Defining Guiding Words

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.

4 Essential Keys to Effective Communication in Love, Life, Work–Anywhere! is an excellent ‘How-To Guide’ teaching some of the basics for practicing the key skills that will help you identify and overcome communication barriers and achieve relationship success with the important people in your life. Amazon

True Engagement

Have you ever had someone ask you a question and never give you a chance to answer; they continue talking as if the answer wasn’t relevant or as if they already knew the answer? How annoying is that? God forbid they actually answer the question for you! This is not a conversation because there is no engagement.

Another example of this lack of engagement is when the questions are closed, requiring a yes, no, or some other monosyllabic reply. These interactions often occur with teens. Questions like, “How was school today,” or “Did you have fun tonight?” The answers are yes, no, alright, or I guess. No real information has been exchanged. No real engagement has taken place. Whether we want to admit it or not, these types of dialogue are useless.

The formula for true dialogue, for true conversation is: open-ended questions + active listening = engagement. As an educator, I could get very academic with this, but that is not my purpose. What I’m after as a person, as a writer, as a blogger, and as an individual in relationship with other individuals, is true engagement, true dialogue, real conversation.

This can only happen if we are truly interested in what others have to say. Their experiences, their worldview, their opinions, must be as valuable to us when we are talking as our’s. That doesn’t mean that we won’t disagree from time to time, but it does mean we understand the basis of someone else’s point of view. After all, conversation by definition is an exchange of thoughts, ideas, and/or feelings between people.

Generally speaking, conversations are the tools we use to build relationships. Dialogue implies interest. Open-ended questions also imply interest. If I want to know what you think, how you feel, what you believe, or what experiences you’ve had with the topic at hand, I will have to ask you. An open-ended question is one that requires a thoughtful reply. (Even is a person lies, they have to think about it first.) The response will not be a single word that does not lend itself to further conversation or understanding.

What have you been doing with your time during the quarantine? What are you doing to maintain your mental health during this time of social distancing? How do you think the economy will bounce back from all the shutdowns? What laws would you like to see instituted to stop police brutality? What experiences have you had with people outside your race? How would you want your grandchildren to respond to racism? These are open-ended questions. These are questions that allow the other person to respond from within their scope of knowledge and understanding. A discussion may develop not only in the moment, but over time.

Having good open-ended questions isn’t enough though. We must also be active listeners. As mentioned above, it does no good to ask questions if we aren’t going to listen to the answers. Active listening requires us to not only hear, but to be attentive. Have you ever had the experience where someone told you something and you walked away thinking, what did they just say? You heard them, but you were not attentive. Maybe you were texting while they were talking, or maybe you were thinking of your to-do list. Worst yet, maybe you were thinking you already knew what they were going to say and simply dismissed it until you realized that’s not what they said at all. Active listening withholds judgement, advice, and preconceived notions. Active listening reflects on what the person is saying and seeks clarification when in doubt of the meaning of what they said. Active listeners can repeat what a person has said to them because they gave that person their full attention.

When active listening is paired with open-ended questions true engagement take place. These communication skills can develop relationships where everyone feels safe to express themselves. More than that, relationships move from the superficial to the authentic relationships we value most. When you value what someone has to say, you begin to value them. (In today’s vernacular, when you know where they are coming from, you know if you can hang with them or not.)

When we are really listening, we don’t interrupt the other person. We don’t argue with them even when we don’t agree. We are able to say, “I know how you feel and what you think, but that’s not how I feel or what I think so we’ll need to come up with a working compromise. (Lord, I wish we were all mature enough to do this.) Of course, this whole conversation is based on the assumption that true engagement is our goal.

True engagement is not only about developing relationships, but about drawing closer in those relationships. Meaningful relationships only occur when conversations move from polite dialogue to significant interpersonal investments. (See Jan. 6 Blog: Personal Investments) Things like empathy, sincerity, interest, mutual respect, commonality, compassion, and camaraderie come out of true engagement.

In these tumultuous times, we need the formula of true engagement more than ever. Through it, we can extend our knowledge and our freedoms as citizens and as individuals who are still in this thing – all these things – together.

Try It! Share it! Do it! Open-ended Questions + Active Listening = True Engagement.

4 Essential Keys to Effective Communication in Love, Life, Work–Anywhere! is an excellent ‘How-To Guide’ for practicing the key skills that will help you identify and overcome communication barriers and achieve relationship success with the important people in your life–your spouse or partner, child or children, parents, siblings, friends, co-workers, customers–everyone!

Personal Investments

These days everyone is either involved in investments or interested in investments because investments offer a certain amount of security for the future. Of course, that depends on the value of your assets, although value is subjective I suppose. That’s why I want to talk about one of greatest commodities today – people. Now if you’ve been following me at all you knew I wasn’t going to talk about micro and macro-economics. Trust me, when you reach the crossroads between life and death your first thoughts will be about the people you love not the portfolio you had. Yes, I said had, because when you die it all goes to your beneficiaries or the state. (Side note: Have your stuff in order so the state doesn’t inherit your fortunes even if you have to give everything to charities.)

Several days ago I walked into a branch of my bank in another neighborhood. As I walked up to the teller he greeted me by name. That threw me off because I had never been in this branch before, and his face wasn’t one that I recognized. He proceeded to ask me if my mom was still with us. I replied in the affirmative so he asked how she was. By then I guess my strained response or more than likely the look on my face told him I was completely puzzled. Finally, he says, “You don’t remember me do you?” “I’m afraid not,” I said, “it’s the plague of getting old,” I smiled. He told me his name and the name of his sister. They had been students in a summer camp I used to own when they were small children. They came back every summer for three or four years he informed me. He went on to say how he remembered me playing with them and taking them on so many field trips. These were some of his best memories in childhood according to him. “You showed us the world of possibilities.” By this time, I was completely floored, pleased, and completely happy to be the recipient of such praise.

This young man had gone on to college and graduated with a degree in business. He was commercial loan officer at the bank filling in for an absent teller. We looked at pictures of his family and talked a little about the school his children attended. As I left, he said he was going to call his sister right away to tell her about me. Now you tell me, wasn’t that a wonderful payoff for my investment. Time and money well spent. Dividends still paying off for another generation.

This past holiday, I received a handwritten card by snail mail from a women I’ve known for more than 20 years. She lives on the west coast and we only see her every four or five years. I was so surprised to get this card; everyone I know sends greetings by text or social media; they certainly aren’t that personal. I was so touch by what she had written I called her immediately. We talked for more than an hour. It was great to reconnect with a long time friend. One thing she shared with me was her commitment to send personal notes, birthday cards, and greetings for other occasions for her friends and family. She said not only does it make them feel special but it brings her joy to do it. (Sounds like she filling her bucket!) She emphasized how the elderly on her list really enjoyed these handwritten notes because some of them are not techno-savvy. Also many people save these and look at them again and again; each time they experience the love and joy that they received when they first opened them.

Are we to busy to invest in people? Are we so consumed by work or personal entertainment that we don’t have time to actually talk to people? Has technology caused us to forget the personal touch of actual conversation? If we don’t invest in the younger generation why should they invest in us? I know time is also a precious commodity, but what’s the point in having a high volume portfolio if I can’t make time to share my life with others?

How are you personal investments coming along? Parents? Grandchildren? Children Neighbors? Friends? Co-workers? Classmates? Are those relationships growing or depreciating?

I’m beginning to see a great return on my investments. I hope you will too!

All Occasion Greeting Cards