Amanda Cade

Worth It! (Things to try, read, watch, hear, and discuss)

In general, I avoid the romance genre. I don’t have anything against it, exactly, but it really isn’t my thing. I like fantasy, science fiction, character studies, and procedurals. Maybe romance doesn’t appeal to me because I’m not generally a romantic person myself, or maybe I’m just a bit too cynical to really get into them. 

That all changes the moment I get sick.

sick 2In my early twenties, my roommate and I both came down with a terrible flu. She had a huge collection of feel-good romance novels, and since I had a lack of new reading material in that pre-Kindle age, I picked one up and started reading. During the week we were home sick, I read two of those books every day. When I recovered, I wasn’t really interested anymore. The next time I got sick, though, I dug into my roommate’s DVD collection and spent a couple days watching rom-coms. The pattern has continued-for some reason, when I’m really under the weather, romance becomes my guilty pleasure. This past week, I spent several days sick in bed (recovered now, thankfully). Partway through the illness, my friend Mike asked me how I was doing, and I responded by telling him what I was watching on Netflix (and because he knows me well, that told him all he needed to know about how I was doing). 

When I thought about it later, I considered the fact that I felt a need to justify the fact that I was watching, and enjoying, something outside of my norm. The subtext was clearly, “This is silly, but don’t make fun of me…it’s ok because I’m sick”. It’s strange, because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with romance; it’s just not something I’m into, and doesn’t fit into the way people usually see me, or the way I see myself. That got me thinking about the term “guilty pleasures”, informally defined by dictionary.com as “an activity or piece of media that someone enjoys but would be embarrassed by if other people found out about it”.

I think it’s time for a good hard look at guilty pleasures, and how we engage with them. Let’s start with:

Should you feel guilty?

Before you decide whether you are going to embrace your guilty pleasure, you should ask yourself if there is a good reason to feel guilty about it. Set aside the cultural or social baggage that comes with certain things and ask yourself a few key questions.  

  • Is it irresponsible? 
  • Is it hurting someone? 
  • Is it hurting you? 
  • Can you afford to spend the money or time on it?

video gameTo use an absolutely extreme example, if your guilty pleasure is drug abuse, that is a problem. You are harming yourself and others by taking an addictive substance, and odds are you are going to spend far too much money on it. For a less extreme example, let’s say your guilty pleasure is video games. Those have become pretty acceptable in recent years, so why do you feel guilty about it? Is it because you’re in a situation where you are overdoing it, to the neglect of family, friends, and work? If that’s the case, any guilt you feel makes sense, because you probably need to adjust how you spend your time until you’ve reached a balance.

If your guilty pleasure isn’t causing any harm, you should ask yourself…

Why am I embarrassed?

If there aren’t any problems associated with your interest or activity, why are you embarrassed by it? Usually that comes down to two problems: you feel it’s wasting time or there’s a negative perception. 

If it’s a matter of wasting time, ask yourself if there’s something you need to be doing during that time. If your guilty pleasure is taking time away from things that must get done, take another look at the previous section. If, on the other hand, you could spare the time, but keep thinking you could/should instead be doing non-critical productive things instead, give yourself a break. Rest, relaxation, and fun are all important parts of life.

beachThe other problem is negative perception. Perhaps your hobby is viewed as being immature, or not being serious enough. Maybe it’s low-brow entertainment, or, like in my case, it doesn’t fit into your ordinary life or self-concept. Maybe you, or others, see it as selfish. That last one might really trip you up, because you feel like you should have taken the two hundred dollars you spent on getting your hair done and donated it to charity, or maybe you think the two hours you spent watching a movie could have been better spent on upgrading your next presentation at work. However, there’s nothing wrong with spending time and money on something that makes you happy.

Of course, guilty pleasures get the name because of how people see them, which leads to the third question…

Should you talk about it? 

A lot of times we apply the term “guilty pleasures” because of how people respond when we talk about them. The first thing to realize is that you don’t have to tell anybody anything. The most important thing is accepting it for yourself, and then it’s your business if you want to talk about it. Being a person who usually really enjoys telling the world about how ridiculous I am, I tend to go with talk about them. 

couchMost of the time. I am the opposite of ashamed of my love of cheesy 80’s horror films. However, I’m very uncomfortable telling people how much money I spent on any kind of salon or spa treatment, and, as previously mentioned, I always feel like I have to justify a foray into the romance genre. Talking about your interests and activities is your call. If you do, try to avoid the knee-jerk reaction to include a de facto apology (something I’m going to be working on in the future). It’s possible that someone will tease you, but if they do so in a way that’s fun and not hurtful, enjoy the camaraderie. On the other hand, if you have legitimate reason to believe that someone will judge you, or diminish your pleasure or something, don’t tell them about it. 

Personally, I think we should be thinking of these less as guilty pleasures but more like we think about anything we enjoy, period. I’ll get us started by admitting that even though I’m feeling better, I’m still going to finish the show I was binging while I was sick, because I’m legitimately invested in seeing the characters get their happily ever after. And I’m not ashamed of that.

let's discuss 2

How about you? What are your so-called guilty pleasures?

First of all, let me say that while the adjective “miscellaneous” is quite popular, I don’t think that the noun “miscellany” is used nearly often enough. So I’m happy to use this neglected word as the title of this post, which certainly fits the definition of “a collection or group of various or somewhat unrelated items”. 

In other words, this week I had a handful of things that I wanted to discuss, but none of them felt like enough to fill an entire post. So let’s start with:

Covid-19

syringe and pills on blue background

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com

As I wrote about in last Sunday’s post, I was lucky enough to be able to get a rapid test when I had an exposure scare, and, thankfully, tested negative. Meanwhile, St. Louis and statewide trends, cases, and hospitalizations are on the rise, as are the waits times for testing results, which I’ve been told are now averaging 7-8 days. Meanwhile, our local school districts are scheduled to release their fall plans tomorrow, which has a lot of people feeling extremely anxious. Our schools typically start in August, and I’ve been watching the national and local debate on the school issue, which has gotten quite contentious.

Both of my sisters have been weighing pros and cons of sending their kids back to school, and my teacher friends have been trying to plan for all possible scenarios.

Baking

I had a rare two post week this week, because on Wednesday I posted my entry for this year’s Great Bloggers Bakeoff, which is going on right now over at Mel’s Caramel blog. You really should take the time to check it out, because there are some amazing entries.

I wouldn’t put mine in the “amazing” category, but I had fun. So much so, in fact, that as the week went on and some really stressful stuff went down at work, I kept making little cheesecakes and various toppings, eventually mastering strawberry and cookies & cream. It was extremely therapeutic, and I ended up with way too much cheesecake. Lol. 

Screenshot 2020-07-18 at 8.26.50 PM

Small Acts of Self Care

white ceramic teacup with saucer near two books above gray floral textile

Photo by Thought Catalog on Pexels.com

I’m a firm believer in looking for opportunities to maximize the benefits for investing time, money, and effort. Recently, I’ve started applying that principle to stress relief and health management. Even on the busiest days, I’ve made a point to set aside at least an hour for relaxation, and I’ve gotten in the habit of taking a few minutes to consider what activity would have the greatest impact on my mood. I’ve discovered that varies day to day, and being mindful of it has been really beneficial. So some days I add a little extra reading time, while on others I take a walk, do a little baking, or watch the Muppets (which never fail to lift my spirits…no matter how old I get). 

I’ve also made a few small financial investments that are paying daily dividends, like a new seat cover for my stationary bike (good timing, since I’ve increased my workouts a little due to all the cheesecake), a few new accents for the house (they make me smile every time they catch my eye), and high-quality, super comfortable bedroom slippers (which, since I’m still working from home, I’m wearing most of the time).

The right small things can really make a big difference.

Life 2

Let’s keep the miscellany going. What’s on your mind?

Screenshot 2019-03-23 at 7.52.24 PM

I’m super excited about the 2020 bakeoff, which officially takes place this weekend. Melody will be posting all the entries on her Caramel blog on Saturday and Sunday, and it’s a lot of fun to see all the great pictures and read everyone’s baking stories, and Melody does an amazing job hosting the event.

Last year, I decided to take a major risk and try something I’d never made before: a complicated chocolate mousse layer cake, topped with a chocolate shell. The results were…less than aesthetically pleasing:

Baking Challenge 2

Despite the visual fail, the experience was one of my highlights of last year, and the resulting post remains one of my all time favorites (you can find that post here). If you haven’t read that post, I hope you do.

The original plan for this year was to team up with my sister Amy and, once again, try something new, difficult, and fraught with danger. But 2020 is the year of plans going awry, and I ultimately ended up facing the challenge on my own, and unable to find some of the ingredients I would have needed for the grand vision. Amy and I are keeping that plan in our back pocket for next year.

So, since I still wanted to try something new, I decided it was high time I learned to make cheesecake. I chose a straightforward mini cheesecake recipe (you can find it here), turned on my “You Can Do It” playlist, and got to work.

Step One: Set Up

Cheesecake IngredientsOne note about ingredients and prep: I faced an unexpected snag with the mini muffin cups. I’ve been having my groceries delivered since the start of the pandemic, and while I’m sure the stores have this item, I wasn’t able to order it online (I couldn’t get full sized either). So I ended up ordering them from Amazon, which delayed my baking for a couple of days.

Anyway, this recipe didn’t call for a lot of ingredients, so everything else was either something I already had or something that was easy to obtain. I assembled everything I would need and mentally planned all the steps and the timing, because planning is what I do.

Step Two: Crust

Cheesecake Crust

Melted butter + graham cracker crumbs. Easy.

Step Three: Cheesecake batter

Cheesecake Batter

Cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, egg. Again, easy. I had a little bit of trouble filling the cups without making an unholy mess, but I made it.

Step Four: Bake and Cool

Baked CheesecakeTwelve minutes in the oven, ten minutes in the pan, then…about an hour on the rack, I think. I got a little distracted while waiting for them to cool (I had a new book), so I’m not entirely sure how much time passed. When I remembered to check, they were ready to chill in the fridge.

So far, I was feeling pretty good about this project. It’s funny, though…I was almost disappointed with how easy things had been going. After the huge challenge of last year’s entry, I began to wonder if I had sold myself a little short. This wasn’t shaping up to be an interesting story…but on the other hand, there’s something to be said for having food that actually looks worth eating.

Step Five: Toppings

Finished Cheesecake

Positive outcome one: my baby cheesecakes looked like the picture in the recipe, and a picture on my graham cracker crumbs box. Positive outcome two: they tasted right. Yay!

That meant it was time to put on the finishing touches. The recipe called for putting a raspberry on top, so I did. Looked good. Tasted good. Victory.

Except…now I was bored. It had been too easy. I had almost two dozen little cheesecakes, and all I was going to do was slap a raspberry on top of them all and call it good?

As my father would say, that is not the Cade way. Time to place another grocery order.

Step Six: Toppings Redux

So let me say this: When the question is, “Which of these three toppings should I try to make?” the answer probably shouldn’t be “Yes!” And now you all know how I spent the rest of the evening…

I ended up with a kind of Goldilocks situation. The chocolate came out a little too thick, the strawberry came out way too thin, and the caramel was close enough to just right.

Screenshot 2020-07-15 at 4.01.12 PM

And finally, continuing the tradition of “It may not be pretty, but it tastes good”, my masterpiece:

Everything

I regret nothing.

Baking 2

Has anyone else tried something new lately? Tell me about it in the comments!

So that none of you worry unnecessarily, I’m going to start by skipping to the end: the COVID-19 test I took the other day was negative. Thank God. Now let’s go back to the beginning.

Before

syringe and pills on blue background

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pexels.com

Like many people, I’ve been watching with dismay and alarm as COVID-19 cases here in the United States have been climbing again. I’ve been very concerned about the reports of testing shortages and hospitals reaching capacity, and have been grateful that, at least for now, my home state of Missouri hasn’t reached the terrifying levels of other areas. I was also glad that I have been, and continue to be, extremely careful. Even though we’re “open for business”, I haven’t been comfortable with increasing my risk of exposure, and have still been staying home except to occasionally see my family, a few friends, and a handful of people that have been here to deal with some home repairs that I couldn’t put off any longer.

The Call

Given my precautions, I was in no way prepared to learn that I had been exposed. To protect the privacy of others, I’m not going to get into the specifics of how that happened. I will say that it did not come from my family. At any rate, when I learned this week that I was at risk, I was blown away.

My first response was a little bit of yo-yoing between calm and total freakout. On the one hand, we wore masks and practiced social distancing, and I felt completely fine. On the other hand, I had been exposed to the coronavirus. What’s more, since that happened, I had seen my parents, my sister Audrey, and two of my nieces. After months of the entire family being exceptionally cautious, there was a chance that I had inadvertently made all of those efforts meaningless.

So I did what I usually do when I’m stressed, and called my mom. As usual, she was supportive, logical, and collected. She calmed me down, assured me that no one in the family would be angry at me, and volunteered to call Audrey and give her an update. After that, I was centered enough to deal with the immediate issue: getting tested.

Setting up the test

blue and silver stetoscope

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I knew that they were doing testing at an urgent care just up the road, so I called them and asked how to set up an appointment. They told me to just come in and get on the list, and that I could expect a wait of one to two hours. When I arrived, they took my name and cell phone number and told me to wait in my car until they called. I also quickly received a text message with a link that allowed me to see, in real time, my place in line and how quickly the line was moving.

It was a hot day, and so I ran the air conditioner and drank a lot of water while I tried to concentrate on my book and answered a few work related emails. I couldn’t help contrasting my minor discomfort to the situation in other states, where people were spending the night in their cars while they waited for testing sites to open, waiting six hours in lines that stretched for miles, and sometimes being turned away when tests run out. Many of these people, unlike me, are symptomatic.

The Test

After about an hour, my phone rang and I was told to come inside. The rest of the process would occur in a clean, air-conditioned building with medical personnel who had time to answer my questions and were even relaxed enough to joke with me a little. It ended up being about another hour before I was actually swabbed, as there were periods of waiting between each step (paperwork, waiting for a room, more paperwork, vital signs, and then the actual test). Again, I was struck by how easy it was compared to what I’d be facing if I lived somewhere else. What’s more, I was lucky enough to be able to get a rapid test. The nurse practitioner explained to me that the availability of these tests vary day by day and location by location, but fortune smiled on me and I could have one, even though-and I can’t stress this enough-I had no actual symptoms. While I was grateful, it broke my heart to think that in other states, people who were sick and desperate were waiting days to find out their test results.

The test itself was, as has been reported, uncomfortable, but it was over quickly. 

The Results

cotton buds on white surface

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

After the swab, I was told that I’d have results in ten to twenty minutes. That short wait seemed to go on forever, and I couldn’t begin to wrap my head around the idea of waiting for days. If that had been the case, would my parents have gotten tested? Audrey, her husband, and my nieces? I pictured my entire family anxiously awaiting results, and also kept thinking (even though I tried not to) how I would manage if I tested positive and got sick. 

I reassured myself with the fact that medical care is still easily available here in St. Louis, and, once again, thought about the contrast between my situation and what’s going on in hard-hit areas.

I can’t begin to describe my relief when I received my negative results. After that, there was a little bit of paperwork and I was on my way. Altogether, it took just about three hours, including drive time, for me to walk back into my house with total peace of mind.

Final Thoughts

Except that I really don’t have total peace of mind. The alarm I was already feeling about the overall situation in this country was brought into sharper focus by this experience. So even though I generally keep this blog away from anything specifically political, there are some things I feel like I have to say:

  1. I still can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that the pandemic, and public health, has become political in the first place.
  2. The testing, tracing, and supply chain issues in this country need to be addressed. I haven’t talked about this on the blog before (because again, I prefer to avoid politics here), but I frequently contact government representatives, on the local, state, and national level, when I have concerns. I have been doing this even more often during the pandemic, and encouraging others to do so as well. If you agree that something needs to change, please reach out to the people in power and share your concerns.
  3. On a related note, I’d like to encourage you to reach out to your elected officials and share your concerns about anything, whether you’re in the United States or elsewhere, whether you agree with me or not, and whether it’s about the pandemic or any other issue.
  4. Please wear a mask. Please social distance. Please protect yourself and others. Please make small sacrifices in the interest of public health.

need to talk 2

Those are my thoughts. Please share yours in the comments. Stay safe.

Solo happyYesterday was Independence Day here in the United States. I celebrated independently by staying home and being independent of any risk of exposing myself to the coronavirus.

So while I was having my personal Independence Day celebration (after watching Independence Day, because come on, you have to, and not watching the sequel because once was enough, thank you), I decided to reflect on my personal independence. This list contains some things that go back years, some that I decided on during the lockdown, and a few that I added just yesterday while I was thinking about this subject.

So, in no particular order, I hereby declare (or redeclare) my independence from:

  • One-sided friendships
  • FOMO (fear of missing out)
  • Apologizing for having an opinion
  • Uncomfortable shoes
  • Explaining why I’m single and childless (because that does not mean there’s something wrong with me)
  • Letting other people take credit for my work
  • Worrying about what my neighbors think (within reason)
  • Being afraid to try new things
  • Mascara
  • Fad diets
  • All nighters (because seriously, I’m too old for that)
  • Decaf

And believe me, I don’t miss them.

Fireworks

How about you?

By this point, most of the world has spent some time under stay at home orders, and many people (myself included) are still staying at home even though restrictions have been lifted. There are also speculations here in the United States that there may be more stay at home orders in the future (but that’s another topic entirely). A few days ago, I had a conversation with a friend about what life is going to look like in the future, speculating on that hoped-for time when we have a vaccine and people are able to move about and interact in ways that closely resemble life before.

That conversation led to a discussion of how the extreme situation of being locked down had led both of us to realize some important things about our lives, and how we wanted to make sure that we incorporated them into that future “new normal”. Today, I’d like to propose that we could all use a little reflection about personal takeaways.

I want to start with two things to consider, and there are a few more coming next week.

Connections

video chatI think that being in isolation made a lot of us realize how much we value seeing and interacting with others. I’ve made strong efforts to stay connected to friends, family, and coworkers, and look forward to the time when I can see and spend time with them. However, I’ve also come to understand that I wasn’t fully taking advantage of these opportunities before. During lockdown, I was able to strengthen relationships that had been falling by the wayside, because I’ve been distracted by other things and haven’t put time and energy into staying in touch. I had gotten into the habit of declining a lot of social invitations because I was focused on work, and hadn’t really noticed that I was losing touch with some people. Lockdown gave me the time to reach out, but I know, upon reflection, that I can make the time moving forward, and I plan to do that.

I think that this experience has given all of us the chance to think about the people and activities that are really important to us, and to commit to prioritizing them in the future.

Work/Life Balance

overworkedI’ve mentioned many times that I love my job, and I generally don’t mind my 55-70 hour work weeks (yes, 55 hours really is how much time I work in a typical week, and there’s usually at least one week a month where I hit the 60-70 range). However, for a variety of reasons the fact that we’re all working from home has ended up cutting down on the work time. I’ve been working 40-45 hours pretty consistently these past few months, and I’ve discovered that as much as I like to work, I also like having more free time. Many of my coworkers have talked about appreciating the surprising shift we’ve experienced. On the other hand, I’ve talked to a lot of people whose work hours have increased because of working from home. It’s really dependent on the industry, the specific job, and the actions of leadership.

There are starting to be some indications from my job that expectations and workload are going to increase soon, and I’ve realized that (somewhat surprisingly), I’m not 100% ok with that. I haven’t yet figured out what I’m going to do about that, but I’m doing some serious thinking and analysis (I might post about that in the future) about what I’ve suddenly decided is a problem.

So that’s the second thing I believe it would be good for everyone to consider. And if you aren’t currently employed (retired, family caregiver, etc.), I’d still suggest evaluating your commitments and regular activities. If you don’t want to go back to the old model, now is the time to think about how to make changes.

Thought Bubble

What has lockdown taught you about your own life and priorities? What are other things to consider?

Happy Father’s Day! Last year, I shared a story about the lessons my dad taught us through home remodeling and vacation planning (you can find that post here). This year, I wanted to share two very important things he learned during a significant portion of his life (long before I was born), that he has taught us through his example.

Take steps to change your life

Fork in the RoadMy father describes his teenage self as “a complete and total screw up”. My mother says that he’s being too hard on himself, but does agree that he was lacking direction and engaging in some risky behavior (which they still, to this day, describe only as “drinking and other things”). He recognized that he wasn’t happy with where he was or where he saw himself going, but wasn’t sure what to do about it. When he began saying that out loud, his stepmother (who Dad has always said was one of the most significant positive influences in his life) suggested that he consider enlisting in the military. He did, and, as he puts it, “the Army trained the screw up out of me”. After he was discharged, he returned home with an entirely different attitude, work ethic, and vision for his future. Happily, that vision included my mother, who had been a casual friend when he left, because after three years of exchanging letters while he was deployed, he was pretty sure that he wanted to marry her.

For Dad, the takeaway is that you need to look for, take advantage of, and apply yourself to opportunities to improve your circumstances or make yourself happier. He’s an amazing sounding board when any of us need to evaluate our situation, and 110% supportive of decisions we make, as long as they’re carefully considered. Dad helped me figure out I needed to change my major. He also helped me make the decision to go to graduate school. He convinced me not to buy a house when I desperately wanted to, because waiting a few more years would make a huge difference in my financial situation. He has always set an example by continuously learning new things and being willing to work hard and take the long view in order to achieve.

Be supportive

I don’t know a lot of details about Dad’s actual service, because he doesn’t like to talk about it. I know his rank, where he served, and that he was decorated several times, but I don’t know what he did to earn those medals, or any specific details of his experience. Although he credits the Army with turning his life around, he never considered making it a career, and I think that’s because of the things he doesn’t discuss. What he does talk about, freely, is what the Army taught him: discipline, work ethic, pride, organization, and leadership. He focuses on the support he received from the military, and on the support of his stepmother and my mother. The second message of Dad’s story is that people who believed in him and were there for him were critical in his journey to become the man he wanted to be.

Support HandsThe man he became is incredibly supportive of others. He’s always ready to listen, to problem solve, to roll up his sleeves, or to give financial help. He helped us navigate the overwhelming task of applying for college admissions and scholarships, learning on the job because my sister Audrey was the first person on either side of my family to go to college. He matched us dollar for dollar when we were saving for our first cars. On three separate occasions, one of his siblings moved into our house when they needed help getting back on their feet. He still insists on cutting my grass, even though he’s in his seventies and I am perfectly capable of doing it myself. As far as Dad is concerned, the people you care about are part of your team, and teams work together.

father's day

Who are your role models? What have you learned from them?

In the past few weeks, I’ve written two posts focused on communication: Smart People Who Disagree With You and Talking to People You Disagree With. Both posts have touched on the importance of listening, which is critical not just in disagreements, but in any kind of communication.

Today, I want to dig a little deeper into listening and offer you three key focus points to help you be more effective.

Message

thinkingThe other night I heard a politician I strongly dislike say something I completely agreed with. My first thought was, “Ugh. I can’t believe I’m agreeing with this person.” My second thought was, “Clearly this person doesn’t  mean that. They’re just saying it for political purposes.” Luckily, my third thought was, “What the heck is wrong with me?” Our knee jerk reaction to a disliked messenger is to immediately dislike, disregard, or disbelieve the message. In the same way, we tend to respond positively to a message shared by someone we like, admire, or respect.

Don’t get me wrong: the source is important. Credibility and context matter. However, we always have to make sure we hear and evaluate the actual message by focusing first on what they’re actually saying. Otherwise, we’re a disservice to the speaker and to ourselves. My current boss, who I adore, can (and sometimes does) have a bad idea, and a previous supervisor, who I disliked intensely, had a fair number of good ideas. During his tenure the importance of listening to the message was critical for me, because several times my complicated feelings about him as a person came very close to negatively impacting my job performance.

Meaning

ConfusedPeople often speak in shorthand, catchphrases, and buzzwords. That isn’t inherently a bad thing, as it can quickly and easily convey a complex idea. However, as a listener it’s important to make sure that you understand exactly what is behind the slogan, soundbite, or jargon. For example, this post by the Newman Group explains how easily corporate buzzwords can be misunderstood during job interviews. I’ve also seen situations where people waste a lot of time because they have different understandings of what they’re being asked to do. Thinking about the meaning is also important if you’re following politics and current events. During the COVID pandemic, for example, there have been a lot of misunderstandings about the specific meaning of terms like “flattening the curve”, “waves” versus “peaks”, and so on.

With any message, but especially with shorthand messages, you need to ask yourself two questions. First, does it have a universal meaning you understand? Second, are you sure that meaning is the same thing the speaker is trying to convey? Slogans and titles are great conversational shorthand, if everyone is clear on what they mean. If you aren’t 100% sure, dig a little deeper, through asking questions or doing a little bit of research.

Mindset

mindsetA big part of effective listening is how you approach it. Hearing is passive, but listening is active, and it starts with your attitude. The way you mentally frame what you’re doing makes a huge difference in how effective you’ll be. If all you’re looking for is something that will confirm your existing beliefs, give you something to be angry about, or give you something to mock, you aren’t going to be able to fully consider the message or the meaning. Set objectives for yourself, be mindful of those objectives, and hold yourself accountable. Here’s the attitude I try to maintain while listening:

I want to learn. I want to understand. I want to make the best decisions. I am open to all possible outcomes.

Depending on the situation, I might add to those goals, or tweak them a little, but that general focus helps me stay engaged, clearly understand, and thoughtfully evaluate what I’m hearing.

success

Are there challenges you face in communication, or strategies you use for effective listening? Let me know in the comments!

Three weeks ago, I wrote this post about the importance of seeking out and considering multiple perspectives. At the time, I was thinking about the pandemic, the reopening debate, the culture wars surrounding masks and social distancing, and dissension about economic policies and social inequalities. After writing the post, I remarked to a friend that it felt like it had never been more difficult to navigate conversations outside our echo chambers. I had no idea that it was about to get so much harder.

The death of George Floyd has led to widespread protests, which have led to widespread debate and a variety of other reactions. Sadly, the discussions I’m seeing, reading about, and participating in have become even more polarized, with many people even less willing to listen to each other and consider alternate perspectives.

I’ve believed for a long time that it’s critical to engage in serious, respectful conversations with people who disagree with us, which is why I wrote that first post. The events of the past few months, and especially the past few weeks, have strongly reinforced that feeling. I also acknowledge that it’s hard, and can be uncomfortable.

So today I’m offering a few suggestions to make it easier:

1. Discuss Conversational Ground Rules

video chatEarlier this week, I had a two hour conversation with my friend Brad, who, as I explained in that previous post, is a very smart man who disagrees with me on almost everything. After discussing a wide range of topics, we began to talk about what made our conversations possible. Specifically, why have always been able to air contrasting opinions without offending each other or shouting each other down? I posited that some of it is because of our enduring friendship, and Brad responded by saying he doubted our friendship would have endured if we hadn’t figured out, a long time ago, how to navigate the conversations. We avoided the “chicken and egg” debate, and instead focused unpacking the unspoken rules and attitudes we bring to the table. To summarize:

  • We accept that each other’s viewpoints are valid and worth respecting, even if we don’t see things the same way.
  • We take turns and avoid interrupting each other.
  • We ask questions and make an effort to fully understand each other’s ideas.
  • We are cognizant of each other’s feelings, and offer empathy and support.
  • We’re careful about the words we use, both out loud and in our own minds. For example, we say “Why do you?” instead of “How could you?”, because we’re looking to understand rather than to judge.
  • We discuss “inconvenient” facts rather than ignoring them.
  • We are open to changing our minds.

So I asked myself if the unstated rules that Brad and I follow could become stated expectations in other conversations.  What would happen if we started these conversations by saying something like, “I do want to talk about this, but before we do I was wondering if we could try to agree on how we’re going to talk about it. I don’t want us to be angry with each other or walk away from the conversation without considering both sides.”

I tried it a few days later when a relative with whom I often strike sparks brought up the topic of the protests. We did take the time to set some expectations, and it did improve the discussion and the way we felt afterwards. I’m not suggesting it was a miracle cure, but we both believed, afterwards, that setting ground rules was beneficial.

2. Listen

ListenIn The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey, habit #5 is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. No matter the situation, we should avoid dominating a conversation, because it usually has a negative impact on how we are perceived and how we build and maintain relationships. In a disagreement, it’s especially important to listen, with an open mind, to what someone else has to say. 

How to Communicate, by Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, and Patrick Fanning, contains a wealth of great advice and information, and the very first chapter is on listening. Part of the chapter focuses on twelve common blocks to effective listening, including feeling the need to be right, seeking an argument, and mentally rehearsing your response while someone else is speaking. It’s important to be aware of these behaviors and actively work to avoid them.

3. Remember that middle ground exists

Steam EarsWe live in a complex world full of complex situations, but too often our discourse completely ignores nuance. Moreover, we often try to categorize each other. The attitude of “If you think or support this you have to think or support this other thing” is illogical, dangerous, and disrespectful. This attitude pops up in a lot of situations, and has been especially pervasive during recent events. I’ve heard so many people argue that if you support the protesters or anything they stand for, you have to accept and embrace riots and looting, and if you support the police or worry about law and order, you have to accept and embrace abuse of power. However, forced polarization is not only untrue, but also unproductive. Applying this standard to others makes it difficult to have productive conversations, and applying it yourself makes it hard to have an open mind.

4. Commit to learning to be more effective

I want to acknowledge once more that communication skills and effective disagreements don’t come easy. I’ve been studying and practicing communication skills for most of my life (from competitive debate to my graduate studies to everyday situations), and I often feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. However, the more we learn, and the more we try, the more we improve.

In October of 2018, three time World Schools Debate champion Julia Dhar discussed this same topic, and her fifteen minute TED talk is a wonderful resource that I promise will be worth your time and attention.

Let’s not avoid these conversations, but instead seek to have them, and to have them effectively.

need to talk 2

Be safe, be well, and please share your thoughts in the comments.

This week, the United States passed 100,000 deaths from Covid-19. Shocking videos ignited tensions across the country, leading to questions about policy, justice, and race relations. Scenes of protests, both peaceful and violent, have dominated the news.

On a personal note, for the first time since March I physically entered the building where I work, because even though I’m still working remotely, there were things I needed to take care of and items I needed to bring home. Moving through the mostly empty building, waving and calling out greetings to the few others present, was a completely surreal experience.

For today’s post I planned to write, apolitically, about this week of emotional overload, but I just don’t think I’m up to the task. Instead, I’d like to share this David Knopfler song, which encapsulates a lot of what I’m feeling:

As always, I welcome your thoughts, and would love to know what’s happening in your lives and how you’re feeling. Be well.

are you ok