A little musing on “Crucial Conversations”

I’m reading a book that I was introduced to during my 40-hour mediation training in late-January. The book addresses some very important aspects of conversation that have been haunting me for near 6 years. It has always fascinated me that human beings are gifted with the ability to speak, yet we almost are never able to have a conversation that yields useful results. That may sound ridiculous to you being that you have conversations everyday … but think about the last time you had a serious conversation with anyone and tell me whether you came away from it feeling completely satisfied or whether there was this slight to urgent feeling of not quite having addressed everything in one sitting. If you can tell me “Sure I came away satisfied!”, then let’s talk. There is clearly something you’re doing right and I want to know what it is.

It shouldn’t be surprising to me that I ended up in the fields of communication and conflict resolution (if even on a volunteer basis). There are aspects of communication that have always been of concern for me. Even if I had a peripheral interest before, after moving here to the US that interest has grown into the forefront of my thoughts. And most specifically on how conversation happens around “race” which is a topic I never had occasion or need to discuss before moving to this country. “Race” is a gargantuan issue in the US – in spite of what people might tell you, the issue of how people who look different is a central and underlying aspect of every single interaction. Many of you will disagree and many more will nod and say to themselves “Amen sister!”. To those who disagree, here’s a thought: if even one person in a room think it’s too cold in that room, then there is a conversation to be had around temperature; if even just to acknowledge that Yes, they are less tolerable of cooler temperatures than anyone else in the room.

So anyway – back to that book I started talking about … it’s called “Crucial Conversations” and in short, it takes us on a journey through conversations that have a tendency to turn bad quickly and without notice just based on the fact that each participant has high stakes on the outcome of that conversation. And when we say “high stakes” we just mean that each participant wants to be heard and understood, each participant feels their point or points are integral to the progression of said conversation on race, or that without their perspective there is no conversation to be had. Right or wrong, everyone has the right to be heard and this book helps us understand how we can keep those high stakes conversations moving forward without rage and recriminations that inevitably derail the whole effort.

I can’t wait to finish it. I wish I was less distracted by other pursuits (cough World of Warcraft cough) such as the job search and whatnot … but I’ll get there – I know I will; I have to because it will certainly help me become a better mediator.

Because oh yeah – that is still a thing. I am working on my exam (well, sort of – haven’t touched it in a week or two because distractions and illness) and I am hoping to start on my practicum real soon. More on that later … in the meantime I heartily recommend that if you find yourself in discussions that turn ugly real fast over key issue, “Crucial Conversations” is an important book to have read. Trust me; go get it and read it.


Curious ways in which we use language

I am fascinated by the manner in which language meanings drift and change hue over time. The intellectuals among you might know this because you have often argued with people over the meaning of a word that has had its meaning change with the generations. My father and I often had discussions where he would tease me about how my generation described something utterly fabulous as “wicked“. It’s not a new phenomenon. It’s happened with just about every generation since we started forming words to communicate with one another.

This morning, one phrase kept gnawing at me because it seems a rather innocuous phrase but is said with such disdain that I had to google the term. “American exceptionalism” is a term that is used quite derisively these days. According to Wikipedia, the term started out very positively. It was used to describe the attitudes and approaches of the new nation of the United States – particularly in the early 1920s – and encompassed the concepts of “liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, democracy, and laissez-faire”. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that there are several contradictory terms in that summation. Can one be egalitarian and still hold to the tenets of individualism? But that is a side issue and not the one I am attempting to make here.

Wikipedia goes on to say that the term has become, in the late 20th and 21st century, far more derisive and used to describe the “neoconservatism” that began to rise in that period. That it now is used to describe the notion that is “less concerned with justifying American uniqueness than with asserting its immunity to international law”.

Overall, the whole thing reminds me of something my mother drilled into me (and still preaches about even today). “Everything in moderation” she always said. And she said it a lot. It seems to me based on the descriptions that in the beginning it was a positive reinforcement and support mechanism but that it was taken so far that it became an emblem of superiority. Of course, that’s my interpretation. I am sure the term means many things to many different people.

The point is, though, that a significant part of communication well with each other is the conscious recognition that the words we use when we speak have the potential to mean entirely different things to different people. Thus, the interpretation of our words is largely coloured based on their own perspectives and world-view. There really is no black and white. It is all shades of grey.

Where have I heard that before …

Just a thought or two today …

I really need to start blogging again regularly. You never realise just how much you’re slacking until you make one post you really want people to see and comment on and no one does. And you realise that part of the reason is because you haven’t blogged in so long that everyone who used to stop by have just stopped because you’ve stopped writing.

Yes – I was particularly proud of yesterday’s post because it signalled to me the return of what I thought to have been my completely stagnated creativity. A couple of people have said to me that that is what school does. It stifles creativity. One person went as far as to explain that school forces you to think in one way, and when you’re used to thinking in one or several other ways, it serves to stifle the voice you once had. I want to believe it … it would explain why I’ve felt like an empty bucket for the last year or two.

Anyway … one of the thoughts I had this morning is how utterly alone I am in this country because no one I know seems to have any grasp on how things actually work in this country. People just tend to believe what they hear without question. It angers me. I want to have a drove of people I can turn to and ask “Hey … this seems this way to me. Is that how it really works?” Back home, there were several sage individuals amongst the masses to whom I could turn and ask that question. It was mostly as a result of having grown up there and made friends of friends and friends of parents over the years, gathering a community of expertise and skills and talents into my extended family. I haven’t had that kind of opportunity here.

Another thought I had upon awakening is how much the military community is lacking for people who are really in need. Oh yes your neighbour is a good person to call on if you want to talk or share recipes. But when you’re sick and you don’t want to ask strangers for help, would rather ask close friends to help because of the sensitivity of the situation, you are completely and utterly fucked. Military service? It’s isolating. It isn’t as welcoming and tight knit as they want it to be. It can’t be. There are far too many differing personalities and world-views coming together in one place to give the sense of security and family most of have grown accustomed to over the course of our lives.

And even more especially for those of us from the Caribbean with an immensely strong sense of community.

On a positive note, some of you may not have heard this yet: last week I completed the 40-hour professional mediation training. :) Not yet a professional mediator; that takes practice and after I am done with an exam, I will enter into the practicum to become certified. But that training is a milestone – one I have been looking forward to for almost a year. :) So congratulations to me!

What abuse looks like

I was awakened violently out of sleep very early this morning. I’d say around 4 or 5am? Why? I was dreaming of a woman married to a rich man, who had produced a baby girl for him but was subsequently ignored and sidelined by him. It was one of my vivid dreams in which I was actually in the dream, feeling, seeing, hearing, experiencing. Visceral is a nice word for this kind of dreaming … the word visceral echoes in my lower abdomen and really prompts the feels … if you know what I mean. Still, in this dream, this woman makes the decision to leave this man and take with her the clothes on her back, the money in her purse, and an old car he had once purchased for her. His response was to hire the most popular and competent lawyer in Jamaica he could find (of course it had to be a Jamaican scene – what else would it be?), which ironically turns out to be a woman (go figure!) to wring every last penny she has out of her and essentially leave her and his daughter with nothing. The dream ends abruptly as the community begins to rally around her, volunteer lawyers and counsellors in droves, with offers of beds and flats incoming by the millions. Because … that’s obviously wrong of him. Isn’t it? The real irony is that this happens all the time. We don’t see it because the women are not physically hurt, and a lot of them are stoic in their suffering. But do we really know what abuse looks like? And can we really stand in judgement over those it hurts?

This is the resulting poem that I literally vomited out as a result of that dream:

Abuse is subtle in the ways it crushes us
It lurks in the details
Abuse is not always a bruise or an unkind word
Abuse can sit in the shadows
Quietly breaking foundations
Abuse is when a man tells a woman her worries and concerns are less than his
Abuse is when a woman expects her man to stand up beside and for her
But instead he stands in front of and on top of her
Abuse is neglect
It is being ignored
Is it being valued less than others
It never looks the same
When you look directly at it
It shifts and curdles in the darkness
Abuse is silent, deadly, and very often hidden
If you’re on the outside looking in
Don’t pretend you know
Hold out your hand
And lift them up and out
Not help keep them down
Listen, don’t speak.
Abuse withers when confronted
And signals powerful allies with wealth
And violence with poverty
Just because you can see sometimes
Doesn’t make it always visible
It is the in the subtle ways we claim ownership of others bodies or time
And the excuses we make as a result.

It is the end of an era … at last.

Well folks … yesterday evening at 10:59pm Pacific time marked the end of an era for me. I have been toiling somewhat laboriously on a Bachelor’s degree in Intercultural Communication for the last 3 or so years of my life … and that is now over and done. For some of you, you will realise just how much of an accomplishment this is because I have started and stopped a degree in one form or another several times in my adult life. I finally found the right set of circumstances that allowed me to stick with it and finish it. I am done.

Of course, I still have to get my final grade and clear financial issues before I am granted that piece of paper, but for all intents and purposes, I am done. I don’t anticipate that my final grade will be a failing one unless I totally screwed up that last paper … and frankly even if I did screw it up badly, I see a “C” grade at worst anyway which is still a pass. For the record, I received a “C” grade only once in these last 3 years.

Which sort of reminds me of something my 4th form (or grade 15?) teacher once told me: “you’ll always be a B grade student, Camille, unless you apply yourself a little more”. It seems she had wisdom beyond her years … or she “put har goat mout’ pan mi” – depending on how you choose to see it. I am a little lazy when it comes to studying … although I suspect that psychologists might say it’s less about my willingness to learn and more about the way in which I learn. Intriguing idea, actually. I learn best when I listen and do, not read – and reading was half of the work on this degree; the other half was being one of only two active people in a team the whole course through. My husband jokingly says my degree is a piece of paper certifying that I am a team player who can and will carry a team.

But now is not the time to bitch about the structure or format of this program. Now is the time to drink alcohol, sing, and be merry about never having to go back into another accelerated 5 week class with a bunch of lazy teammates ever again. I am done and in a couple of weeks, I will have paper to prove it.

Next step, you ask? I dunno. I have this lofty idea that I want to do a Master’s in Psychology. My inner child is in turn both laughing and cringing at that idea. We’ll see. For now, it’s all about revelling in the freedom from classes, finding a job (I can stomach), and just being relieved at finally being done. Whether this degree means anything for the job search remains to be seen.

More anon.

Medicine isn’t as precise as you thought it was

I never really thought about how imprecise medicine is as a profession until this week. Last week Friday, I went in for a routine laparoscopy with a goal to ease my endometriosis symptoms considerably. We surmised that we would find endometriosis based on symptoms and history. It sounds like we were right (“sounds” because I haven’t seen the doc for the followup visit yet, so not 100% sure what he found).

The imprecise aspect, though, is that this is my second of such surgeries (the first was 4 years ago) but this one leaves me in far less pain than the first one did.  When I think about it, I realise that the first one used lasers to burn the tissue. Thinking in retrospect and logically, that would hurt more. Still, I was so anxious with dread in anticipation of the pain that I was quite useless. Not that you’d know since, in true INTJ form, I let no one know just how anxious I was.  But I digress …

That alone isn’t why I say it’s imprecise. And in fact there are several aspects of this surgery that make me think that. This time around I didn’t get antibiotics to go home with (I don’t know if they gave me a large dose before I left the hospital or not) and they gave me simple Naproxen to manage the pain – nothing too high-powered. Well, not quite true – they gave me Percocet, but only if the pain kept me awake or was too unbearable even with the Naproxen.

On top of that, when I think about how in times past, with my level of pain pre-surgery for as long as I have had it, the procedure I would have undergone was more hysterectomy than laparoscopy. The level of understanding of the conditions affecting women’s reproductive systems and the fatality numbers was just too overwhelming. It was just better to take it all out and reduce the overall risk. As it is, I still have all my reproductive organs – which is a fairly big deal considering.

Incidentally, I gave them permission to take as much as they wanted to for further study of the disease. Honestly, I want women some time in the future to be able to avoid this crap in the first place. Two surgeries for the same diagnosis, two different kinds of after-care and pain levels … and only 4 years apart. Still, what I now know (based on discussions with my doctor within the last few months) compared against what I have learned over the years prior is eons apart. And this is at the foundation of the reason for my post.

What we have learned about endometriosis is stunning in its entirety … yet there are still very few doctors who have access to that body of knowledge. My doctor of 4 years ago in Texas was supposedly the best around – yet he didn’t know much about endo. At least not enough to educate me sufficiently. (Course, chances are that was less about the extent of his knowledge and maybe more about his ability and/or willingness to impart that knowledge to me.)

This doctor here in Washington said one thing that made the whole thing finally make sense to me. He said, “The uterus has 3 openings”.  We don’t think of it that way – we think of it as having only the one opening. The tubes, however, are wide open and give almost complete, unfettered access to the abdominal region; hence the “leakage” of fluid from the uterus into the abdomen. And thus begins the nightmare that is endometriosis. The biggest piece of information I got, though, was that while ALL women have this backwash backflow thing going on, in actuality only a small subset of those women experience the kind of scarring that causes the symptoms I have been living with for decades.

My luck.

Still, it is overwhelmingly reassuring to know that there is information now available to doctors to help me and other women like me. It might take some time for your friendly neighbourhood General Practitioner to get access to that info, but the info is there. And if you are like me, you will ask and ask and ask until someone answers you satisfactorily.

How Stereotypes hurt us, from a personal perspective

If you’re like me, in any of the smallest of ways, you’ve chafed at the bit that is stereotypical roles for all your life. I struggled long and hard as a child with statements such as “you should focus on behaving like a lady” and “but you should wear (read:like) pink; pink is for girls” and “frills are just so pretty, I don’t know why you don’t like them – you’re a girl” and “but patent shoes are so formal and show class”.

Embarrassingly, I thought long and hard (obsessively in some instances) about things like why boys stand up to urinate and why girls must sit. I will even admit to experimenting a little with the reversal of that concept. We won’t get into the details… let’s just say the results were hilarious in retrospect, if humiliating at the time. Chalk it up to youthful ignorance of human anatomy. When I learned more about how our bodies are built, I heard the gong go off in my head on the why of that particular fact. Some of our “norms” are as a result of biology – case in point. A ton others, though, are not. Like how long we keep our hair or what colours we wear. Those things are dictated by society, not biology.

Something someone very dear to me said to me recently got me thinking. There are so many ways in which we produce cookie-cutter children and we are not even remotely aware of those ways. Why? Because it is what we were taught growing up (much in the same way I was), and we saw how it went for those who were socialised in ways other than the “norms” of society. Shunned, ridiculed, abused, discarded. Better to be “normal”, isn’t it?

But I have to ask you this: how does that feel, that “normal”? Does it feel comfy to be in your “normal” skin? And just for a second, I want to ask you to set aside that “but I wouldn’t fit in” feeling and really think about how it feels to be “normal”.

And here’s the thing: some of you will tell me it feels perfectly fine. That’s the thing about stereotypes. They actually do fit some people. The hurtful part is when it doesn’t. We can’t all be the same. And we shouldn’t have to be. I am firm advocate for allowing people to grow into the kind of people they want to be instead of the kind of people society says they should be. And the way to do that is to stop insisting that they stick to the “norms” that society dictates. A 3 year old boy can most definitely have long hair and wear pink if he wants to. Objections to either of those are society talking, not biology. We have to remember that.

I applaud the trashing of gender stereotypes because I have never been comfortable with the “typical girl” one at all. And I think it hurt me far more than it needed to be forced into pink frilly dresses and socks with patent leather shoes and bows in my hair. It hurt because I was uncomfortable and we often associate discomfort with other items. For example, church became a consistently bad thing growing up because it was when Mom forced me into pink, frilly dresses and socks with patent leather shoes. That’s harmful – no matter what you think of church and religion. A child’s recollection of church should not be as a result of how he or she was dressed.

Do me a favour – please. The next time you think “Oh but that’s not very masculine/feminine” stop for a moment and ask yourself whether whatever it is you are criticising is a biological dictate (like urinating standing up), or societal (long hair and pink for a boy). And if it is societal, acknowledge that the reasons why you want to change them is not because it’s wrong, but because you are concerned about them being shunned, ridiculed, abused, discarded. Then allow them to experiment and choose and hope they realise that society can be unforgiving on their own before it is too late. Perhaps, like me, they’ll realise that to be vastly different is to draw unwanted attention to their lives. Or perhaps they’ll say “to hell with it – I will be who I want to be” and chart the course for new lands.

Remember, some of our most loved heroes and creative geniuses were far from “normal”. Maybe that is what it takes to succeed – the courage (or crazy) to challenge the status quo. Maybe that’s what we need to change the world we live in. Allow those harmful stereotypes to die the miserable, lonely death they deserve.