A couple of days ago I was talking to my granddaughter about her philosophy exams. She had three essay questions to answer and she was trying to avoid the circular arguments that her professor had used in the classroom. As a writer and wordsmith, I always go back to definitions. It seems to me that unless we define our terms we allow others to assume our meaning by applying their own definitions. I’m not sure how much help I was to my granddaughter, but it got me to thinking about how words are defining our reactions and our demeanor these days.
Several days later I attended a virtual writer’s conference where one of the presenters used the term “guiding words.” That intrigued me. Were guiding words defining words? The presenter asked, “What are your guiding words that keep you on track or get you on track in your writing?” I was further intrigued. Unfortunately, the presenter did not give any examples, which I waited for with baited breath. Or perhaps, my attention span collapsed in on itself as I reflected on the term.
I am convinced that we need both. There should be words in our self-talk that get us back on track and we should define our terms to eliminate misunderstandings. How different would our world be if every individual took the time to understand exactly what the other person meant when their words fill the space between our ears? And how would it advance our beloved community if we were able to use words to stay on track with the positive? Would it help us to avoid those pesky circular arguments?
This morning I received a phone message from one of my grandson’s teachers. She expressed her desire to help him achieve higher grades through tutoring and working together with us as a family. I called him in to my room to listen to the message. Immediately, he became defensive. He started to tell me how he was trying, how he had talked with her, how he was doing his best to catch up and do better. He was not listening to her words at all. He assumed she called to reprimand his efforts. After several tries, I finally got him to be quiet and listen to her words. Interestingly, I heard someone going out of their way to help and support, but he heard someone on the attack with criticism and disapproval. How wish one of his guiding words had been “listen.”
Listen is one of my guiding words. I define listening as engaging my eyes, ears, and mind with the words that are being conveyed. Some call this Active Listening. I am not trying to think about what I want to say, I am not assuming I know what they are trying to say, I am waiting quietly to hear what they are saying. It is my intent to be present with the words that are being spoken in the moment rather than past conversations or interactions with the person. I try to block out all other stimuli so that I can concentrate on the words being spoken to me. Sometimes this requires me to ask that they repeat themselves. Sometimes I must ask for the meaning of the words they are using. I am concentrating on their words.
Another guiding word for me is “wait.” I practice waiting by taking a reflective breath. If you take a breath before you reply or react, it may be just the amount of time you need to turn a negative into a positive. Waiting means I don’t speak until they are finished. Waiting means I allow the other person to take a breath; perhaps reconsider their words, or define their terms. Waiting means I am not so rushed that communication fails. Sometimes this guiding word, “wait,” allows me to walk away with a promise to give it some thought before I respond. That helps me to get my emotional response under control whatever it may be and to consider what they person has said more thoroughly.
In our socio-political environment, many of us need to define the word “communication,” As I often tell my students, “Just because you are talking doesn’t mean you are communicating.” People are talking nonstop, but what are they saying and who are they saying it to. People are feeling rage, anger, gladness, relief, sorrow, and all sorts of emotions based on things they have heard on the news and other media. The noise in our ears is like the circular arguments of philosophy – it triggers reactions without any real understanding. The terms have not been defined and we are not asking enough open-ended questions to get real answers. Everyone has an opinion, but is it an opinion that really counts. Communication is an exchange. It is a transfer of information from one person to another. Communication in all its forms (talking, writing, reading, listening) is the act of giving, receiving, and sharing information while respecting a different of opinions. We should be able to share our feelings, thoughts, experiences, ideas, and suggestions in a civilized forum, as well as convey good feedback. The goal is to be able to utilize the best forms of knowledge and wisdom available to us. This is true in a general sense as well as in specific instances.
Defining my guiding words is something I plan to pursue in my daily life. As a writer, communication is critical, even more so as a member of the the beloved community. After all, Benelog (the good word ) is my moniker. Perhaps we can achieve more satisfaction in our relationships and our civic community if we define and use these guiding words: humanity, empathy, compassion, charity, neighborly, citizen, courtesy, unity, peace, safety, gratitude, and love.
What are your guiding words? How do you define them? I’d love to hear from you. Thank you for listening to me by reading my words. Continue to stay safe and sane. Share a good word.