Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Is this a party, or is it a group of people ignoring each other?

I believe that we all crave connection. I've had some great conversations since starting this journey and I believe it's possible to have real connections every day. I still struggle with how to make it happen.

Let's take an example - a kid's birthday party. Just a group of kids and parents getting together over good food and a nice day; it could have been a social event, instead it turned out to be a total dud.


I was there for my daughter, but I knew I might be seeing some other adults and we might have real adult conversations, so I was looking forward to it. It was a beautiful day, the kind where you turn your face to the sun just to feel the warmth.

I arrived at the same time as a bunch of the other parents, put on my smiley-face and shook hands. Hi, nice to meet you, oh, which kid is yours? Oh, right, that one. Uh-huh.

The food was laid out and the kids got to serious playtime. The grown-ups? We just stood around. Ignoring each other. Picking at the guacamole. Sure, there was a little small talk like, "Oh, is that the cheese platter?" and "Is this imported spam?" but not a lot in the way of of real 'getting to know you' conversation.

I walked up to one of the other moms and opened with some simple 'how are you' questions, and commenting on the nice day. Real easy stuff, I thought, but she didn't respond. I thought, "Okay, maybe she's just not in the mood to talk." So I tried again, with one of the grandparents. I asked her "What do you do?' and she glared at me. "Well, I'm in the middle of a big project at work right now....". She told me about her job, but she didn't sound like she liked her job, it was more like, 'well, I have to do SOMETHING so here's what I do..' .

I realized later that by asking her about work I completely fell into one of my known conversation traps. I should never, ever ask what someone does for their job. If they like what they do, they'll bring it up and talk about it without any prompting from me. If they don't it's a conversation killer.


Later that same weekend I was listening to Car Talk on the radio. These guys are funny, and part of their radio personality is to quickly start conversations with people they don't know. Their method is to learn where someone is from, and then ask, "What do you do for fun on a Saturday in (town name)?"

So I decided to try it. The next day, we ran into a family from that same party, having lunch. My husband and I joined them, and I started right in with the Car Talk question, "So, where are you from again? And what do you do for fun on a Saturday afternoon in your town?"

It was amazing! They opened up right away and got very excited to talk about their town, restaurants, playgrounds, life. They were immediately comfortable and chatty. We moved from 'awkward' to 'casual friends hanging out' in a span of 3 minutes.


What I want is for people to talk about things that make them happy, so I can get to know them and how incredible they all are. I think this works because for most people I meet, where they live makes them happy. They have chosen to live where they do. They feel good about it, so they have lots of things to talk about. If they don't like where they live, this is an opener for them to say what they do on a weekend somewhere else. It's an open question with lots of possible answers.


So - what do you do for fun on a Saturday afternoon, in your town? :)


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Academic Empathy - my interview with Carl Gombrich

In December of 2013, Mr. Carl Gombrich wrote an essay, “Academic Empathy; A concept bearing in mind?” I was very excited when I saw this article, here was another person talking about how we can use empathy to make our lives better! In his case, he was talking about how to use it to improve academic thinking and spur growth. I asked him to share his thoughts on empathy with me, so I could then share them with you.

Before I get into the discussion, let me just say it was so much fun to have this talk. Carl was clearly very happy to be talking about his topic - and I was glad to listen. I learned that he is a good friend of Roman Kznaric (whose RSA-animate inspired this blog), and that they also discuss empathy a lot.

Here’s a taste of what we talked about. I hope you’ll find this interesting and perhaps you’ll check out his essay too.

“What inspired you to write it?

Recently, Carl was given the opportunity from the University College London (UCL) to build a new degree, Arts and Sciences. This is a very different type of program for the U.K., because it’s multi-disciplinary.

Here in the U.S. as well as in other countries, our colleges generally require a certain amount of basic learning from many topics. I remember in my undergrad days we had a lot of ‘core’ classes we had to take, and then we were allowed certain ‘electives’ from our chosen field. In the UK, he said, it’s not like that – instead students learn a deep and narrow focus, from professors who teach from within their own worlds. He sees a gap in learning as a result, a lack of perspective that keeps growth limited. He added that not many in the U.K. see the value in a multidisciplinary degree; such programs are not respected.

In the article, Carl talks about how the academic world is split in two, and the scientists and the humanities groups don’t do a good job of talking to each other. For years, these two groups have fought over keeping their disciplines pure, and have made efforts NOT to understand each other. Now, there is a lot of good will for interdisciplinary study; but not much motivation. Carl and his program are trying to change all of that.

“In the UK, for the last 30 years, there’s been a narrowing of fields and an increase in specialization – there’s no interest in leaving your silo", he said. He believes that we need specialists and that they will always have value; but not to the point of being totally divorced from each other.

Carl on communication in the academic world

Carl described people as either ‘includers’ or ‘excluders’. He believes that in our world, “the includers are the ones who will make better politicians, better business people. In the past, it was about winning the battle or the war. More and more people now talk about collaboration and working together. If you want to be an includer; the best way to do that is to have a genuine meeting … some common ground.”

He believes that when an academic speaks from the perspective of their chosen profession – they do so from an emotional place. Once they are in an emotional place, it becomes that much harder to listen to each other. I agree with this – because it really jives with my experience of how people tend to react on any topic they feel strongly about (e.g. politics, religion). If I feel strongly about my position, and I spend lots of my time defending and digging my position in as deep as I possibly can, then it's really hard to see outside of the hole I've dug. I’m essentially building walls up around myself; keeping people and ideas out, keeping growth out and keeping connection out.

I asked, how do you think it helps to have a different definition of Empathy?

Academic Empathy, as Carl defines it, is being interested in what someone else is studying – to pursue a discipline on the other side of a boundary.

The normal definition of empathy is to 'feel-in' to how someone else’s emotions. He believes that” in an intellectual context, it would be helpful to see a method or knowledge from a different perspective.” He said that to really grow in our learning, we must learn to “keep ourselves as open as possible”. Academic empathy is more ‘head’ than ‘heart’; trying to get inside someone else’s ideas, to be more productive with our own.

He clarified to me that his program was about pushing on boundaries to everyone’s benefit. He believes that in our new global culture, we need programs like this to break those boundaries. He’s hoping that discussions like these will help people to stop all the fighting, and to start really participating in each other’s fields.

On pushing outside of your comfort zone

I said, “I was thinking the other day that if I’m doing something, and I’m uncomfortable, I know I’m doing something right.” He said,"Well, that can go too far. There is a tendency today to look for bad things on the internet – to experience un-comfortableness for its own sake. For example, if a kid is growing up, he may have a peer who says, “You can't judge me for taking drugs, without taking drugs yourself”, and you have to draw the line. To be empathetic you may have to experience things you don’t want to, but there may be a limit to how valuable such experiences can be.”

How do you think the teacher-student relationships can benefit from empathy?

“It's really important; essential (as part of the knowledge revolution) for undergraduates to have empathy for professors. There's no professor who knows as much as the internet, and the internet can contradict the professor in the middle of a lecture. It automatically flattens the hierarchy. Students need to be aware of the affect; they need to understand (be empathetic) to the teacher."

He went on to say that when students think of their teacher as an all-knowing authority figure (like a parent or a priest) then the system really won't work anymore. Because of the global knowledge of the internet, we're all aware of how fallible we are as people. When you realize that your teacher (your parent) is a person who makes mistakes; you can lose respect for your teacher. It would be better if we all had empathy for each other - and had mutual respect from the beginning. A true collaboration across generations may be possible.

In his ideal mind - students would do their own research and come up with their own ideas, rather than listening to an hour of a professor telling them 'how the world is'. 


Talking with Carl I'm even more convinced that most people's lives can benefit from thinking about how to bring a little empathy. What do you think?


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

When it's time to change... (sha na na na-na na na na na na, sha na na na na!)

I'm trying to inspire myself to change. To reach out to people more, to connect more. I believe that little changes are easier than big ones.


The other day I had to make a small change in my attitude. I saw this wonderful story about a teacher, who was reaching out and trying to help her students. I was happy to read the story, but instead of talking about her efforts in glowing praise I discounted it. I didn't realize the mistake until my dear close friend pointed it out to me. It hurt, being told I did something wrong, but I listened.

My mistake was taking her story and picking it apart; only seeing the bad and not seeing the good. This is something that I see on the internet so often - a person tries to do something good and the internet masses gather up to shout them down. I was doing the exact same thing. This teacher was so clearly doing exactly the kind of reaching out that I hope for, and I should be encouraging that! I heard and got the message. I need to change.

Here was a teacher who made a little change in the way she did her job. It was only one thing, and I believe it made a big difference in the lives of the people around her.

What kind of little change can you make in your life, that will impact others in a little way?

We don't all have to be Mother Theresa. But I believe that we do all have to push just a little outside of our comfort zone to help each other. Just a little bit.