Criticism and Connection

One of the easiest ways to connect with someone is by criticizing someone else. One of my earliest memories of friendship was hearing criticism from a kid in the neighborhood about another weird kid in the neighborhood who came from a Jehovah Witness family. Being a scrawny, short, home-schooled kid myself with not that many friends, I joined in, “YEAH, he IS such a weirdo.” I was desperate to have a friend and if I made fun of someone else, I was no longer the odd man out…right? And maybe I’d finally have a friend (in the person who originally criticized the other weird kid).

I did end up having a friend, and then a few more, and the lesson stuck. If I criticize someone else for being the outsider, then I am no longer the outsider, right?

As I have started dissecting my behaviors on criticism — both as a child and today, the only motivation is that criticism creates the perception of human connection. In every relationship, there is inevitability something that frustrates both individuals. The propensity to then share what those things are, not with the individual but with others is a strange aspect of human nature. We trade the social capital of one relationship for perceived social capital of another.

We justify the behavior in numerous ways — we are trying to help the person in question, and just need advice on how to help them or we are trying to make a new friend.

“Contrary to lay perceptions…most negative gossip is not intended to hurt the target, but to please the gossiper and receiver.” – Elena Martinescu.

Guilty. I didn’t want to hurt Jason – the nice boy who lived three houses down and whose family just happened to be Jehovah Witnesses – I just wanted a friend.

As I think about others doing the same thing, their act of criticism has the opposite impact on me. I remember thinking in that moment…if he thinks Jason is weird, I wonder what he says about me? At least Jason is good at sports and goes to a regular school! When you hear someone else devalue, belittle, or blame others in an attempt to connect, you think – if they are doing this to others, could they be doing it to me too?

“Criticizing others is a dangerous thing, not so much because you may make mistakes about them, but because you may be revealing the truth about yourself.” — Harold Medina

We find two incongruous behaviors in play. First, we perceive that we connect more quickly with others when we criticize someone else and second, we don’t trust critics because it reveals that you are not immune to their criticism–you just aren’t hearing it about you right now.

How do we break the cycle of criticism and work to create real connection? I’ll admit that I am not particularly good at these, but I’m working on it. And, I’m constantly looking to improve, so please give me feedback if you hear me responding in a way that is misaligned with any of the below:

  1. Start with self
    1. I have noticed that I am far less critical when I’m on vacation or after a run. When I am emotionally balanced and free of stress, I am less negative about myself and others. Increase my levels of stress, prevent me from exercising for a week and suddenly, everything and everyone around me is a problem. Investing in self by mediating, practicing the attitude of thankfulness, and being conscious to remove myself from overtly negative situations helps to create a criticism free environment.
    2. Criticism (most of the time) starts with you statements. “You did this” or “you made me feel that”. It is an attack on who the other person is and assigns feelings/behaviors/identify to that individual rather than looking inward to assess your role in your own feelings. Start by asking yourself “what do I really want?” By creating focus on the end game – for example, I want a new friend or I want to connect with this person more deeply – once you do, you realize how you get there is never by being negative or critical.
  2. Adapt your communication strategies – start by listening. Most of us are so eager to share how we feel and think that we miss opportunities to understand the people around us. Venture outside of the superficial – I recently met someone who asked me what I was most proud of instead of where I worked. We had an amazing conversation and connection just because we skipped all the superficial BS that governs how we talk today.
  3. Create an environment of safety – people are less likely to display negativity and more likely to be open to connecting when they are in environments in which they experience psychological safety. We can create these environments by being honest, eliminating criticism of others and displaying consistently in our actions, words and behaviors.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection. Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.” ― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

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Memory and Ego

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One of my favorite podcasts right now is Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell. Although I have loved his takes on Wilt Chamberlain’s free throw style (Season 1) or why McDonalds fries just don’t taste as good as they used to (Season 2), two episodes of Season 3 (episodes #3 and #4) on memory have been the most substantially life altering.

Any summary will not do them justice (so go listen!), but the gist is that our memories are extremely unreliable. In his Free Brian Williams episode, Malcolm talks through the memory of his own experiences on 9/11 and how his story differed substantially from his neighbor who told him about the attack! After 9/11 took place, a number of researchers interviewed people on what they were doing at the time of the attack, and then followed up at 1, 3, and 10 year intervals. They picked 9/11 because it was a “flashbulb” event; where you were and what you were doing at that precise moment is seared in your brain (or is it?).

What they found was that the majority significantly changed their story after the first year and were extremely confident that their new story was actually what happened. Through a process of memory consolidation – moving from short to long term memory, we rehearse these memories and the memories become extremely vulnerable to change. What is crazy about this process is that we accept the new memories as truth even when confronted with evidence to the contrary (in the case of the 9/11 study, written evidence for what they said had happened at that time)!

These two episodes on memory share the incredible stories of the “world’s greatest harmonica player” and the Brian Williams story. Both stories feel like famous individuals grasping for further fame as they re-write their own history. Brian Williams’ story goes from riding in a helicopter in Iraq to taking fire and being shot down in a helicopter in Iraq. He eventually recants the embellishment (he only heard about another helicopter going down the same day), but even the helicopter pilot who did take him couldn’t remember if they took fire. The story feels wrong and self-promoting. But is it? Or is it just a fault of his mind consolidating multiple memories – the story of riding in a helicopter in Iraq, the story of taking fire and the story that he heard about a helicopter going down?

I consider myself to have a fairly good memory. Not infallible, but definitely better than most. I can recall events/dates, precise locations of objects in a room or on a page, and memorize things very easily. This over time has built up an Ego (yes, intentional capitalization) where I will pick my memory, my story over that of anyone else and immediately issue judgement if the other party disagrees with what I remember.

Because my memory is that good right?

Or what if it really isn’t?

What if all these memories – or at least the majority – are just stories that I have been telling myself? Maybe there are pieces of truth, but the events…in precisely the way that they have been laid out in my head…are just how my memory has consolidated over time?

Based on all of this, this is how I think I should show up differently. How will you?

  • Shut up my Ego. No, I am not perfect, so don’t act that way.
  • Listen first, speak second. If I jump immediately into my story, how do I give space to hear and understand others?)
  • Give others the benefit of the doubt What actually “happened” matters less than how I engage with my friends/family/coworkers in their own story

 

Finding Perspective

In a sleep deprived haze at 1am, I let @princejackpup out to use the bathroom. *Usually* he doesn’t need to go out in the middle of the night, but we had been traveling, Lucy had been crying, and the path of least resistance (and least mess) was to just let him out.

[Quick note on context: we live in an apartment on the first floor with access to a dirt patch that could pass as a backyard that we share with six other units in the building. The backyard is right below our property manager’s apartment. No one ever goes down there because you have to walk down at least two flights of stairs, down a creepy hallway with a low ceiling, and past some trash cans to get there. Jack knows where the backyard is and as long as the doors are open, he will run down, do his business and come back up saving us from going out in the cold, at 1am.]

I waited inside listening for him to sprint back up the stairs, but after 5 mins and then 10 mins, no Jack. Piercing the quiet – a loud growl, and then a series of barks. I rush downstairs to stop Jack from waking up our property manager to find him frozen in the center of the backyard with his lips snarled and body tense staring at the fence. I turn on the flashlight on my phone and I just see the fence. Confused, I try to calm him down, but he sprints away all the while barking and growling at the fence.

I walk closer to the fence with Jack following at my heels and finally see a small piece of ivy growing over the top of the fence and swaying in the wind. I pick Jack up and hold him closer to the ivy comforting him that it is OK and the little ivy is definitely not a threat that any of us need to be protected from. He cranes his neck out sniffing the air a few inches around the ivy and finally agrees – yes, this isn’t a threat and we can calm down.

So many times we get stuck in the middle of a terrible [insert relationship, situation, job, belief, etc] because we have only seen things from one perspective. We are Jack in the sense that we visit a place we have been to many times before and get scared and frustrated by the one thing that is uncomfortable or out of place.

It almost always something outside of ourselves to shift our perspective – to make the uncomfortable known, and help us to see that maybe the thing that we are so scared by is just ivy swaying in the wind.

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Most of the time, we get forced into these catalytic moments – we have a child, someone we love passes away, we get sick. In those moments, we will sometimes find new outlooks on life, but because the event “happened” to us (even planned), it takes us much longer – if ever – to learn whatever the universe is teaching us.

If we actively seek to open ourselves up to new experiences, we can also engineer these moments in our life, forcing ourselves into the process that I forced Jack into by picking him up and bringing him face to face with the scary piece of ivy growing on our backyard.

  1. Start by identifying where you might be stuck. Hint: it is almost always the thing that you talk about changing / doing but somehow never get around doing or a belief that you were taught and have never challenged. If you still don’t know what this could be, ask for feedback from close friends, family or coworkers – “what am I always talking about doing but never do?” or “what beliefs am I the most stubborn about?”
  2. Think of ways to get unstuck. Update your resume to find the job you have always talked about. Find a person that believes the opposite of what you believe and just become friends. Research books that expand your perspective – message me if you want some recommendations depending on the topic! Travel to a new country.
  3. Take one small step closer to the unknown. Book a flight, read the book or tell a friend what you are stuck on and how you are planning to get unstuck.
  4. Create a tipping point. Tell enough people what you are going to do or quit your job so that going forward into the unknown is easier than going back.

One of my own moments occurred when I was traveling during my study abroad program in Argentina. I didn’t know that I was “stuck” at the time, but knew that having only been out of the country once prior and never having traveled alone, I needed to expand my worldview. My decision to get unstuck was to stay in South America over the Christmas holidays and travel for two months alone. I talked about it with friends from school and finally by the time everyone was leaving to go be with their families, I started regretting my decision- did I really want to spend Christmas alone?

The beauty of engineering your own moments to get outside of your comfort zone is that you can create your own tipping points – tell so many people (for me it was everyone in the study abroad program) or quit your job so it becomes more difficult to go back than to move forward into the unknown.

Over the two months traveling, there was a lot of moments where I started to expand my perspective around the United States (read about my reflection a few years later on the banana republic in Guatemala here), religion, and what it might mean to live a fulfilled life (read here). A lot of the perspectives I gained stay with me today.

My two months traveling was like the fence getting torn down in the backyard revealing that the ivy growing over the fence was actually part of an amazing park beyond.

What fences are in your life? How can you engineer experiences to get to the amazing places outside of the fences in your way?

My Last Peruvian Post

This is a hybrid post. Half consists of pieces taken out of my last Kiva Fellows blog. And the other half from my final musings and future plans (I won´t be blogging for at least a month). Feel free to cry now.

Click above to read the full post “Last July, I sat in Kiva headquarters listening to speaker after speaker desperately trying to get a grasp on what life as a Kiva fellow would be like. Despite all my “international” experience, I don´t think anything could have prepared me for the adventure that was to come.  Personally, I set out to discover how microfinance worked, IF it worked, and how it impacted the lives of the people it touched, but I really had no idea what lay ahead of me.

My two Kiva fellowships have allowed me to work with four separate institutions: FAPE and ASDIR in Guatemala and Arariwa and Manuela Ramos in Peru.  I have been able to meet and talk with hundreds of borrowers posting new loans and doing loan updates…

On the flip side, I have had a chance to surf in four new countries, to climb four volcanoes (including Concepción in Nicaragua with some other Kiva Fellows!), and hike the Inca Trail.  On the down side, I have been robbed once and assaulted another time, but I wouldn´t trade my two Kiva fellowships in Guatemala City and Cusco for the world.

And as I see my second (and final) Kiva fellowship come to a close, I have been asking myself what I have learned from the last eight months in the field… My second reflection on microfinance is that the most effective microcredit programs that I have witnessed combine education and training programs with the loans that they offer.  I personally perceive education programs highlighting business management, budgeting, family, nutrition, or health allow the borrowers to develop not only economically, but in all aspects of their life.  Which is the positive impact that all of us wish to see.”

As far as the future, I have a road trip through Patagonia planned with Devin Dvorak (starting on Feb 14th!). Coming back to the states, I’m heading up to Portland for a week, and after trying to find a job in Los Angeles.

My experiences with Kiva in Central and South America have truly been an adventure, one that I wouldn’t trade for the world. Thanks for all your prayers, support, and for reading my blog! I promise to blog when I’m back in the states about my exploits!