Thinking Out Loud

Put Your Oar In

Kelly speaks and writes well; his linguistic strengths are evident. He cares about words and their specific meanings and works diligently in conversation to be thoughtful about the language he uses, while respecting others who are not as linguistically oriented. If there is a lack of connection or understanding in a conversation, Kelly works even harder to find a different tack to create an understanding. He’s very careful not to just chalk it up to the other person’s failings. At times he takes this to extremes, especially when the other person isn’t truly engaged. Kelly keeps trying and trying and trying and winds up discouraged, feeling that he has failed.

During consultations with me, Kelly has often focused on trying to find just the right way to present an idea, feeling, or situation so the other person will be receptive to a fuller conversation. Although I am experienced with helping others prepare for difficult conversations, such conversations don’t always involve finding just the right words. Kelly is very good at finding just the right words. Here’s how he recently described his communication problem: “The image I have is of being in my rowboat with only one oar in the water. Guess what? With one oar in the water you go in circles and don’t get anywhere! That’s what I see happening.”

It’s easy to see where this conversation went next. I said, “What if you have both oars in the water? You’re bound to go somewhere new, perhaps not where you imagined though.” This image appealed to Kelly and he said, “Images are important to me. I see things in my mind’s eye, visualizing as I go along; so if I change the image, making sure I have both oars in the water, I won’t be drained of energy the way I am when I’m going in circles.”
So here’s what happened next when Kelly approached one of these difficult conversations. In preparation for the conversation, he visualized being in his boat with both oars in the water, which he said gave him a stronger feeling of stability. As the conversation unfolded, he noticed that it was proceeding at a slower pace—that he wasn’t rushing into the silence over-explaining each thought or feeling. He also asked questions, not so much out of frustration but with genuine curiosity. All of this felt much better to Kelly . . . but it didn’t result in a more engaged conversation or a mutual understanding.

Our subsequent discussion was about how you can’t predict or control the outcome when you decide to change the pattern. The conversation he wanted to have did not materialize, but he was not emotionally drained (as he often was in the past) and he felt more energized. Of course this also meant that he had to reckon with a feeling of loss. This time, however, the loss did not mean losing his sense of agency.

Focusing on the outcome you’d like is natural, but often changing the pattern through the use of a different modality (visual-spatial in this case) opens new, unimagined possibilities. Kelly repositioned himself in his mind’s eye, which affected how he conducted the conversation. And although he didn’t get the hoped-for result, he was able to accept that he couldn’t make the conversation successful on his own. Somehow he could see that and accept this reality much better with both oars in the water.

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