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When We Found Nuance, We Re-Found Each Other
Rifling Through the Fog of Conversation
As soon as the incident came up, her lips started to purse and she stopped breathing a little. It took weeks to get her on the phone. The choppy text exchange – devoid of punctuation – flew back and forth on our itchy devices and got us…nowhere. Until I just called. At which point I stopped filling in the silence with whatever righteous conclusions wanted to creep in. That’s what happens in our digital world, nuance gets exiled to the netherworlds of our imagination – especially when there is a conflict present.
I used to resist calling though. I’d text – laboriously crafting position papers lined with just the right amount of perfunctory generosity accompanied by a carefully selected emoji or two. Inevitably, the “wrong” response would come my way, lighting up my 24/7 best friend, my iPhone screen, while also igniting my indignation.
But when we actually talked on the phone, I decided to abide in conversation.
“Abiding in Conversation” is a practice my partner John Scilipote and I developed in our Conversation training (you can download the Abiding in Conversation Visualization here to prepare you to “abide”). It means to endure, so to find “home” in the flow of the mighty river of conversation. Abiding helps us feel the ebb and flow of nuance while staying steady, without abandoning those we’re with or ourselves.
How often are we in conversations that jump from topic to topic never settling in as a way of avoiding uncomfortable complex subjects? Or for that matter, how often do we fail to call upon curiosity and exploration and end up going nowhere, feeling bored or stuck in a rut? And with cancel culture in our midst it’s become perfectly fine to eject ourselves from any situation the moment something feels remotely unforgivable (which essentially translates to “I’m uncomfortable”). Especially in difficult conversations, “Abiding in Conversation” helps you to reside in and move through the discomfort while maintaining, and honoring, the threads that connect you.
When my friend and I finally got to the heart of things, I discovered what she really thought and how she really felt. No wonder she didn’t want to talk! It was uncomfortable for both of us for her to admit how she judged me and for me to hear it. But I decided to get curious about the judgment instead of defending myself or hanging up. Once we talked, we settled into nuance. I discovered her thoughts and feelings were perfectly understandable as were mine! But we would have never gotten there through the depersonalizing digital intermediaries of text, chat, email or social media or without the courage to “Abide” and endure the uncomfortable and ultimately survivable hard stuff. Our conversation left me asking even more potent questions, questions like: what does “being right” even mean? Or, “being wrong”, for that matter? What matters? And, my favorite: why does it matter?
But in the hustle and bustle of the digital age, so often conversation and especially challenging conversation gets relegated to the sidelines.
Have you ever noticed how some friends recount a conflict in “conversation” but really they are referring to text exchanges? They say, “He or she said this or that, can you believe it?” Just to confirm, I ask, “Did you actually talk?” And the truth comes out, “They texted it to me.” When we use digital arbiters, we lose the details – the way she holds her breath and purses her lips, or the tapping of his foot, or the way she’s looking around the room, or his warm eyes or smile, or the subtle irritation – we lose the humanity.
The word nuance has its origins in the ancient words pertaining to clouds and fog. Could it be that the gray cloudy middle is where all the juicy stuff lives? What if we spent more time in face-to-face conversation instead of trapped in our digital middle-managers? What if we stuck it out when things got hard…or even boring. It is through conversation that there is the potential to see, sense, and inhale the fog, in order to actually connect to the vastness of our profound humanity – to connect to ourselves, others and the world around us – and nurture the threads of our connection.
But don’t blame our weary brains for the loss of nuance, this is the nature of the digital age – a house of cards built with 1s and 0s – rife with either/or propositions, with little or no nuance, whether it’s right/wrong, good/bad, Coke/Pepsi. We start to actually experience the world as a reductionist either/or place and even worse, we start to think this way. We can feel cornered into choosing – even when neither binary is the right fit – and when one is confronted by another from the “other” side we have no tolerance or means of bridging our rightness with their wrongness.
All this contributes to social dilemmas like polarization, the rise in loneliness, and mental health challenges.
Certainly, texting and emailing… and even social media can be perfectly appropriate means of communication – just like ketchup and mustard can be appropriate with hot dogs and fries but probably not so good on an ice cream sundae. I don’t mean to be totally doom and gloom (that would be very “digital age” of me!) I make the point about the sour effects of the digital age to encourage us to ask, what does it cost us to lose nuance, to live in an either/or world, a world measured by and parsed out in 1s and 0s? The Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, recently released a warning, “There are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”
But let’s say we actually put our devices down and have a conversation. We will likely still be faced with the challenges. How do we embrace nuance – where we are able to feel the rub of discomfort while also getting curious about it – where we sense the challenge while also having compassion for not being perfect (or right). I’d argue that our mental health and well-being thrives on the challenge to hold the complexity of nuance. And if we lose that, either through relying on our digital crutches or shutting the door on conversation, what are we left with?
Conversation is the thread that can keep us together or connected – a powerful contributor to the social fabric that keeps all of us safe, with a sense of belonging.
And in the case of my friend, it was through committed and courageous conversation that we remembered that our connection is ultimately not about what is right and wrong – (although there is some of that). Our connection is about love, friendship, passion mixed in with the darkness we all possess to some degree – all of which transcends 1s and 0s – which have no feelings.
I liken this nuance to poetry – littered with moments of sometimes frightful, sometimes bright-filled, profound meaning – likewise, small moments of meaning found in the nuance of conversation can change everything.
And this can be the conduit for finding the unsaid and complex connection of your relationships and thus, the profound poetry all around us.
But first, we actually have to pick up the phone, meet in person, rely less on texting, posting, emailing and make a point to actually be in conversation. Then we need to slow down and make the commitment to abide in conversation – making room for nuance and imperfection to unfold. Then we have to have more capacity for curiosity to move through the hard stuff or, on the other hand, get creative with the routine stuff. This is the thing about conversation, it has the power to take us into the wild and nuanced corners of our relationship – where the song of her voice could finally reach me and she could feel me feeling her. We grew a stronger thread that day, one step toward healing our bond and reweaving our common humanity.