Archives for posts with tag: asking clarifying questions

It’s a funny thing about the squishy bit of flesh so completely encased in the roundish object perched atop my neck – it is powerful. Magical. Vulnerable to deceits of all kinds, most particularly those that source within its own powerful magical self. It is so easy to cast a sort of spell on myself, with nothing more complicated than an assumption or two, a handful of expectations, and a moment taken out of context. I can completely alter my experience, and it seems fairly practical to call it “magic”, since doing so doesn’t actually require anything real at all, and has the potency to change my own experience, and the experience of others. (And actually, reality is sometimes an impediment to our internal narrative.)

I’ve mislead myself any number of times in life with a few assumptions and expectations. I’ve acted on those, or (over)reacted to them, without any clarification, without a complete picture of the circumstances, facts, or any awareness that everything is definitely not all about me, personally, particularly in someone else’s experience. Acting on the made-up shit in my head does not improve my experience, generally, and living alone has been a powerful lesson in the value of testing assumptions, getting clarification on shared plans, setting realistic expectations – and verifying that my understanding of those is shared – and then still just not taking so much day-to-day small shit so personally.

Still, and again. The very best practices work that way.

Still, and again. The very best practices work that way.

Most human primates are pretty thoroughly wrapped up in themselves moment-to-moment, and are not acting with any ill-intent. Our worst most hurtful, most damaging, most vile, actions are often merely cluelessly inconsiderate, or painfully ignorant. It’s harder to take such things personally, when I am aware that this is the case, but in the moment it is sometimes difficult not to react to hurtful bullshit, allowing the squishy bit of flesh wrapped in this shell of bone on top of my neck to work some magic, and find myself living some entirely different experience filled with enemies, confrontation, pain, distress, tension… It is easy to develop bad habits with this magical brain thing, and we become what we practice.

I woke early this morning. I returned to sleep with ease. I slept well and deeply and without any troubling dreams. When I woke, though, my first thought on waking was the peculiar last message from my traveling partner, it seemed distant, even terse, and I hadn’t heard from him during the day, although our original plan had been to spend the entire weekend together. Our plans changed with circumstances, it happens, and I had no heartache over it. Still… I woke very much wondering, at least initially, what was up with… “the chilly tone”…

So… here’s the magic in action…when did “peculiar” shift to “distant, even terse”? How did that morph into a “chilly tone” without having more information than I had when I went to bed last night? Isn’t that… odd? Nope. Not odd at all. It’s “a magic trick”, and my brain in the magician. I am the wide-eyed naive audience member – aware that it is a trick, and still bamboozled. I shrug it off, self-correct, and make coffee; I don’t have any data to support any of those emotional assumptions, and can’t determine that his last message was anything other than two words, sent after I had crashed, seen through bleary eyes when I got up to pee during the night. I had no context, and no reason to make assumptions about intent, content, or meaning, and every good reason to assume – based on prior confirmation, and tested assumptions – that indeed, I am loved, and that no ill will, terseness, distance, or chilly tone existed at all. Why would it?

Love means us know harm. There's value in treating it that way. :-)

Love means us no harm. There’s value in treating it that way. 🙂

I sat down to write after meditation, and my first interaction with human kind was a merry “good morning” from my traveling partner, and a lol about the auto-correct fail in his good night message. If I had allowed myself to take anything more from the exchange last night, my morning could have been blown on emotional bullshit, hysterics, anger, disappointment, hurt feelings, a sense of isolation, loneliness, feeling disconnected or disposable… on and on. My brain is fantastic at making shit up! My brain doesn’t seem to care much if the shit it makes up is hurtful, it’s just doing brain things. Practicing practices specific to becoming less reactive, over time, has been a big win, and taken with a firm refusal to yield my heart to untested assumptions, it reduces the frequency of emotional bullshit, tantrums, foolish arguments, confrontational dialogue, hurt feelings, and shitty mornings crying over coffee needlessly. Definitely worth the time practicing the practices.  Sure, my results vary, and I’m entirely made of human. Today the results have been quite pleasant. I checked myself before I allowed my initial assumptions to become my thinking, and I am enjoying quite a lovely morning as a result.

What will you choose to practice? Where does your journey lead? You decide.

What will you choose to practice? Where does your journey lead? You decide.

It is possible to build a life with very little chaos, in spite of the damage we sustain over a lifetime. There are verbs involved. There is practice required. There’s a third thing, and it is important, required, and sometimes difficult… call it “will”, or “commitment” or… it’s that thing with which one begins again. And again. And again and again – over again, and then again over there, in spite of uncertainty, in spite of failures, and even though results vary. I can’t offer any particular insight on that; when I don’t have it, my fails outnumber my successes and I make no particular headway on this journey – on any journey. Having it, I make great progress. I don’t know how I got from not having it, to having it, nor why that change occurred when it did. I do know that this very important change occurred, for me, in my darkest moment, on the razor-thin edge of a very final decision that would have ended all possible opportunity to begin again… the result of a promise I kept to myself, without knowing what the outcome would be. I also know that this particular characteristic of self seems to be spread a bit unevenly over my experience; I bring it more to some situations in life than to others.

I begin again a lot these days. I’m okay with that. Today is a good day to pause and consider how far I’ve come, and all the verbs involved, and all the steps, practices, books, conversations, and hours spent listening deeply to the woman in the mirror. We are each having our own experience. It is a journey – the destination is not the point, and the map is not the world. I am my own cartographer… and trust me, sometimes I’m just doodling over here. (I’m pretty sure that is why my results vary…) It’s helpful to remember that your journey, over there, is not about me. 😀


Language functions by agreement. I sip my coffee and consider how completely I accept this as ‘true’. How we define our terms matters, so much that we have phrases like ‘apples to apples’ for expressing how necessary it is to have  a shared understanding of an individual term in discussion with others. I’m not sure why I am thinking about it today. I’ll note that it touches a nerve both in the work environment, and in my personal experience. The assumptions people make about each other, about ‘what we meant’, about what we just said, just now, without a single clarifying question result in some real comedy – and most of our tragedy.

I found my way to this ‘topic’ this morning, because I was stuck for a title. Which got me thinking… Is it a ‘title’, or is it a ‘subject line’? Why do I have a subtly different understanding of the meaning of each? Don’t they function very similarly almost to the point of sameness? Is there any ‘real’ cause to make a distinction between the two? If asked, could I support that with logical proofs? Would it make one whit of difference to other people using the terms slightly differently – and would either of us really ever know that we did not have a shared understanding of such subtleties?

I spend a lot of time thinking about language, meaning, and how I communicate with the world…and how and what it communicates to me. So much of what I understand of what I hear, read, see and infer has as much to do with me, myself, as any intended meaning launched my way willfully.  Assumptions are a big deal, because they undercut the meaning of one’s communication with others – and until someone speaks up about the lack of understanding, it isn’t evident; we’re simply having very different conversations with each other than we understand ourselves to be having. Very inconvenient, if the purpose of shared communication is also a shared understanding. We all make assumptions – to move so quickly through life processing the quantity of information from our senses, and make something of it in our thinking probably requires it. It can go very badly, though…

I think of lovers who quarrel a lot and wonder what their assumptions about each other’s feelings must be? I remember points in past relationships where I had, over time, come to assume that my partner was an adversary. Adversarial assumptions create conflict before words are even spoken. I have learned to choose differently in the context of loving relationships; a lover is not an adversary. If I am unable to comfortably assume affection and good intent of loved ones, how much love do we actually share? I found it an illuminating question to ask, at a number of points in life. I finally found answers, for myself, that I can live with.

I think about the way assumptions shred meaning in work conversations and social conversations, too. Clear, simple language is sometimes challenging for me; I find my voice in poetry, in word play, in layers of meaning, and metaphors. I value very frank and direct conversation, and also enjoy the beauty in language. Those things don’t necessarily ‘go together’ very comfortably; I sometimes ‘lose my audience’ in conversation. The nuances of meaning in [American] English words (my ‘default’ language day-to-day) are sometimes quite extraordinary…precious…precise…poetic…beautiful…confusing as fuck. I seriously doubt most people notice or care about the distinction between ‘very’ and ‘exceedingly’, or ‘excellent’ and ‘exceptional’. I probably drive my traveling partner crazy ‘looking for the right word’ fairly often – I am very relaxed about myself in his company and find myself ‘looking for the right word’ – out loud, while I am talking, in the middle of a sentence. No doubt it robs me of clarity to do so. Still…if I use language that doesn’t mean what I intend to convey, or is not understood to have that meaning, I am not having the conversation that I hope to have. It is worth it to ‘say what I mean’ – but if I am not understood, having done so, it is time to examine the assumptions standing in the way.

Have you taken a look at your assumptions lately? They are the foundation on which much of our experience is built – from ‘the sun will rise again tomorrow’ to ‘that food is no good because it is past its expiration date’ to ‘I know what you mean’ to ‘the answer to “how are you?” is “fine” ‘. It’s a lot to keep track of if we had to sort it all out fresh every time with proofs, and evidence. Still… there is value in checking in on those assumptions and replacing the ones that are out-of-date – or patently foolish – with more functional material. I find it particularly valuable to seriously test any assumptions that are built on perceived differences between me, and those other than me; most of the time assumptions about people’s differences are garbage. Some of the assumptions about our samenesses are garbage, too. I definitely find value in testing the assumption that I ‘know what you mean’. I probably don’t. It’s the reason listening deeply is a practice I am committed to practicing – being really skilled at listening is generally more effective for determining meaning than talking is. 🙂

The time slips by unnoticed this morning. My coffee is cold, and I’ve used more words than necessary to say “I find value in listening when I am listening, and asking questions to gain clarity” and “assumptions are often incorrect” and “words matter, and our understanding of their meaning can’t be assumed to be shared; it often isn’t”.

Today I will begin again, and practice listening deeply. (I definitely need the practice.)

Today I will begin again, and practice listening deeply. (I definitely need the practice.)