“We must care enough to confront or we don’t care enough!” Tim McClendon, Pastor and Potter

I found the above statement in a blog post as I researched mainstream perspectives on direct and open communication. It all began with my last post and my concern about the limitations many of us put on ourselves and others in our own avoidance of discomfort or healing. This particular blog was on Southern passive-aggressive behavior and the classic “bless your heart” avoidance of frankness.

Much like the NY “borough Italian” upbringing of my youth, there is this idea that direct talk is too aggressive–that indirect statements lead to desired results without drama. But, no, this just creates a nervous “what if I misunderstood the cues?” angst–and no one will admit this because that is being too direct and open! The only difference I see between the Southern and Italian-American* way of communicating is that the latter treats it as an art from while the former just thinks its good manners.

The timing is also an issue. The passive aggressive statements are often an ambush. They are not offered with constructive intent or in a time frame that could contribute to a solution.  They are often belated. Snipes scheduled to cut. The recipient cannot easily respond without seeming reactionary or emotional–thus, deserving of the cut.

I find that my blood pressure goes up exponentially and my manners go out the window in the face of passive aggressive behavior. It’s disrespectful in my eyes and I, unfortunately, lose respect for the person. I’ve been told that I am extremely aggressive and hard to approach when someone has a complaint. That comes from people who are not direct talkers. It is from people who hold onto real or imagined slights and wait until I have complaint to bring theirs forward. Why hold on to something? What if I keep doing that over and over because I don’t realize I’m doing it or that it is upsetting? Direct people never stop being direct with me and I tend to understand how to act with them and what their needs are.

McClendon mentions a time that his father just stewed as a woman took liberties photographing pottery in the museum he was running. Instead of putting a stop to it, he let her run rampant then said something to the effect of having her stay for dinner while she’s at it. She accepted–not realizing he was being passive aggressive/sarcastic. Or maybe, being rude to begin with, she had no compunction about saving money by eating with them. He then proceeded, behind her back, after she left, to fume about her.

But, as McClendon pointed out to his father, he invited her! He allowed her to run roughshod over him initially and then accept insincere hospitality. In fact, direct confrontation might have created a different outcome. Perhaps, having just been overly enthusiastic, she would have been embarrassed and polite once she had been confronted–politely. Instead, the only good thing I can find in this is that the passive aggressive behavior backfired and the father did not get any satisfaction from it. The possible middle outcome: She was still a rude person but he stood his ground and cut short her infraction.

Confrontation is not bad in and of itself. It’s making sure that everyone is on the same page. We don’t always know we are being inappropriate or upsetting. We do, however, dislike being told belatedly about trespasses or things that might not have been if direct communication came into play. Passive aggressive saves up ammunition. Respectful confrontation stops problems and prevents patterns.

*I use the term Italian-American because I can’t speak for Italians everywhere in terms of communication. I can say that the kind of “indirect speak” that people witness in The Godfather and The Sopranos (complete with knowing look and pause) is what I grew up with—although with much less dire consequences when misunderstood!

If you’d like to read more from McClendon’s blog: https://wtmcclendon.wordpress.com/2014/10/16/southern-passive-aggressive-behavior/?blogsub=confirmed#blog_subscription-5

What’s Up With Process Analysis?

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The other day, a colleague asked me how I felt about writing procedural documents. Basically, in process analysis, you break down the steps of a procedure so someone can understand and, if desired, repeat the steps and get the same results. The process might be complex and fully coherent only to those trained in an area such as car repair or IT—the discourse community as we call it in academia. Or the steps can be formulated for the average person with no prior experience in the particular process or field. For instance, their process could be to assemble a piece of furniture ordered from a catalog. Either way, once the audience is identified, the steps are presented in accessible, logical language.

While this is not an area of writing that people find fascinating to discuss at social gatherings—they are much more interested in hearing me discuss, albeit briefly, my research and writing on medieval Irish literature—I find it a challenge and one that presses me to really consider how clearly I communicate in other areas. If I can guide a stranger so well and thoroughly that they can replicate the wiring and structure of a large machine (mass manufacturing), or build a chair (standard instruction manual), or successfully assist and satisfy an irate stranger (customer service protocol), I have affected many lives in a positive manner. That’s pretty cool, frankly.

To make this accomplishment even more effective (and satisfying), I need to think about all possibilities that may arise once the user is interacting with my text. That is mostly wondering what might or can go wrong even with the directions in place. For instance, not all customers can be calmed by the same responses or promises. The customer service rep might not be able to assess whether or not they are being worked for a deal or freebie, or if someone has had a bad experience before they got to your line and just have hit their limit of patience. What if the tools needed for handling sensitive materials are no longer readily available to the workers at a factory and your text only addresses what they don’t have? (Think the main office cutting corners in purchasing . . . ) Where can these people turn?

A good mystery writer or a type-A personality (like me) can have a field day with this type of writing! Those of us who spend maybe too much time planning for the many curve balls life might throw can have their cake specially baked and plenty of time to eat it too. So, what may not be a big hit for cocktail conversation (teaching at a University always got more admiration for me) is still definitely satisfying.

With this in mind, I am reminded of the time I met Frank McCourt at a tribute to the author Benedict Keiley who had recently passed away. We had a mutual friend, so we were introduced and began to chat (are you finding me more interesting now?). When he found out I was teaching at Pace University there in the city, he pursed his lips, scowled, shook his head, and said “Now that’s a racket. Everyone thinks your great when you tell them you are a professor! Tell them you are a high-school teacher and . . .” He proceeded to make another face of exasperation. He was not tearing me down. He was expressing the general attitude out there. Of course, pretty much no one knows who I am and he, now sadly deceased, will continue to be one of the most well-known Irish authors of the late 20th and early 21st century. He was a high-school teacher and yet, in that unglamorous role, influenced future writers prior to his own fame and fortune.

It remains to be seen if my time in academia has opened any major paths to my many students. I may not become famous and may no longer be able to impress anyone with my job description, but I may just touch and affect many lives in such a way as to improve their worlds in small but meaningful ways. For a writer, it’s all part of the process.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Without Darkness, How Can We Appreciate the Light?

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A friend recently found out about a family member’s 10-year obsession with her. They had been compulsively collecting and cataloging her failures and perceived cruelties and mistakes. Their intractable and absolute conclusions as to her intentions and actions over this time, and perhaps even earlier, currently exist as highlighted, underlined, and (probably alphabetized) chronological “proof” of her awfulness. A solution or reconciliation did not seem to be the purpose here and my friend began to think this archive was apparently “evidence” for a retaliation of an undisclosed nature. Regardless of how many times my friend tried to address the root of the problem, the relative would not participate in a solution. It seems that to ask for clarification of, or response to, these logged behaviors would make the accuser have to acknowledge their own failures (the root cause of the dilemma is not necessary to the point here, so the personal details will be omitted).

In this mind-numbing set of circumstances, my friend found herself stilled and bereft of creativity and confidence. She had become very self conscious and nervous after this revelation. If this person were so obsessed with her weaknesses, real or perceived, how would she fare under the scrutiny of others who are not obligated by blood or kinship to be kind or compassionate? After all, even informed and logical life choices she had made had been twisted out of context. How could she guide reality? This worry affected her writing. Her opinions were tepid. Ambition, rather moderate. It took some time before she would even practice yoga in our group! Her sadness would not dissipate; but, she did brave asking me what she should think of all of this. Was she really what this person claimed?

The only thing I could say with certainty is that the need to believe in and, thus, prove the worst is simply just that–a need–rather than a reality or truth. Like other forms of interpretation, what may look to be absolute may have more meaning if one educates oneself beyond the surface “evidence.” If one refuses to question or confront something, any reality can become terrible and impossible to participate in or change. This participation in reality takes strength and courage, not the hoarding of pain and blame. The family member was without the ability to understand or care about this.

After this discussion, she disappeared into herself for a while. Then, after about two months, she reached out. She told me that, after a time, all the obsession about the betrayal began to feed a different energy. She became more analytical about the whole thing. Rather objective. She couldn’t really explain her internal process, but she could offer some solace or help to those in similar situations or difficult circumstances by sharing her experience as a kind of allegory for questioning the self. With calm meditation and reflection, it became evident that her antagonist was quite the narcissist, less focused on revenge than self validation in relation to my friend’s abilities, and accomplishments. The antagonist did not want to acknowledge their own faults. Their lacking was easier to ignore or deny if someone else was to blame for their own life choices or their inability to make wise ones. The accuser stopped being a nemesis holding a “loaded “pile of paperwork “aimed” at her and threatening her very permission to exist as a faulted individual. Her identity could no longer be reworked and scripted through a curated installment of electronic and print missives. For my friend, there was a kind of “dark night of the soul” before her inner light and common sense could regain their rightful place in her consciousness. But that light did illuminate reality and offer the comfort she needed.

My friend’s succumbing to fear and insecurity had been part of the person’s goal; but, she found that hiding and cringing took  more energy than finding relief.  The obsession should remain with the obsessed and not participated in or subscribed to. Through engagement with discomfort and fear came reassurance and affirmation.

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The key here is that her “soul” or inner spirit endured and expelled the darkness. She maintained a sense of self that even a long and highlighted list of ill-informed accusations or misinterpreted scenarios could not eradicate.

We cannot control the results of, or reactions to, our actions, intended or unintended. There really is no outside environment that is worthy of arresting our right to create, grow, learn, and teach. What we can do is move forward and learn to identify what is true and renounce what is false. Then we should, if possible, not walk away but use the experiences to inform our next, productive moves.

What “dark night” can you turn into fodder for creative growth?