Monday, May 10, 2010

Stress and Transparency

She told me she'd like to pray for me, then leaned across the table and asked,

     "Marti, what is your heart's desire?"

The question didn't come out of the blue, not entirely, but I'd met this woman five minutes before and would most likely never see her again. Being put on the spot like that freaked me out. I'm sure she meant well. I didn't get up and leave; I gave her an answer. Whether it was true or not I cannot say. It felt like those "why" questions we avoid in ethnography: they force someone to be analytical or make up an answer or explanation for something when they may not really have one. I train ethnographers to approach such questions but ask them less directly, to use words that are more open-ended and less likely to come across as a threat.

But here I was, asked what was to me a hard question, squirming.
Later, I wondered if there was something I could learn about myself and how I like to be approached, and maybe about how to approach others. Or certain others.

First, I had to ask, is it just me? Could it be that there's something lacking or immature or wrong with me that I'm not that in touch with my emotions, that I don't have that kind of self-knowledge at my fingertips? or that I didn't want to answer such an intimate question, at least not then and there?

It's not just that she was a stranger.
I talk to strangers all the time. I love to meet new people. And while I have a big streak of shyness, I am just as likely to blurt out things that are deep or personal without being prompted, as I am to hold back or withdraw. I usually enjoy a good, deep conversation about things that matter.

But even under the best of circumstances I am not consistently transparent, especially when I'm dealing with stuff I'd just rather not put out on the table for one reason or another. I have had a bit of counseling and found it helpful, but dread counseling appointments; even meeting with L., my sabbatical adviser, or the little "sabbatical support group" I assembled: they all say they look forward to talking those evenings, but not me. But I find myself fantasizing about things that could come up that would give me an excuse to cancel. (Never happens, so I go ahead. Though the sabbatical group is falling apart and I'm not sure what to do about it.) 

Pressure to Be Transparent

I think it's a matter of pressure - pressure to be transparent.
I want, instead, to be invited. I want to go second. I want to choose how much to say or what kind of words to use. I want the motivation to come from within. If I were an athlete, I'd want to participate in events where they start the clock when you begin, not when they ring the bell or blow the whistle and that's how you know when to start.

Life doesn't always give you that kind of freedom, though, does it?
It doesn't give you safe environments or wait until you are ready. And that can be okay; some people need to or want to be pushed. Are you one of them? Or does it depend on the topic or context?

Often I find a push can be helpful. I like deadlines, as long as they are real ones: Getting the ezine lined up for Tuesday night publication. Preparing a Perspectives lecture or training session, and stepping up to deliver it. Knowing I have to give a quarterly report or write an annual review. I've often wished life offered more finals weeks, exams, and yes, grades. Pressures. But those are pressures you know about up front - they don't appear suddenly and unexpectedly. Is that the difference?

One thing I've been noticing, in my current life largely without those kind of pressures, is the power of choice, of ownership:
Self-directed learning, personalized growth planning, and the intuitive - not scripted - dance of personal revelation can take you some places better than being pushed or enrolled in a program or following a plan somebody else made for you.

How much of this is a personality thing - not right or wrong, just different?

Another Way to Ask Questions

A recent gathering I attended included the following list of "ice breaker" questions. Some of them might seem just as "hard" as the "heart's desire" question, but they didn't create that kind of pressure. I think some of the reasons for that are that we were:

1. Responding to an invitation:  Since they were labeled as "ice breakers" the questions were presented as invitations to start a conversation. Not a requirement that you define who you are, take a stand, or submit your life or character for some kind of evaluation. 

2. Given an opportunity to prepare:
Instead of just being unfolded one by one, orally, the questions were printed out and given to participants in advance - put on the tables. This gave people unpressured time to ponder their answers. I try to do this when I teach, too: let people know what the questions are, write them down and let people see them. It reduces stress and usually results in more thoughtful answers or fruitful conversations.

3. Choosing how to participate:
Most facilitators gave participants a choice of whether they wanted to ask one question or another, or invited everybody to answer the same question. So there was some level of choice for everyone.

4. Hearing from others:
It was a (small) group activity. So, that might cause people to compare themselves to one another and feel pressured by that, but it relieved the pressure of expressing themselves in isolation.

Ice-Breaker Questions
What do you love doing more than anything in the world?
If you could make a good living doing anything at all, what would that be?
What is the nicest thing a stranger ever did for you?
What is the weirdest thing you've ever eaten?
What was your favorite book growing up?
Name a hidden talent you have.
Name your favorite movie.
If you could visit any place in the world, where would you choose to go and why?
What is one goal you’d like to accomplish during your lifetime?

I can think of lots of other "ice breaker" questions, some of which might be more fun to answer, or elicit more stories, or might do more to find common ground. But it's hard to do all three of those things at once, and this is a pretty good list. 


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