Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Conversation is a Two-Way Street

I have a friend named Danny and he’s a genius. Certifiable. He even passed some test that let him join a geniuses-only club. I have a lot of respect for Danny. He’s an amazing husband and father, and boy is he quick. In conversations, Danny can understand the essence of something so fast when I’m talking that he usually finishes my sentences and gets to the end of our conversation before I even reach the middle. It’s astounding how much he knows and how much he comprehends in so short a time.

That can be a problem. Not his high level of comprehension, but his impatience when I can’t keep up with him. And I’m not the only one. I’m sure he doesn’t mean it, but he can rub people the wrong way because he tends to dismiss people slower than him. There are times when we’re interacting that I end up feeling marginalized. I may not be as quick as him or know as much, but that doesn’t mean I can’t contribute; I’m just not able to get thoughts out as fast as he can.

Recently, I spent a weekend with relatives. One of them, Vicki, is developmentally challenged. That makes her slower than most. At one point, a group of us were in the kitchen. Everyone was more or less paired up talking and I was on the fringes listening to the conversation closest to me.

After a moment, I realized Vicki was standing next to me. She asked a question. I answered her quickly and resumed listening to my other cousins’ conversation. Then she asked another question. Again, I rushed my response without being fully present. A minute later it hit me: when I spend time with Vicki, I’m the one who is quick. And I was doing the same thing to her that my genius friend does to me.

After a moment, I ushered Vicki onto the sofa where I gave her my undivided attention. I got curious with her. I asked how she was feeling. I inquired about work – what she liked and disliked about it. I asked how things were going with her roommate, and which home-staff caretaker she likes best and why. And I listened closely. After a time, we noticed folks in the kitchen were out of their chairs; it was late and time to call it a night.

My conversation with Vicki was filled with insights, opinions and perspectives similar to the ones going on in the other room. They were deep, sometimes emotional and ultimately meaningful. Granted, the dialog was a bit slow, but I felt my cousin came away feeling she’d been heard. For me, our conversation was as rich and satisfying as any – once I placed myself into a mental space that met the person I was talking to where she was.

How often do we enter discussions with a child, teen, co-worker or other adult from a place that truly doesn’t meet the person halfway? Why are we so quick to place the responsibility for ‘keeping up’ on the other person and then blame them for an unsatisfying outcome? Next time you’re in a discussion that feels unproductive, try being more patient and get curious about what the other person thinks. You may find what they have to say is worth the extra time you spend.

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