Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Finding Myself

I'm trying to find myself.

One of my tools is the book Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. She's one of my heroes. Her company's site is listed as a source of inspiration on this blog. Here are some reasons why:

(1) Her book challenges me. It reminds me of the importance of authenticity and integrity. It encourages me not to place blame. It asks me to be patient. It pushes me to listen to myself.

(2) Her book confirms things I value. It conveys the importance of getting many perspectives in order to see the whole picture. My background in history taught me that, too. One perspective is never enough; individual truths overlap and contradict each other and are still truths.

(3) Her book requests that I not use the word "but". To instead use the word "and". I'm trying really hard to follow this one.

Through much soul searching and guidance from Scott's book and others, I have discovered that I want to spend my life making the world a better place. I want to help people find the answers they are seeking. I want to provide people the tools they need to improve their own lives. The real question is "In what way? In what context?"

I have spent most of my life terrified of conflict. I have almost never witnessed an example of conflict handled with positive results. My parents never fought. My sister, free spirit that she is, caused so much conflict and turmoil in my otherwise stable childhood that I subconsciously became a third parent, inadvertently increasing the level of conflict between us. I had no idea how to handle disagreement. I would shut down or remove myself from the room. I would lower my eyes, shrink my body, and back into a corner. You would think I was being threatened with physical pain. I was unprepared for conflict; I didn't know how to react appropriately.

Ironically, I loved to study conflict. Peace and war. History. I think it fascinated me because I knew I was disadvantaged when it came to handling conflict that involved me personally, so I obsessed about conflict that involved other people. I tried to learn from others, to gain from their experiences. Unfortunately, this did not give me any personal experience in handling conflict, so even now, I still need practice.

I did make some progress. I enrolled in conflict mediation training. I looked for ways to make the situations around me better. In several places of employment, I created policies and procedures to promote clear expectations and better communication where such things were lacking. When I participated in meetings as a note-taker, my write-ups included action items that had not been made clear by the meeting participants, encouraging progress before the next meeting so I wouldn't be tempted to throw up my hands in desperation when the exact same things were discussed for the tenth time in a row. While this was an act purely intended only to maintain my personal sanity, it demonstrated to me that guidance was needed and that I might be good at providing it.

At the same time, I still rarely had a conversation that involved bringing disagreement to the fore. I was always diplomatic to the point of being ineffective, so terrified of saying something critical that I ended up avoiding the real issues altogether. The actions I described above were executed in a very passive, e-mail centered environment. I rarely needed to speak to anyone directly about my thoughts, perspective, or disagreement.

Fierce Conversations has helped me see that conflict does not have to be negative. Conflict is an impetus for change. Change is good. The challenge is to actively participate in a conversation that facilitates change by engaging the participants, to present ideas and suggestions and criticism without shutting people down.

In graduate school, I studied Public History, which includes such fields as historic preservation, museum studies, oral history, and archive studies. Its study includes such themes as identity, memory, sense of place, and civic engagement. It essentially teaches the skills needed to present history (often very contentious, emotional, and sensitive topics) to the public in a way that engages them and makes the material relevant to them.

Fierce Conversations are about engaging people the same way, just with potentially different content. My "way" and "context" are in helping people handle conflict more appropriately. I haven't figured out the right career path yet, whether it is public history, human resources, community activism or consulting, but I have faith that when the right opportunity shows up that I will be ready to dive in.

Scott also discusses the idea of "ground truth" in her book. The similarity to my interest in history is clear. Both promote the need to get to the root causes of a situation in order to understand the results and consequences. Finding the ground truth of a situation is necessary to avoid putting out fires (or putting on bandaids) and to discover the true problem that needs to be solved. The skill comes in asking the right questions and truly listening to the answers.

Wouldn't the world be a better place if we stop telling people they are wrong and instead find out why they think they are right?

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