By Peter Gibb
My time here on earth is moving into its late innings. All the more reason to live each remaining day as fully and authentically as I am able.
“Fully and authentically.” What does it really mean? How can I best pursue such an intention? Two complementary desires seem to guide my discretionary time:
1. I want to have alone time to relax, just to be, to watch the meanderings of my heart and mind, and to pursue my creative projects.
2. I want to foster mindful connections with others – family, friends, and strangers, playing joyfully in the great sand box of life.
Desire #1 is a relatively easy lift for me. When alone, I have control over my actions. Desire #2, however, is often more challenging. I must meet others where they are. Playing with others in the sand box of life is unpredictable, sometimes simple but often tricky, easy to get bogged down in small talk, or argue unnecessarily over trivia, trying to win rather than simply play. When I let go and present myself as open for connection, the sand in the sand box mixes in mysterious, wonderous, and fulfilling ways. This is what I want. In this, I think I am similar to many others, seniors in particular. At my age, ambition is mostly a thing of the past. I am no longer the primary bread winner for a growing family.
Most of us yearn to connect deeply with others. But fear holds us back. Do I dare? What will they think? Will they like me? How will they see me? I want to release those fears in order to embrace freedom.
Wendy, my wife, told me a story about a time when she was sitting in the front passenger seat of a car, heading out for a hike. She had never previously met Otto, the driver. Two other adults sat in the back seat. In a brief exchange Otto told Wendy that he designed and built small wooden toys for children. Wendy inquired, “How do you come up with your ideas? Do you test them out on your children?” The conversation morphed into family, friends, travel, and books. Time sped by, along with the landscape. When they arrived at the trailhead, one of the backseat passengers leapt out of the car and pulled Wendy aside. “How did you do that?”
“I’ve known Otto for 25 years,” her words poured out like stones spilling from a sack. “You learned more about him in half an hour than I have in 25 years.” She bored in. “How did you do that?”
When Wendy relayed this story to me over dinner, I echoed the question. “So how did you do that?”
“I asked questions,” she said, as if this were so obvious it didn’t need to be spoken.
I’ve eavesdropped on so many conversations, I know that asking good questions is far from the norm. Asking questions at all is unusual for many. About half the population never, or rarely, asks questions. Their conversation is about me, me, me. Look at me. Watch me. Pay attention to me. No inquiry, no attempt to understand others or show empathy, addicted to putting the self at the center of the exchange, little attention to true connection. Such talk is more like an advertising campaign than a conversation, more about maintaining a position than exploring and discovery.
My research shows that in almost any group, at least a third of those present feel like they don’t belong. They struggle (at least subconsciously) to feel included, and as a result feel more like stressed outsiders. Their discomfort propels them to turn inward, which leads to awkward attempts to cajole or captivate the audience, trying to win the struggle for inclusion and attention. Such conversations, which should be a dance, are more like a football game, with everyone trying to grab the ball and score points. This sandbox is full of stress, lonliness, and minimal authentic connection.
As a natural-born introvert, I spent many awkward hours feeling left out … and feeling guilty, struggling to hide the fact that I felt left out. Then I discovered a remarkable irony: the most likely path to feeling included lies in letting go of trying to be included. I stopped trying so hard for inclusion. My serial monologue, ping pong back and forth, talking at one another, gave way to listening and inquiring of others. The more I shifted my talk to first trying to understand others, the more people gravitated to me. I discovered I had more to contribute and was increasingly more comfortable. I felt relaxed and accepted. I let go of my impatience to tell my own story, and focused first on understanding my conversation partners. Less me – me serial monologue; more genuine you – me connection. By letting go of my desperate struggle to be accepted, I made space for acceptance to happen.
Serial monologue, sadly, is the most common model for what passes as conversation. In my clandestine research (overhearing as many conversations as I can), I hear serial monologue more than 50% of the time.
Asking great questions is part of the art and the mystery of Mindful Conversation. Listen to the replies you get at various levels: first the facts, but below the facts, listen for the thoughts and feelings, even if they’re not expressed. Create silence and see what fills it. Listen to what is not said, as well as to what is said. And watch for congruence between verbal and non-verbal expression. Such small changes can yield big changes in a relationship.
Questions come in many shapes and sizes. Take the most common question of all, “How are you?” We all use this cliché question, and get back mostly a cliché answer, “good” or “fine.” Consider a slight modification of this question that I first heard from the writer Kat Vellos. Add one word. “How are you – really?” Start asking questions like this and you are soon a valued member of the group, connecting deeper, making better friends, engaging in more open, authentic exchange. This is what I call “Mindful Conversation.”
Create some space by backing off the “me – me” talk. Instead ask a question or two. If you inquire first, people will be drawn to talk with you and ready to listen to what you have to say when it’s your turn. When I let go and listen first, closed doors magically open. Let go of the need to be right, or the need to advertise yourself. Let go of the need to control the conversation. Create space instead. Let go of stock stories and points of view you’ve had forever, and play in the sand box. Open to discovery. Get curious about others. Let go of trying to defend, trying to prove something. Let go. Let go. Feel the freedom, the exhilaration of letting go, and just be there, open and curious. It’s a great way to rejuvenate your relationships, find the gold that awaits when you listen deeply to others – be they family, friends, or strangers.
Transform your conversation. Improve your relationships. Play joyfully in the great sand box of life.
Copyright Gibb 2023