Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Fine Line Bteween Wanting to Speak and Needing to Speak

Last week I was in Seattle attending the national cohousing conference on the campus of the University of Washington. Because my partner (Ma'ikwe) and I were running the conference bookstore, we rented a car and drove over 2000 miles each way. (The compact car was so compacted that all we could sight through the rear-view mirror was a wall of boxes and the passenger seat didn't recline more than a couple inches—I mean that car was full.)

In addition to seeing a lot of Wyoming and Montana (which we found to be exceptionally pretty following a wet spring) that meant we were in the car for three days outbound and three days inbound. At the start of the return trip last Tuesday Ma'ikwe and I had an important exchange. It began with Ma'ikwe sharing reflections about a conversation she had with a mutual friend over the weekend. Though I hadn't been present for the conversation, I had long-term observations about how I saw this person in relation to group dynamics and jumped in to share them (in case you ever wondered what professional facilitators talk about when they're alone, it's just as bad as you might have imagined). Ma'ikwe didnt have a good reaction to that and the conversation stalled.

There were a number of factors that contributed to the derailment, and I had all the way from Port Townsend WA to Rutledge MO to sort them out.

1. Ma'ikwe hadn't asked for my opinion
The fact that I felt my comments were both substnative and germane didn't really matter. Ma'ikwe felt that I had hijacked the conversation, and what might have been an interesting exploration became stillborn. As a sat with this across eastern Washington and southern Montana, I saw how it paralleled other situations, and I could see my unhelpful pattern of occasionally being too eager to grab the mic, competing for air space.

2. I'm too critical of others
Perhaps worse than the faux pas of offering unsolicited opinions, my views are often critical. Where Ma'ikwe wanted to celebrate her friend's exploration of what she's doing with her life, I had launched into an unkind analysis. Ma'ikwe was irritated that I had shifted the energy, and questioned my ability to allow people to grow. Ouch! When I asked if she'd rather I changed my opinion or didn't express it, she wasn't sure.

As it happened, the previous night we had been in a dinner table conversation with others and Ma'ikwe didn't like how I had been critical of other process professionals when their names had surfaced in the discussion. So her reaction to my criticality had been building for a while, and Ma'ikwe—to her credit—felt compelled to voice her reaction.

As this feedback incubated in me I went through a sequence of defensiveness, sulking, and then acceptance. Ma'ikwe had the grace to let me sort through
this on my own, and I've gradually come to appreciate that there are really very few times when I need to speak—especially when I'm critical of others. The world's mostly doing fine without the steady insertion of my gratuitous "wisdom."

3. Not needing equal air time
As part of my journey to accept this feedback, I went through a phase of righteousness about how poorly I think others tend to use air time in groups (regardless of whether it's formal meetings or informal gatherings). When I caught myslef indulging in my penchant for criticality (it was ony a matter of time before I collided with the obvious), I smiled and reminded myself that life is not about how good you look; it's how well you see the opportunities for enjoyment, connection, and surprise. It really doesn't have anything to do with air time at all.

• • •
The fundamental truth in this exchange with Ma'ikwe was that I was irritating my partner and she was letting me know it—which I had asked her to do. While it probably took me about 1000 miles to sort it all out, I finally arrived at a place where it was OK. While this place is unfortunately not marked on road maps (with suggestive names, such as Enlightenment WY, Deep Listening MT, or New Insight NE), the good news is that it can be found—even though you may have to burn a little ego and retread some ideas to get there.


Chrys H said...

I've just discovered your blog through Twitter and REALLY like it. Thanks for your courageous and honest reflections, some of which have made me laugh with recognition and think about my own patterns of criticallity and defensiveness.

I'm looking forward to reading back through your archives and learning some more!

Thanks again
Chrys H

Rebecca Nay said...

In my opinion (which is more important than anybody's *tic*) this post is a great ego check. I find myself being vocally critical of others all the time and I really need to check myself. Great post and wonderful blog.