by Max Sirak
(Look…er…Listen! It's a free audio version for all you on-the-go…)
Conversations are like sex. There's a safe and unsafe way to go about them. Today I'm going to share with you a way to protect yourself against unwanted communicational repercussions. But, before we get there, I'd like to take a moment to pay homage to the lineage of thought which led me to this prophylactic presentation. Ideas evolve. Not always, but sometimes. If a concept is sticky enough, it hangs around, lying in wait, and resurfaces. Each exposure granting more nuance to the original idea until eventually a fresh concept emerges, related and traceable to the first, but individual in its own right.
Which is how conversational contraception was born.
A college professor of mine would yell this, arms waving, at least once each class. Appealing to the broke nature of students, due to soaring expenses of tuition, Professor Terrill was very passionate (and demonstrative) in his attempts to steer us. Energy and enthusiasm aside, it never worked. At least not on my friends and me. We were too immersed in the other "recreational" options collegiate life had to offer. So it goes.
But that doesn't diminish the impact Prof. Terrill and his class had on me. Even now, 16 years after I was but one anonymous face in the tessellated sea of his lecture hall, I find myself thinking about ideas he taught. They were so foreign and new.
See, "C205" was the weed-out class for Communications and Culture. Each major had one. These classes were the thresh each department used to separate the wheat from the chaff. Usually positioned in the second year coursework, they were designed to make students contemplate The Clash's age old question – "Should I stay or should I go?"
For us Com/Cul's (which no one ever called us…), this amounted to a semester of a pair of 90-minute lectures, combined with lengthy reading assignments, and culminating in a single-page, double-spaced paper each week. The binary star, around which C205 orbited, was a study of two opposing philosophies of language.
Looking At vs. Looking Through
One side argued language was a tool used to transmit reality. The other approached language as a tool used to create reality. Professor Terrill summed up the distinction succinctly. Those who saw language as a means looked through communication. Those who saw language as an end looked at communication. Both stances incorporated underlying assumptions about the world.
Looking through is Newtonian, mechanistic, and scientific. It hinges upon capital-T Truth and capital-R Reality as being objective and definite. Careful inquiry and astute observation allows us to discover Truth and Reality. Then, having done so, precision use of language gives us a transparent way to share what we've learned.
Looking at is more quantum, artistic, and poetic. It takes the opposing view. By acknowledging truth and reality to be lower-case (subjective), it leaves space for both to be invented as well as uncovered. And, the tools used to do excavating and creating, are the words themselves. It's a stance best summarized by Professor Terrill himself: "The words you have and know control the reality you see."
There's also a fundamental belief about the nature of language in each view. Looking through imagines language as neutral and unbiased. Whereas looking at disagrees. It believes language contains inherent bias and therefore can never be neutral.
*PAFT* (That was the sound of sophomore Max's mind being blown.)
Parking Lot Parenting
Zoom ahead 13 years and I'm standing with my mom in a parking lot. We're chatting while my dad finishes his chiropractic appointment. It's September in the mountains, which is to say, it's far nicer outside in the fresh air than inside a waiting room.
She was giving me advice. At the time I was in the middle of some relationship drama, and seeing as she and my father have been married for 41 years, I figured why not tap into some of her wisdom. Here's what she said.
"Max, sometimes women just want to be heard. All we want is to vent and get things off our chests. But you men always have to try and fix things. So then instead of being able to talk and sound things out, you guys constantly tell us what to do, which we hate."
Normative gender assumptions aside, she had a few good points.
1) There's value in putting words to feelings and naming them in self-expression.
2) When someone you care for appears to be suffering and speaks out, there's a tendency to want to help. One form of helping is offering solutions.
3) Unless specifically asked for, and sometimes even then, no one likes being told what to do.
At the time, I don't remember thinking back to the hours I spent in Terrill's class. I didn't recognize the connection between to my mom's point and the lectures on looking at vs. through. Recently, I have.
Two Models of Conversation
"True conversation," writes Thomas Moore in his book, Care Of the Soul, "is an interpenetration of worlds, a genuine intercourse of souls."
Sex is a fitting metaphor. There are two approaches to sex which are analogous to my two approaches, rooted in Terrill's ideas, to conversation. There's also a way to practice conversation to minimize the consequences and risks, just like sex. Let's jump in.
Wham-Bam, Thank You, Ma'am / Solving
Sexually speaking, these folks are the sprinters who like to race toward the finish line. Journey be damned, they want to get where they're going. The act itself is at best, incidental, and at worst, a necessary annoyance to reach their goals.
There is a similar approach in conversation, which I've called Solving. It views the entire function of using words to relate to one another as a technology for the mutual ensolvement of obstacles. It's linear, deterministic, and very nuts-and-bolts.
Solving looks through. It depends on the belief in Truth and Reality and views words as ways for transferring information. My mom would say it's the male-type.
"You say A is bothering you. I give you two possible solutions B and C. Pick one."
Slow Down, You Move Too Fast / Exploring
Conversely, there's an alternative approach to sex that's less achievement oriented. It has far more to do with leisure and prolonged experience than it does a fast finish. People who follow this course appreciate the ecstasy of anticipation and the fun of foreplay.
Likewise, leaving the bedroom, (or kitchen, these are the Slow Down, You Move Too Fast folks after all…) there's a mode of conversation more into meandering than measured results. I've called it Exploring, because, well, that's what it is. It fancies discovery over direction, invention over interrogation, and treats words like watercolors, not winches. All owing its ancestry to looking at.
This would be the feminine style (using my mom's labels). It's the one which includes "blowing off steam," "venting," a desire to be acknowledged, heard, and not told what to do.
Which brings us, finally, to the point…
How To Not Make Things Worse
Practice conversational contraception.
Just like it's important to the health and well-being of you and your partner to use birth control during physical intercourse, it's important to do the same during non-physical intercourse.
(Side note – it's also way easier to do. There're no awkward pauses in action or fumbles with packaging.)
All you have to do is ask your partner a simple question – Are we Solving or Exploring?
Once you know that, it's much easier to not unintentionally escalate the situation ("Or be a guy," as my mom would say).
You'll know up front if the person you're speaking with is looking for answers or simply wants to be heard.
One isn't any better than the other. Solving isn't right and Exploring isn't wrong or vice versa. It's about harmonizing the wants, needs, and intentions of all parties involved to ensure mutual enjoyment.
Just like sex.
Know your partner.
Practice safe conversation.
1) By IT Communications Office – IMG_0589 – Sample Gates HD Version, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62114051
2) By Helge Øverås, http://www.helgeoveras.com/concertphoto.shtml – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1878380
3) By Elmar J. Lordemann (de:User:Jo Atmon) – Own work — photography by Jo Atmon, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1794108
4) By Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 – negatiefstroken zwart/wit, nummer toegang 2.24.01.05, bestanddeelnummer 932-2090 – Nationaal Archief, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20721185