A while ago on a visit to Alaska and the Yukon, my travelling companions and I were struck by the unusual responses to our typical and conventional, ‘conversation-starter’ question. “… and what do you do?”. Instead of the usual responses such as “I’m a cook.” ; or “I work in an office.” ; or “I’m in management.” ; we heard things like, “I garden.”, “I am a grandfather.” or “I like to read …” or even “I like to land my plane in isolated places.” These responses were unexpected, certainly not typical and they were jarring. Our curiosity was peaked. We wondered how many times we needed to ask that question before people got around to telling us how they made their living. We started out thinking this would be an interesting experiment and ended up having insightful conversations about things that people deeply cared about. We ended up having conversations not so much about ‘what do you do’ as about ‘what are you becoming?’ The question had been interpreted differently.
We were pushed out of our familiar world of parallel conversational play – where people seem to just take turns filling air time. We were at first intrigued with the unusual responses then we built on those responses with increasingly genuine questions, offering our own stories, and then responding back to their own increasingly genuine questions of us. We were engaged!! (Maybe this is what that over-used word means!) We were changed by each encounter, perhaps only slightly but change like this can happen when you are engaged. It was less and less about being or protecting whatever it is each of us thinks we are, and more and more about being open to the change in us that every interaction can affect. As we regrouped as travelling companions we each brought the stories of our encounters and the smaller or bigger changes they had made in us back into our conversations with each other, and the process of change and emerging identity repeated itself … over and over again.
Did we discover something new, something different that can happen when you take the time to listen well and stay present to the conversation? I don’t think so really. I think we just recognized an experience that is always there from a different perspective. We are flow, we are process, affected by every interaction; even those parallel play conversations. We just had a chance – perhaps because we were in ‘vacation’ mode – to see what is always right there in a different way. The chance to both experience it and marvel at it. We truly do continuously describe ourselves ‘in small, continuous gestures towards others”. (See the December, 2008 e-newsletter – The Causality of Hope !)
Some of us are in the business of teaching or coaching what we might call communication or inter-personal skills – active listening, mindfulness – perhaps in a leadership or management development initiative or workshop. We tend to teach these ‘skills’ as if they were tools and we often refer to them as such. Tools that, if our clients/coachees/participants do right, will help them be more effective communicators or more successful in getting what they want or need from the people they are interacting with.
In this type of teaching we tend to reinforce the perfection of the application of the skills and tools of communication. We often miss the opportunity to work with the flowing, sometimes messy process of interaction. We can miss the fact that gestures are shared, that identity does not have to be something to protect, but rather something that is constantly emerging. What would that opportunity actually look like? There is much written and taught about the art and skills of ‘influencing’. Do we need to spend equal time on the art and skills, or perhaps better worded, process of ‘being influenced’? If we as consultants were to do that, how would that subtle shift inform our work differently? If those of us who are executive coaches asked the question, ‘what are you becoming?’ of our leaders, would that open them to new ways of thinking and engaging? If we were to ask this question of ourselves on a regular basis, would that open each of us to new ways of thinking and engaging?
It seems very syndetic that we happen to be writing this on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration. The formal proceedings are inspiring but equally inspiring is watching the millions of people in the crowds observing this process of emergence, of ‘becoming’ happening before our eyes! We will work hard on staying open in the challenging days ahead.
Author – Bonnie