“We write to taste life twice”

Mark Zuckerberg looks forward to the day when the camera, rather than the text box, will be the main way we share on social networks. What would that mean for the future of words and the experience of writing?

When I read Zuckerberg’s comment, I had already been thinking about how less rich our communication is now that we so rarely write letters to each other anymore. Handwritten letters were on a list of objects and ideas in American Magazine last November that are “teetering on the edge of extinction” (along with cursive handwriting and proper grammar!) I realize that communication consists of a myriad of nonverbal elements, and that a picture is often “worth a thousand words”, but do we value words, especially written words, enough anymore?printed words

In the American Magazine piece, Amy Burroughs writes that letters have been a rich historical source of “information about the way people lived, loved, learned, fought, created, and died…In their own words, in unguarded candor and confidence, letters reveal the day-to-day experience of real individuals.” I know from my own experience that I communicate differently in writing than I do when speaking. I am more likely to say what’s in my heart and to express my emotions, and less likely to worry about sounding “cool.”

When I was a young adult, I moved across the country a couple of times, leaving friends and family behind. In those days shortly before the internet exploded onto the scene, we wrote letters back and forth to stay in touch. Two years ago, when I was moving yet again, I spent some time going through a huge box of those letters that I had saved. The thing that struck me the most was how thoughtful all of my friends were. They spent a considerable amount of time, and care, writing their letters, and it shows. The letters are smart, funny and clever. Many of them are several pages long. Some of them are from younger people I worked with, which touches me now, realizing that I must have had some impact on their lives.

I also have the privilege of being in possession of much older letters, some written by distant family members back in the 1800s, others by parents, grandparents and cousins. The letter that my father-in-law wrote as he shipped out of New York harbor on his way to fight in Europe during World War II is especially poignant. He reflects on his entire life as he departs, not knowing when he will see his family again. More quotidian are the letters from my mother-in-law to her mother while she was living in Toronto and expecting her first child (my husband). They detail her struggles with making friends, her shopping and decorating of their apartment, and of course her pregnancy, including the choice of baby names.

jrcletterThe letters are a way for me to know people I never met, or to know the younger selves of people I only knew when they were older. The letters sometimes reflect an optimism that was missing later in their lives. Often the change from optimism to discouragement is recorded in the letters, as with the relative who between the 1830s and 1840s lost 11 of 12 children, divorced his wife, and thought his brother had forgotten him. I’m fascinated by these people, and I wonder if my children and grandchildren might feel the same if they ever come across my old letters and my younger self.

The thing is – I have a lot of old photos too – pictures that might be posted on Facebook if they were taken today. But they only tell me so much. Sometimes I don’t even know the names of the people in the photos, or when exactly they were taken. That wouldn’t be a problem with Facebook tags, but still…what was going on when the photos were taken? What was in their minds, their hearts? We just won’t know without the words to go with them.

People want very much to be heard, not just seen, by others. They want to tell their stories. When Burroughs speaks about the “unguarded candor and confidence” of letter writers, it’s the desire to be heard and known, a desire for intimate retelling, that inspires it. Or as Anais Nin said, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”

 

 

 

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Tell me your story

Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes isn’t easy. A mile might seem awfully long if the shoes are too big, too small, not your style, or have holes in them. But the ability to slip into the shoes, the skin, or the story of another person is how we practice empathy and become better communicators.

In a program on clinical empathy at Duke University, oncologists are taught to “Never respond to a feeling with a fact.”  When people are in distress, their ability to listen (and hear what is being said) is compromised. They just want their emotions – fear, sadness, confusion, anger – to be acknowledged. Ideally, the person on the other side of the conversation is adept at recognizing emotions and responding appropriately.

Howard Wainer has written that, “It is absolutely crucial to try to determine what information the receiver needs to hear and not let that be overwhelmed by other things that you may want to tell her…the core of effective communication is empathy.” One Duke-trained doctor asks himself before such encounters, “What is needed here?” The answer is not always facts or solutions.

photoOn my computer monitor, I have a sticky note that says FAVE. It’s left over from a communication workshop I took. The acronym stands for “First Acknowledge, Validate, Empathize”. This is especially helpful to practice when you have a difficult or emotionally charged conversation to handle. Even if you don’t agree with someone, it’s important to listen first and acknowledge what you have heard by paraphrasing or repeating back the speaker’s words. Then validate that their feelings are grounded in a solid premise, that they are entitled to have them. Finally, empathize, let the person know that you can identify with those feelings, either because you have felt them yourself, or you imagine you could.

We all know how frustrating it can be to call a customer service number for product support. But even those interactions, where customers and agents inherently have conflicting needs, can often be improved by the use of empathy work. Researchers who studied employees at a telephone call center found that three types of skills – attentive, affective and cognitive – made the difference. The attentive skills were focused on active listening: repeating back, acknowledging, asking for more information and summarizing what was said. The affective skills dealt with being able to recognize customers’ feelings and identifying with them. The cognitive steps came last – taking the customer’s perspective, trying to provide help, and offering options. The most important part of the interaction was the attentive, being able to listen well enough to know what was needed. Sometimes people don’t want to hear, “I’m sorry”, they just want you to solve the problem. Other times, the apology is very much necessary. Attentiveness is key – “what is needed here?”IMG_2325

Have you ever heard, “You just don’t understand!” from someone you love? It hurts, because relationships matter and understanding is their foundation. Essentially, what each of us really wants is to have our story matter, to be heard, to be understood, to have someone else feel what we feel. Novelist Sue Monk Kidd has written, “Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have, and it’s accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify, to plunge ourselves in a story where we see the world from the bottom up or through another’s eyes or heart.”

Taking the plunge is the challenge for us. Diving into someone’s story, looking out through their eyes, walking in their shoes. Asking, “What is needed here?”

Lucky in love

What is the essence of a strong, fulfilling relationship? Experts agree that it should make you feel happy and loved, safe and secure, respected, and respectful. It’s one where you can be yourself, or as Erich Fromm said, you unite “with another while still remaining an individual.”holding_hands1

My husband and I are celebrating our anniversary this week, and it makes me reflect on why our marriage has lasted as long as it has. How much was luck, and how much hard work?

Since 2004, the Cornell Legacy Project has been collecting “practical advice” from a large group of people over 70. They’re asked for their counsel on different aspects of life, such as raising children, living through wars, and dealing with loss.  When they were asked about what makes a successful marriage, the top responses were:

  1. Marry someone who is like you in their core values, and don’t think you can change them after marriage.
  2. Friendship is as important as romantic love in lifelong relationships.
  3. Don’t keep score. Marriage isn’t always a 50-50 proposition. The key to success is that both partners try to give more than they take.
  4. Talk to each other.
  5. Don’t just commit to your partner; commit to marriage itself and take it seriously.

The first two tips are about choosing your partner. Marrying someone who shares your values and can be your best friend allows you to take the leap of faith that true intimacy requires. The word intimacy comes from the Latin word meaning “within”, and that willingness to let someone else inside our hearts requires trust. That’s the first building block.

Intimacy is important, but it’s not enough. That’s why I think #5 – commitment — comes next. There has to be a sense of mutual obligation – we’re in this together and we both have to make it work. Both people have to set the intention that they are going to make the relationship a priority.

But once the choice is made and the intention is set, sustaining any relationship over the long term requires attention and effort. It has to be cultivated like a garden so that it thrives. I agree with the advice that marriage isn’t always 50-50. At any given time, someone is going to be giving more than the other, and there are times when you have to make an effort even when you don’t have the energy for it. You just hope that it balances out in the end, that you feel as if the relationship has enriched your life well beyond what you’ve put into it.wildflowers 3

Communication is the other vital element. The elders say “talk to each other”, but I would suggest learning to listen more than you talk. Listen to understand instead of listening just to reply. Listen with empathy. Don’t react quickly, but respond thoughtfully. Apply mindfulness practices to your relationship.

Ultimately, the support that comes from strong relationships is a powerful component of staying healthy, both physically and mentally. Having someone to confide in, to touch, and to provide companionship leads to a better, longer life. It has certainly made my life richer and more meaningful. So has my marriage required hard work? Definitely. But at the same time, I feel really lucky.

Words: Handle with care

Wandering around the Library of Congress last week, my eyes gravitated to a quote high on the wall. It said, “Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words.”   At the time, I didn’t know who had said it (Ralph Waldo Emerson), but it stuck in my head for days.

As I was growing up, I often heard adults say, “Actions speak louder than words.” Emerson seems to be saying that words and actions are equal, that while our actions speak for us, our words have the capacity to sting or caress as surely as if we were using our hands.

This couldn’t be truer than it is today. In this age of digital communication, people tend to throw words around carelessly. With email and texting, we don’t have to worry about wasting paper or ink; we don’t have to take the time to put a letter in an envelope, stamp it and mail it in order to send someone a message. So we don’t think as carefully about the things we say. Words have become a cheap commodity, often chosen without a lot of thought as to their meaning or effect.

If we stop and think about how much of our stress is coming from interactions with other people, we can see that a lot of it is a result of the blunt force of these mindless communications. Emails and texts deprive us of tone of voice, facial expression and body language, so their messages are often misinterpreted. Sometimes offense is taken when none was intended. Speaking face to face is not always better; often people speak at each other rather than to each other. We wait for our turn to speak, rather than listening so that we can respond with understanding.

Headlines are made when celebrities are forced to close their Twitter accounts or politicians are driven from office due to ill-advised words. For the rest of us, the results of miscommunication can be just as painful and devastating: someone doesn’t speak to you anymore, relationships are strained, or business is lost.

How can we practice communicating more clearly, more carefully and more compassionately?

  • Do take the time to be sure that saying something serves a useful purpose. Soren Gordhamer makes the point that sometimes our comments (on-line or in person) are just a form of one-upmanship: “When we are caught in what we may call the judging mind, we continually look for people and actions to criticize. Instead of a critique that seeks to help, we do so to build up our own sense of superiority.”
  • Do pay attention to what others are saying non-verbally, with eye contact, body language and even silences.
  • Do listen reflectively to other people. Repeat or rephrase what they have said to you to be sure you understand it.
  • Don’t communicate difficult messages (like breaking up with someone) via email or text. Give the other person the respect of a face-to-face meeting.
  • Don’t hit the “send” button so quickly, especially if your message is complicated or unwelcome. Wait 10 minutes and read it again to be sure it conveys what you really want the other person to hear.

How would it feel to be on the receiving end of your words? Should that be our standard for better communication? As the Buddha said, “Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.”