May 15th, 2010

I flail without a solid context

This post could actually be a multipart post, because as I type this I think about how this statement is true in my work context. But right now I'm focusing on a friendly and emotional context.

I failed very badly yesterday in an interaction with shodoshan. In a way that I have often failed. The difference is that I was watching the interaction very carefully and I learned a lot in the experience.

I flail really badly when I'm not certain of context. And I'm not overstating this -- I have lots of confidence when I know what the general mood is, and what people are expecting. When I am unaware of the expectations of a person I am talking to, or unsure of the environment into which I speak, I flail. In particular, I say a lot of things and bounce around, trying to get enough feedback from the responses to build a scene in my mind.

I've always been aware that it confuses people when I do this, but usually I get what I need, calm down and then the others calm down and it's all good. Sometimes it blows up in my face, badly. Since I wasn't aware of the original context, it leaves me generally unable to determine what failed and why in my interactions.

Last night jadecat9 and I spent a long time talking about how I come across to people -- where I feel I'm being completely over the top about expressing myself, and yet what exactly I want is really unclear to at least her, and often to others. She gave me the advice to stop trying to just flow with it, and come straight out and ask the essential questions.

Later on that night shodoshan told me in no uncertain terms how it had come across to her, which was nowhere close to my intentions at the time. I was trying to build a safe place for the two of us to converse, but she perceived only a persistent attack on herself. Really, really not what I had intended. But the detailed information from the two conversations last night gave me a lot to think about, and by the time dawn had come I had done a lot of thinking, a lot of integration and hopefully learned a lot from the experience.

It's too late to fix the mistake that I made with shodoshan. But I can start making changes right now to how I interact with everyone else. Since this is fairly common situation for me, you're likely to witness these changes pretty fast if you know me well enough to read this post ;-)

The first change will be that I might start asking quiet questions before interacting in a given situation. I don't know how this will come across, but it will likely seem a bit insecure. Hopefully I'll get better at this and smooth it out.

The second will be that I'm going to leave situations which are confusing and in which I don't have a vested interest. So if you see me suddenly disappear from a group situation or bow out of a conversation, don't assume I'm dismissing you. I'm trying to avoid creating a negative impression by confusion on my part.

The final and most important change is going to be how I enter emotionally charged discussions. Instead of venturing into them and trying to determine which way the water flows, I'm going to try and set up a framework for the conversation in advance. Note however that I'll be doing this in ignorance, so if you see me set up this framework and it's all wrong for the situation, just come talk to me and I will absolutely adjust it based on what you tell me. (in fact, that conversation will likely tell me what I need to know to not be afraid and thus not need the framework)

That will work, I hope, for most situations. The hard question will be how to (blindly) build a stable framework for a conversation that I can feel safe with, when the person I'm talking to is angry or scared or otherwise already emotionally charged. My real goal is to find something we both are happy with, but it's very hard to do blind. My instinct is to say "work with me, let's build this together" but I've learned over the last year that this isn't easy for people to do when they are already reacting. So I don't know how this will work.

This is going to be essential for me going forward. I've got to get this right. I deeply appreciate anything any of you have to say on this matter.

P.S. Obviously situations in which nothing emotionally stressful appears to be happening I can continue to just roll around with, no problem. I'm only discussing situations in which at least one party is unhappy.
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