life’s passion of mine. I have always been the peacemaker in a group; my responsibility and natural default is to make sure that everyone is playing nice in the sandbox. But not only that, I am a gatherer. I bring everyone to the sandbox in the first place. For example, I facilitate a drum circle where people of all varieties gather together. We drum yes, but more importantly--we talk and we listen. A real-life face to face conversation. It’s a beautiful thing and something that I fear is ebbing away from our social experience. The art of authentic conversation is one of the best tools we have to connect with our fellow human beings.
Celeste Headlee lists the age-old advice we are given about having a good conversation with others.
· Look the other person in the eye
· Think of interesting topics to discuss
· Nod and smile to show you are paying attention
· Repeat back what you just heard to summarize
Ms. Headlee then admonishes, “Forget all of that, it’s crap!” Perhaps, it would be helpful if I told you that she has been a broadcaster for many years and is currently a talk show host for Georgia Public Broadcasting. Her show is called, “On Second Thought” and she makes her living having conversations. She has some excellent things to say on how to talk and how to listen. As far as the “crap” list above, she states, “There is no reason to learn how to show you are paying attention, if you are in fact, paying attention”.
And paying attention does seem to be a common struggle in the art of conversation. The educator, author, and businessman, Stephen Covey said, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.” And the way we reply seems to be an issue in the demise of the conversation. Many studies are showing the ill effects that electronic devices are having on human relationships and interactions (more on that later). Teenagers are more likely to text than to talk face to face. Rarely do they have the opportunity to hone their interpersonal communication skills. Celeste Headlee said, “Is there any 21st century skill more important than being able to sustain a coherent, confident conversation?”
Another concern that halts a good conversation is prejudice. And one form of prejudice is the “single story”. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”, as stated by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Ms. Adichie explains how we so often hear a story about a person, or a group of people and without taking the time to get to know more information about them, we only know and believe that one thing--the single story.
Celeste Headlee said that, “We hate each other because we don’t know each other. We don’t see each other as worthy of respect. We view people that don’t agree with us not as human beings but as enemies.” She goes on to say that understating requires interaction. She also quotes an alarming study that states that empathy has declined by 40%, and points out that empathy is the basis of our moral code. Dozens of religious practices from all over the world hold the general belief as stated in the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
So how can we increase empathy? Ms. Headlee reports that it can be done by reading a novel, singing in a choir, playing in a band, and volunteering time to help others, but most importantly of all, we can increase empathy by talking to strangers. Or better said, listening to strangers. Learn about their lives. What makes them happy? What scares them? We can talk to people who are fundamentally different from us and our beliefs, and we can do it without arguing. Ms. Headlee said, hearing an opposing opinion is not abusive. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s really the only way we grow and evolve.” The talk show host, Larry King said it nicely, “You will learn nothing from what you say today. You can only learn by listening to other people.” And Randall Stephenson the CEO of AT&T said it not so nicely, “I’m not asking you to be tolerant. Tolerance is for cowards. Being tolerant asks nothing of you but to be quiet and make no waves, and to hold tightly to your views and judgements. I’m asking that you not be tolerant of each other, but to move into uncomfortable territory and understanding of each other.”
And all of this happens through the art of authentic conversation. Am I naive enough to believe that something this simple could change our world for good? I think Brene Brown says it best, “Choosing authenticity means: Cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle and connected to each other through a loving and resilient human spirit; nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we let go of what we are supposed to be and embrace who we are.”
Now, let us talk about what I believe to be the biggest assault to the conversation, and consequently, to interpersonal relationships--technology. For some time now, I have been fascinated by the affect that electronic devices have on our human relationships. According to my Boise State University Communications 101 text book, by David Worley, interpersonal relationships can be defined as, “Communication between two persons, usually face-to-face…But with the advent of social media…it can occur with the assistance of technology even when the people are not in the same ‘space’.”
My first cell phone was the size of a brick. Back then, no one really knew what it was or even understood why I would have one. To be honest, the only reason I put up with the thing was because I had my own business at the time and I needed to catch my calls sooner rather than later. But what a hassle. I have watched cell phones morph over the years from something that most people thought of as odd or even an annoyance, to something that seems to have taken over everyone’s life, for better or worse. I find it a rare event these days, to run into someone without a smart phone. Generally, I see no problem with that. What worries me is that I don’t see people talking to each other much anymore. Just the other day, when I walked into my English class, I noticed that there were over a dozen people already sitting in the classroom and every single person was looking down at their phone. No one was looking at each other, and no one was talking to each other. I mentioned this to my teacher after class when I was asking for her opinion on which direction I should take this article. She said that when she used to walk into her classroom all the students would be talking to each other, but not anymore. What’s going on here? Are we missing something? Should we be concerned?
In my research for this paper I stumbled upon a book published in 1985 called, “Handbook of Interpersonal Communication”. I was so curious to see what was happening with communication before the cell phone/electronic device explosion. It said, that from the 1970s sprung the first theories regarding communication between individuals. By the 1980s communication researchers were sitting up and taking notice of this thing called, “interpersonal communication”. And so, this handbook was written during the infant stages of examining these issues. It states that it seeks to, “Identify a variety of temporal aspects of interpersonal relationships, especially aspects pertaining to communication processes between individuals.” And indeed, the book goes on to speak of many varied aspects of communication. None of them surprising nor earth shattering, but it does talk about the importance of the nuts and bolts of communication such as spending time together and being face to face. Some things never change.
Is technology disruptive to interpersonal relationships and communication? Simon Sinek is one of my favorite speakers on leadership. He also has some very interesting things to say about technology and how it effects the human relationship. In the TED Talk, “First Why and Then Trust”, he goes into detail about how great technology is for things like exchanging ideas and information. It’s also the perfect tool for finding people, transactions, and resourcing. But on the flip side, it is a terrible tool when it comes to human connections and interactions. He states, “You cannot form trust through the internet…video conferences will never replace the business trip…you can’t get a good gut feeling when you aren’t in person”.
Mr. Sinek then goes on to describe what is going on in the brain with mirror neurons. They are effected when we smile and when we see others smile. They literally help us feel empathy. As it turns out, mirror neurons don’t light up when we text. He is adamant that, “Nothing replaces human contact”. He envisions a world where we have more human interactions because trust is about human interactions.
I read an interesting article in the New York Times by Sherry Turkle. She has been studying the psychology of online connectivity for more than 30 years. In her studies, she has looked at schools, universities and workplaces, and examined families, friendship and romance. In the article, “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk”, she asks the question, “What has happened to face-to-face conversation in a world where so many people say they would rather text than talk?” She reports that college students tell her that they know how to look someone in the eye and type on their phones at the same time. They claim that this slight of eye trick of theirs, is not detectable and is a skill they honed during middle school when they wanted to text in class without the teacher seeing what they were doing. Now they use this technique when they want to both, talk to their friends and be “elsewhere”. Her studies have shown that we now actually feel less of a need to hide when we are dividing our attention during a conversation. She states, that in 2015, The Pew Research Center showed that 89 percent of cellphone owners said they had used their phones during the last social gathering they attended. It’s interesting to point out that this study also showed that these same people didn’t feel happy about using their phones during their social interaction. In general, it also showed that 82 percent of adults feel that the way they use their phone in social settings impedes the conversation.
Ms. Turkle interviewed a group of young people who spoke enthusiastically to her about something they called, “The Rule of Three”. This is done during meal times but can also crossover to other settings as needed. It goes like this, during a conversation between five or six people, “you have to check that three people are paying attention--heads up--before you give yourself permission to look down at your phone. So conversation proceeds, but with different people having their heads up at different times. The effect is what you would expect: Conversation is kept relatively light, on topics where people feel they can drop in and out.” This is what told Ms. Turkle, “There is the magic of the ‘always available elsewhere’. You can put your attention wherever you want it to be. You can always be heard. You never have to be bored. When you sense that a lull in the conversation is coming, you can shift your attention from the people in the room to the world you can find on your phone.” Say what? How is that a conversation? I hate to sound old fashioned here, but I can’t help but think back and compare with the conversations of my own youth many years ago and long before the birth of devices.
With that said, there is the argument that there were unintended harmful media effects during pre-device times. For example, it has been pointed out by critics that families who dined and spent their time together around the television set in the 1960s and 70s did not talk much nor connect on a deep level. I for one have vivid memories of those years. I remember well our TV trays snugged up against the couch so we could reach our food with ease and not miss the show. Yes, the entire family was there glued to the TV set watching the programs we would never dream of missing: Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, The Carol Burnett Show, and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. But that wasn’t the whole story. It wasn’t just soundless watching; there was talk a plenty. It happened while we were making our meal and setting the stage for our anticipated evening. It happened during the commercials and after the shows. It happened while we were cleaning and reminiscing over what we had just seen. Mind you, this was every member of my family, in one single room, during the whole entire evening. We spent much of that time talking to each other. Deep or not, it was connecting.
Ms. Turkle refers to the psychologists Howard Gardner and Katie Davis. When they speak of the generation that grew up with phones in hand and apps for everything, they call them the “App Generation”. They claim that a characteristic of this group is impatience. They expect the world to respond like an app, quickly and efficiently. It’s as if all interactions should work like an algorithm–-certain actions will lead to predictable results. They state, “This attitude can show up in friendship as a lack of empathy. Friendships become things to manage; you have a lot of them, and you come to them with tools.” So, is there a solution in learning empathy and reengaging in interpersonal relationships? Gardner and Davis report, “So here is a first step: To reclaim conversation for yourself, your friendships and society, push back against viewing the world as one giant app. It works the other way, too: Conversation is the antidote to the algorithmic way of looking at life because it teaches you about fluidity, contingency and personality.
That seems like a good first step in reuniting with the human race. But is anyone out there doing it? Is anyone interested in doing it? I was chatting one day with a fellow student of mine and mentioned what I was writing about. As she started to tell me her story, I knew I had to interview her for this article. Here is what Melissa had to say. (Not her real name by the way)
I didn’t figure this out on my own. It was my husband that told me I had an addition to my phone. I told him, “No, it’s fine because I can multitask”. But I’m taking an Interpersonal Communications class and through an assignment, I realized that I wasn’t really listening to him. It also showed me that I wasn’t making eye contact. He called me out on it and said, “You need to pay attention to me”. I had been somewhat aware of this but I hadn’t realized that it was bothering him until he pointed it out. It hit me that he is very important to me and what I was doing on the phone was not! I was just entertaining myself with my phone, that’s all it was. We discovered with time, that what we needed in our conversation was eye contact, feedback, and validation that we had heard each other. I’m actively putting down my phone now, before having a conversation. It’s still hard. And I work from home so I’m on the computer a lot which makes it a challenge to not be on it too long. And then there’s the “ding”. I’m so conditioned to pay attention when the ding tells me a message has come in. But the outcome of my change in behavior has been well worth it. Our conversations are richer and more in depth. And I’m saving several hours a day now, not being on my phone! I have an app that keeps track of that. (We both burst out laughing)
So, what is my story? I told you in the beginning that I am extremely interested in this topic and I have been thinking about it for a long time. I have had my own aha moments when I realized that I had been sitting in a trance like state in front of a screen for much longer than I care to confess. I have realized that I have lost countless hours…days in front of a TV screen. And I have realized that I found myself checking-out of a good conversation much too often, thinking instead of what I might be seeing on a screen if I were to just sneak a peek. One of my painful realities I uncovered in this process, is that I engage in these activities to keep the silence at bay. Interesting and emotional things happen in the quiet. Sherry Turkle said, “If the conversation goes quiet, you have to let it be. For conversation, like life, has silences--what some young people I interviewed called “the boring bits.” It is often in the moments when we stumble, hesitate and fall silent that we most reveal ourselves to one another.
I am learning to unplug and get quiet. It has been a profound experience of discomfort and ultimately blissful connection with myself and with others. A man named Robert Kertzner who is a writer, psychiatrist, and an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University responded to Ms. Turkle’s article. He said, “(The distraction of electronics) undermines a personal reckoning with life as we grow older and seek to cultivate a more idiosyncratic, interior state of mind. Aging will never be trending; there’s no app to deepen an understanding of our lives. This is a stealth liability that tech-dependent young adults will confront when their phones stop buzzing.”
Adichie, Chimamanda. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TEDTalks, July, 2009,
Anonymous (“Melissa”). “Personal Interview” Apr. 14, 2017
Brown, Brene. “Catalyst.” Leadershape, Leadershape, 2017.
Covey, Stephen. “Catalyst.” Leadershape, Leadershape, 2017.
Headlee, Celeste. “Help Make America Talk Again.” TEDxSeattle, 20 Dec. 2015
Headlee, Celeste. “How to Have a Good Conversation.” TEDxCreativeCoast, 7 May 2015,
King, Larry. “Catalyst.” Leadershape, Leadershape, 2017.
Knapp, Mark L. Handbook of Interpersonal Communication. Beverly Hills, CA, SAGE
Publications, Inc., 1985.
Sinek, Simon. “First Why and Then Trust.” TEDxMaastricht, 6 Apr. 2011,
Stephenson, Randall. “Catalyst.” Leadershape, Leadershape, 2017.
Turkle, Sherry. “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26
Wheatley, Margaret. “Catalyst.” Leadershape, Leadershape, 2017.
Worley, David. Communication. Fourth, New York, NY, Pearson Education, 2017
Thursday, March 16, 2017
First day of school
Sktech #4, The College Experience
My Fundamental Transformation Concerning the Inner Self
Being 56 years old, and having returned to college after 33 years, I have been most interested in the subject of the older, non-traditional student. When I first started back two years ago, I even started a blog to try and make since of this most unusual event in my life. Though I have seen older students on campus from time to time, I have rarely spoken to any of them. Is my experience unique, or are we all going through a similar experience? What I found surprising and discouraging, when initially looking for research on this subject, is that I didn’t find very much information. The search words, “non-traditional student” brings up subjects such as, husband’s thoughts on supporting wives in school, students with disabilities, the needs of women returning to school, and returning immigrants and delinquents. How discouraging. And when I did find an article about the older student returning to school, the example they gave was of a forty-five year old, practically a child!
I finally found an article by Nancy Shields called, “The Link Between Student Identity, Attributions and Self-Esteem Among Adult, Returning Students”. Really? Self-Esteem? Is that all we have to worry about? Oh well, I guess it’s a start. Personally, self-esteem hasn’t been much of an issue at this point of my life. I just don’t give a fuck. I do my thing. Because at this point, I know what my thing is and it works for me. But if I’m going to be honest with myself, I will admit that my confidence took a waver when returning to school. All of a sudden, my footing didn’t seem so sure. And then there was the Pandora’s Box of examining why I never got a bachelor’s degree in the first place. Ms. Shields states, “Leaving college was conceptualized as a “failure” in the sense that the student had failed to complete a degree when previously enrolled…after a break of at least three semesters”. Now try compounding that sense of failure after 33 years. Maybe in this, I do give a fuck.
I was perusing my early-day blogs while preparing to write this paper and came across this gem. I realized that even trying to figure out if they used paper in school anymore, was making me feel unsure of myself. I wrote, “I was going through some old boxes yesterday and found a ream of lined, notebook paper and my immediate thought was, “score, I can use this for school!” Second immediate thought, “Do they even use lined notebook paper in school anymore?” I have no idea. It’s these little unknowns that make me feel so off balanced right now.” http://thematurestudent54.blogspot.com/2015/01/dont-you-love-my-profile-picture-truth.html
My curiosity about how my experience compares to others lead me to O’Shea Stone’s article on mature aged women’s reflections on returning to university studies. She used such words as “transformation” and “self-discovery”. She followed 18 “mature-aged students” returning to school. She found that they had considerable self-doubt and lack of confidence. There are those words again. If this endeavor to rejoin higher education causes or exacerbates shaky self-esteem. Why do we do it? Why?
There are many good reasons for going to school. And there are many difficulties inherent for all students. Ms. Stones speaks of her research subjects as meeting those challenges and in turn finding a “fundamental transformation concerning the inner self”. As I read through my blog I can see that a similar fundamental transformation happened to me. It was slow at first as stated in this blog.
I’m having less moments of sudden panic where my mind is racing and all I can think is, “where am I and what the hell am I doing here?” And I am definitely less lost. I no longer leave a building debating whether to pull out my map to see if I should turn left or right to get to my next destination. Life is so much easier when I know which way to head. How is that for a life analogy! http://thematurestudent54.blogspot.com/2015/02/less-moments.html
And the slow climb to self-confidence at school continues.
I was eating lunch in the SUB today and looking out the window at this beautiful campus when all of a sudden this feeling came soaking into me. In words, the saturation went something like this, “You belong here”. It is just occurring to me that I am no longer the interloper, the pretender, the fake. http://thematurestudent54.blogspot.com/2015/09/no-longer-interloper.html
I didn’t know if I could make this whole school thing work, but I tried it anyway. I have learned much, and gained much from the trying. Ms. Stone said, “These narratives of achievement and transformation ultimately provide inspiration to other women contemplating such a step as well as insight for academic administrators and teaching staff regarding the significant personal change this decision can engender”. If I could encourage just one older person to return to school, if I could encourage just one professor to see their older student in a unique way, if I could show the younger students we are far more similar that different, then I am glad. I offer my “fundamental transformation concerning the inner self” up to whomever it may benefit.
“Diversity in the Graduate Student Population.” Journal of College Student
Psychotherapy, vol. 14, no. 2, 2000, pp. 57-70., doi:10.1300/j035v14n02_07.
Fullmer, Susan L. “The Mature Student.” The Mature Student,
O’Shea, S.Stone C. “Transformations and Self-Discovery: Mature-Age Women’s Reflections on
Returning to University Study.” Studies in Continuing Education, Routledge. Available from:
Taylor & Francis, Ltd. 325 Chestnut Street Suite 800, Philadelphia, PA 19106. Web Site:
Http//Www.tandf.co.uk/Journals, 30 Nov. 2010, eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ949331.
Shields, Nancy. “The Link between Student Identity, Attributions, and Self-Esteem among
Adult, Returning Students.” Sociological Perspectives, vol. 38, no. 2, 1995, pp. 261-272.