“This is bull.” I have had these three words directed at me twice while speaking in public. The first time was several years ago. On that occasion I did what I have done many times in my life when confronted with disagreement – I started tap dancing. I tried to be funny or compelling to win the person over. Sometimes I would refer to a barrage of research to defend what I was saying. What I didn’t do was listen or ask questions.
It happened a second time more recently. This time I felt the tightness in my chest – a familiar sensation that triggers a desire to go on the offensive or run away. On this occasion, I took a deep breath and used a phrase that I have found incredibly useful in these moments — “Tell me more.” The person who had offered their opinion replied “I don’t think this is the forum to have this conversation.” I asked him if he would be willing to sit together at lunch and discuss. He said he would. We had a great, wide-ranging conversation and discovered that we had a great deal in common. I now consider him a friend.
And then today I received some feedback. It was presented to me by someone I consider to be thoughtful and wise. It was offered in a way that felt direct, kind, and sincere. Still… it was not easy to hear. It has prompted me to look at things a little differently. I have found myself reflecting on some of my behavior, and… I can feel the familiar urge to beat myself up in this process. It requires some focus to stay with the information rather than to retreat into self-defensiveness or harsh self-judgment.
It is helpful to remind myself that my brain is a dark place. There is no light in my head. There is no image of the world on a screen in my skull. What each of us experiences is a representative version of reality created from a complicated electro-chemical language by our nervous system. The purpose of our senses is to translate the outside world into a language that our brain speaks. The brain then translates that language into an experience we can consciously see, feel, hear, taste, touch, smell, and believe. How you experience reality depends on your genetics, your past environments, and your past behavior. No one experiences the world as it is, and no one experiences it exactly the same way as anyone else.
However, that’s not how it feels. Each of us feels as though we are experiencing objective reality. This is why we can go to great lengths to defend our view of things. This is why it can be challenging to consider a different perspective. This is why we sometimes value the comfort of being right over the power of being helpful and effective. If you don’t think this is true, just scan your Facebook or Instagram feed — we feel most comfortable when we are surrounded by people we agree with.
Courage is really willingness – the willingness to feel discomfort. It requires the acceptance that growth comes from considering perspectives and strategies other than our own. It is the willingness to have people in our lives who will kindly and directly share their perspective with us (and about us) even when it is not comfortable. Perhaps the most important thing about courage is that we can build it with practice. We can purposely listen to those we disagree with. We can listen when people share a concern or criticism and respond “let me see if I get this…”
Self-compassion is the acceptance that we are human. Being human means that our perspective is limited – we cannot know what we do not know. It means that despite our best intentions, stuff is going to go sideways. We are going to say and do things that upset, offend, and disappoint others. We are going to fall short of our own expectations — guaranteed. Self-compassion is the understanding that learning from all of this does not require us to be unkind to ourselves.
We can have the courage and self-compassion to acknowledge that we need others. We cannot see the whole picture by ourselves. Robert Waldinger, the director of the Harvard Grant Study, has collected data for 80 years on the wellbeing of hundreds of men and their families. He thinks that wisdom is not contained in any single person. He thinks that wisdom is having people around you who can remind you of what matters most. I like this definition of wisdom a lot.
As I mull over what my friend told me today, I am reminded of three lessons that life has repeatedly tried to teach me: 1. Learning from others requires me to listen when I would rather talk. 2. Understanding does not require agreement. 3. Trying on others’ perspectives enriches my life.
So the bottom line is this – really considering feedback can be uncomfortable – and it offers the opportunity to learn from life, to be more open, and to connect more deeply. And that is not nothing.