Dr. Seuss and J.R.R. Tolkien

Seuss and Tolkien got together to write a pledge to becoming better listeners.

This is what they came up with:

I would listen in a box, and I would listen to a fox. I could listen to a hobbit, I will listen ’til you stop it. I would listen in a house, and I would listen to a mouse. I will listen on the train, and I will listen in the rain. I love to listen, Sam Gamgee, I‘m listening right where I be.*

cropped-pebblecast-338.jpg

(above: this is just a picture of me being ridiculous. It has nothing to do with anything.)

*You don’t have to memorize this to pass any test.

Eephus ain’t nothing

A Philosophy of Listening

Carpe diem

One day I think in 2010 while I was volunteering at a local soup kitchen, I walked past a bookshelf full of romance novels. Serendipity means finding a book worth reading on a shelf full of romances. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable was sitting there. I’d never heard of it before, but even the way the spine is designed said “this is not a romance novel.” So I seized the day, plucked it from the shelf, took it home, and began to read philosophy again.

In fact, I had read Why Art Cannot Be Taught by Elkins a few years before but perhaps didn’t see it as the philosophical book that it is. But the point is, since graduating college I hadn’t really engaged my brain that way. Once I read The Black Swan I had to admit to myself I was reading stuff that was a bit over my head, and from there I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and so on. I began again to engage philosophy, this time in a much more serious way than I had during my undergrad years. You don’t have to have a graduate program to make yourself read.

My basic conclusion after reading Why Art Cannot Be Taught was that Elkins was correct in saying that Art cannot be taught, but incorrect in failing to offer a more excellent way to engage with art students. Coaching, I believed, and a community of authentic relationship, may not teach anyone to become a “great” artist as defined by fame or wealth. But it could help artists to become better people, more well-adjusted, less prone to isolation and even to suicide or self-medication – things which have been known to destroy artists in their prime. If you want to become an artful motivational listener, that is, if you want to listen to people and watch them walk away and succeed at attaining goals and dreams, this is a science to some extent which can be studied like the science of mixing color. Just because you can mix red and yellow to get orange doesn’t mean you can move people. Just because you can ask powerful questions, like “What do you hope to get out of this session” doesn’t mean you’re going to become the most famous or wealthy coach. But then, this isn’t necessarily the end of an art-form like listening. As Ronald Reagan said (or repeated) “There’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Perhaps the first thing we have to lay down to learn this art is the idea that it will somehow become a great career and that it might make us famous. (Incidentally the same goes for writing. You have to come to the place where you don’t care how much money it makes or how famous you will become – you simply have an idea or story to tell. Then you become productive.)

One of the biggest philosophical questions of all time is this: What is Truth?

As a motivational listener, you’ll be listening for that too. But not so much in the way of a judge or lawyer in a courtroom. Instead, you’re listening for the truth like a hunting guide looks for bear or cougar spoor. Yep, the old biologist’s joke is true: bear spoor happens. The real value of being a hunting guide is in recognizing the unexpected for what it is. If you were teaching people to hunt for deer in northern Indiana, where I live, you’d think it’s not so difficult to avoid the danger of becoming prey. But there have been stories in the area of bears visiting from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Some years ago, perhaps around 2007, I was working in Ohio and saw a newspaper article discussing the fact that several people had spotted a cougar in their backyards. A representative of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources was quoted as saying “there are no cougars in Ohio.” Now there are many current articles about cougars in Ohio woodlands. As unusual and unexpected as they may be, you would do well to recognize the signs of this animal in your vicinity – and to be able to say to yourself the first time it happens, “I know there are no cougars, but here is a cougar,” and to take appropriate action. Being able to recognize something which is highly improbable is a key component, possibility as a critical piece of truth, that takes awareness and alertness that’s worth paying for.

On the flip side there are things we may uncover as we track that could help, as we listen to people’s story, which could lead to discovery of something spectacular, perhaps even resulting in some sort of breakthrough, and dare we say, greatness. To continue with the hunting guide analogy, knowing how to find not just any buck, but the twenty-point buck; to not just locate the hole where any northern pike are hiding, but to catch a record fish.

So, the art of motivational listening, like any other art, perhaps cannot be taught. But there is one thing I can tell you: you are looking for something you do not know. This is the core idea behind Taleb’s Black Swan. The Black Swan event is “an outlier, as it lies outside the real of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Secondly, it carries an extreme impact… Third, in spite of its outlier statues, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurance after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. … It Is easy to see that life is the cumulative effect of a handful of significant shocks… Black Swan Logic makes what you don’t know far more relevant than what you do know. Consider that many Black Swans can be caused and exacerbated by their being unexpected.

This is what we’re looking for when we listen. Where are the handful of shocks, positive or negative? To refer to an earlier essay where I discussed the nature of the knuckleball, say for example that you are the batter, and the knuckleball pitcher makes a mistake. He throws a pitch that rotates, and the ball, rather than knuckling impossibly, suddenly becomes very hittable. The only problem is that you may be so surprised by the relative ease that you miss the pitch anyway.

Another pitch, even more rare than the poorly-thrown knuckleball, relies on the surprise. This pitch, called an eephus pitch, is served up to the batter in such a way that it is intended to be so hittable that the batter misses.

Wikipedia notes: “The delivery from the pitcher has very low velocity and usually catches the hitter off-guard. Its invention is attributed to Rip Sewell of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1940s. According to manager Frankie Frisch, the pitch was named by outfielder Maurice Van Robays. When asked what it meant, Van Robays replied, “‘Eephus ain’t nothing, and that’s a nothing pitch.” Although the origin is not known for certain, Eephus may come from the Hebrew word אפס (pronounced “EFF-ess”), meaning “nothing“.[2]” 

The Eephus pitch must be used with terrible infrequency – a complete outlier. The minute it becomes expected, it becomes worthless. It’s no longer a Black Swan Event. Sometimes it’s called a ball, sometimes a strike, usually makes the batter laugh, fools even the umpire, and once, Ted Williams hit a home run in the All-Star Game on an eephus pitch. Ted Williams was the kind of batter who was always ready. Ted was one of the greats.

Greatness, in terms of “no limits to what may be accomplished” is often the result of flexibly and appropriately responding to a Black Swan event when it happens. It means the ability to recognize bear or cougar spoor and get out of the woods, or being ready for the eephus pitch, that moment in which things become so easy for you to knock it out of the park that you’re likely to completely miss your chance. I think the worst thing we could do when we see the eephus pitch coming is to freeze. Better to swing away and miss than not to try at all; as Shakespeare famously said, “Better to have loved and lost than never to love at all.”

The issue becomes one of preparation. How do you seize the day if you aren’t awake? Again, the quest for not only the truth of what is now, but the truth of what might be possible even if it has never been done, seen, or thought of, is where greatness exists, and yes, it’s improbable.

All the more reason to be on the lookout for it.

Appearances

You can look like you’re listening when you’re not.

But your responses in the conversation will betray you.

Here’s an invitation to tell your story:

When were you listening, but not really, and how did you get caught?

OR, when did someone pretend to listen to you but really miss the point? How did you know they weren’t listening?

Eephus ain’t nothing

A Philosophy of Listening

Carpe diem

One day I think in 2010 while I was volunteering at a local soup kitchen, I walked past a bookshelf full of romance novels. Serendipity means finding a book worth reading on a shelf full of romances. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable was sitting there. I’d never heard of it before, but even the way the spine is designed said “this is not a romance novel.” So I seized the day, plucked it from the shelf, took it home, and began to read philosophy again.

In fact, I had read Why Art Cannot Be Taught by Elkins a few years before but perhaps didn’t see it as the philosophical book that it is. But the point is, since graduating college I hadn’t really engaged my brain that way. Once I read The Black Swan I had to admit to myself I was reading stuff that was a bit over my head, and from there I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and so on. I began again to engage philosophy, this time in a much more serious way than I had during my undergrad years. You don’t have to have a graduate program to make yourself read.

My basic conclusion after reading Why Art Cannot Be Taught was that Elkins was correct in saying that Art cannot be taught, but incorrect in failing to offer a more excellent way to engage with art students. Coaching, I believed, and a community of authentic relationship, may not teach anyone to become a “great” artist as defined by fame or wealth. But it could help artists to become better people, more well-adjusted, less prone to isolation and even to suicide or self-medication – things which have been known to destroy artists in their prime. If you want to become an artful motivational listener, that is, if you want to listen to people and watch them walk away and succeed at attaining goals and dreams, this is a science to some extent which can be studied like the science of mixing color. Just because you can mix red and yellow to get orange doesn’t mean you can move people. Just because you can ask powerful questions, like “What do you hope to get out of this session” doesn’t mean you’re going to become the most famous or wealthy coach. But then, this isn’t necessarily the end of an art-form like listening. As Ronald Reagan said (or repeated) “There’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Perhaps the first thing we have to lay down to learn this art is the idea that it will somehow become a great career and that it might make us famous. (Incidentally the same goes for writing. You have to come to the place where you don’t care how much money it makes or how famous you will become – you simply have an idea or story to tell. Then you become productive.)

One of the biggest philosophical questions of all time is this: What is Truth?

As a motivational listener, you’ll be listening for that too. But not so much in the way of a judge or lawyer in a courtroom. Instead, you’re listening for the truth like a hunting guide looks for bear or cougar spoor. Yep, the old biologist’s joke is true: bear spoor happens. The real value of being a hunting guide is in recognizing the unexpected for what it is. If you were teaching people to hunt for deer in northern Indiana, where I live, you’d think it’s not so difficult to avoid the danger of becoming prey. But there have been stories in the area of bears visiting from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Some years ago, perhaps around 2007, I was working in Ohio and saw a newspaper article discussing the fact that several people had spotted a cougar in their backyards. A representative of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources was quoted as saying “there are no cougars in Ohio.” Now there are many current articles about cougars in Ohio woodlands. As unusual and unexpected as they may be, you would do well to recognize the signs of this animal in your vicinity – and to be able to say to yourself the first time it happens, “I know there are no cougars, but here is a cougar,” and to take appropriate action. Being able to recognize something which is highly improbable is a key component, possibility as a critical piece of truth, that takes awareness and alertness that’s worth paying for.

On the flip side there are things we may uncover as we track that could help, as we listen to people’s story, which could lead to discovery of something spectacular, perhaps even resulting in some sort of breakthrough, and dare we say, greatness. To continue with the hunting guide analogy, knowing how to find not just any buck, but the twenty-point buck; to not just locate the hole where any northern pike are hiding, but to catch a record fish.

So, the art of motivational listening, like any other art, perhaps cannot be taught. But there is one thing I can tell you: you are looking for something you do not know. This is the core idea behind Taleb’s Black Swan. The Black Swan event is “an outlier, as it lies outside the real of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Secondly, it carries an extreme impact… Third, in spite of its outlier statues, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurance after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. … It Is easy to see that life is the cumulative effect of a handful of significant shocks… Black Swan Logic makes what you don’t know far more relevant than what you do know. Consider that many Black Swans can be caused and exacerbated by their being unexpected.

This is what we’re looking for when we listen. Where are the handful of shocks, positive or negative? To refer to an earlier essay where I discussed the nature of the knuckleball, say for example that you are the batter, and the knuckleball pitcher makes a mistake. He throws a pitch that rotates, and the ball, rather than knuckling impossibly, suddenly becomes very hittable. The only problem is that you may be so surprised by the relative ease that you miss the pitch anyway.

Another pitch, even more rare than the poorly-thrown knuckleball, relies on the surprise. This pitch, called an eephus pitch, is served up to the batter in such a way that it is intended to be so hittable that the batter misses.

Wikipedia notes: “The delivery from the pitcher has very low velocity and usually catches the hitter off-guard. Its invention is attributed to Rip Sewell of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1940s. According to manager Frankie Frisch, the pitch was named by outfielder Maurice Van Robays. When asked what it meant, Van Robays replied, “‘Eephus ain’t nothing, and that’s a nothing pitch.” Although the origin is not known for certain, Eephus may come from the Hebrew word אפס (pronounced “EFF-ess”), meaning “nothing“.[2]” 

The Eephus pitch must be used with terrible infrequency – a complete outlier. The minute it becomes expected, it becomes worthless. It’s no longer a Black Swan Event. Sometimes it’s called a ball, sometimes a strike, usually makes the batter laugh, fools even the umpire, and once, Ted Williams hit a home run in the All-Star Game on an eephus pitch. Ted Williams was the kind of batter who was always ready. Ted was one of the greats.

Greatness, in terms of “no limits to what may be accomplished” is often the result of flexibly and appropriately responding to a Black Swan event when it happens. It means the ability to recognize bear or cougar spoor and get out of the woods, or being ready for the eephus pitch, that moment in which things become so easy for you to knock it out of the park that you’re likely to completely miss your chance. I think the worst thing we could do when we see the eephus pitch coming is to freeze. Better to swing away and miss than not to try at all; as Shakespeare famously said, “Better to have loved and lost than never to love at all.”

The issue becomes one of preparation. How do you seize the day if you aren’t awake? Again, the quest for not only the truth of what is now, but the truth of what might be possible even if it has never been done, seen, or thought of, is where greatness exists, and yes, it’s improbable.

All the more reason to be on the lookout for it.

Top three reasons coaches should read fiction

Self-reflection: Because literary fiction uses techniques that dislocates our minds and call our attention to strangeness in the world (called foregrounding) that may lead us to be unsettled and look at things differently (defamiliarization) which interacts with stillness which includes self-contemplation and appreciation of art (which I believe is a component of what I’ve called hedgerows) and causes self-reflection.

Empathy: Kidd and Castano: We propose that by prompting readers to take an active writerly role to form representations of characters’ subjective states, literary fiction recruits Theory of Mind. In other words, fiction may increase empathy – both accurately identifying peoples’ emotions cognitively, but also giving us the flexibility to place ourselves in their shoes (affective empathy). There is some indication that reading fiction helps us suspend judgement of others.

Goal Setting: This one surprised me. According to Oatley, narrative fiction constitutes simulation that runs our “planning processor” which is the part of our minds we use in daily life to plan actions in order to attain goals.

The academics have much more work to do, but the more studies they do, the more links they find between reading literary fiction and several of the major pieces we need to become really good motivational listeners.

A researcher named Oatley famously said that “fiction is twice as true as fact”. I believe that this idea is related to my concept of “absolute truth” that by extending our possible world views we broaden truth, rather than narrowing it.

All these papers have one major commonality: they all acknowledge that there isn’t definitive proof of cause. When it comes to encouraging the reading of literature for the sake of improving empathy, some major issues come up. Your personality type, how do you define “literature”, whether your empathic personality predisposes you to reading, or does reading really cause empathy? There are a lot of outstanding questions.

Here’s one more statement I found interesting:

Because fiction gives us a low-threat context, it gives us an optimal aesthetic distance for constructive content simulation.

I in 2011 and 2012 as I finished my first novel, our financial situation was treacherous. (What, you’ve never heard of a first-time novelist who’s broke?) There were days it seemed it would be easier to just ditch everything, get in my car and leave my family behind. It wasn’t that my wife and I were having problems, certainly not that we had fights or marital issues, in general, but perhaps the best way to put it was that I felt pretty strongly that I wasn’t helping our situation, and no matter what I tried, I couldn’t seem to shake that for a long time. The character in that novel named Arnold, who leaves his wife and young children and goes to Alaska, was, for me as a writer, constructive content simulation. I was able to enter the world of a man who leaves his wife (entertain a fantasy, one might say) from a safe aesthetic distance, which allowed me to engage my “planning processor” and think through the ramifications of such activity, experiencing it virtually, without doing something destructive. None of the research I’ve read says anything about writing fiction. But it seems to have done the same thing for me. The immersion for the writer is, in many ways, far deeper than it is for the reader. The writer has to read the work dozens of times over, correcting it for authenticity as much as possible, which means the planning processor mode works overtime.

Sometimes it feels as though that planning processor, like a microchip, is at risk of overheating. It occurs to me now that this sort of overheating may be one cause of writer’s block.

Note: I haven’t included links, but if you want to read some of the papers, just email me.

More Thoughts about Hedgerows

When it comes to doing great listening I find that it’s difficult to do without hedgerows. This term is a little like when people talk about having margins in their life, or perhaps somewhat like taking a regular Sabbath; but there’s something more I want to explore with you.

Margins, of course, are neat and tidy. They are consistent. Whoever lays out this book will decide on a number, perhaps around five-eighths of an inch, and three-quarters in the gutter, so you don’t feel the print is mashed up against the edge of the book. It gives everything a tidy feel, so that you have some breathing room. When we talk about margins in life, we usually mean the time you take to get your coffee in the morning, watch a T.V. show at night, or attend a festival with a friend on Friday night or Saturday. “Me” time, down-time. Time spent NOT worrying about all the demands made on you by bosses, spouses, parents, children and even requests for your energy from places where you enjoy volunteering.

Sabbath is the last day of the week, the day of rest. In this article from Relevant Nancy Sleeth says: “A recent poll of 2,000 pastors in North Carolina revealed that less than 10 percent are keeping a regular Sabbath. Think about this for a moment. If 90 percent of pastors announced from the pulpit that murder (or stealing, or adultery) is OK, don’t you think it might raise a few eyebrows in the pews, let alone the press? … decide what work is for you and don’t do it on your Sabbath. For people engaged in sedentary work during the week, puttering around in the garden on the Sabbath might be restful. For people who do manual labor, holy rest might mean taking a nap.”

 

Okay. I don’t know if you do or don’t have margins on a daily basis or Sabbath weekly, but without them you can’t grow a hedgerow.

Hedgerows are something different, something more than margins and a day off. Look up hedgerows on the internet and you’ll quickly realize that the most famous pop culture reference to a hedgerow is from Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, arguably one of the ten greatest rock anthems ever, in spite of the fact that nobody really knows what on earth this verse means:

“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
And it makes me wonder.”

stairway

It makes us all wonder. But that is the point – at least as far as my definition of hedgerow is concerned. It’s a place to wander and wonder.

An actual hedgerow is a stretch of semi-wild trees or shrubbery, (perhaps with a path!) which creates borders between fields, a place where foxes can live, blackberries can grow, and children can disappear for the day and come home happy, dirty, and still wondering. It’s right next to cultivated fields, so it’s easily accessible from the places where you normally work, the places you keep much tidier but spending any time tending and exploring the hedgerows only brings you surprises. A handful of edible mushrooms, priceless, not something you expected.

When I was a boy we had a creek, woods, places to while away the summer days, unplugged. We could spend an afternoon exploring up the creek, farther each time, we could spend hours building a hut. The best hut was built after workmen with bulldozers cleared a field for a new blueberry patch. They pushed dozens of trees and brush up against the side of the field and into the woods, and on the back side, we found a hollow. We took actual tools, bailer twine, spent hours building sides and a door, cutting and lashing, log cabin style, and camped out. We were so unplugged, so far away that we couldn’t be called for dinner, or to take out the trash – and we liked it that way.

We never felt guilty about taking the time to do this. We saw it as a normal way to spend the day.

In the hedgerow you may work, but it’s a playful work. You may write an essay and decide it doesn’t fit your book. You may run extra experiments for fun and discover something you weren’t even researching.

I believe that a motivational listener needs to not only have margins and Sabbath but also must explore a hedgerow now and then. Perhaps even often. We gain perspective just by looking at the world differently. We follow a trail just to see where it goes; and if it goes nowhere, or to the dump, where we might find some piece of junk we discovered we need in our pocket, so much the better. When we’re used to exploring hedgerows for ourselves, we’re ready to guide others in that same quest.

When we listen, we listen for the interesting bits. Not the parts where people are regularly cultivating a field. When I coach, the areas where my client has neatly plowed and planted, the parts of their lives that are in order, are not the places where we can discover anything new. We won’t find the interesting rock walls to climb, the juicy blackberries to pick, and we won’t spot a skunk in their neatly plowed fields. But if there’s a bustle in the hedgerow, I follow it.

How do I schedule time to be in the hedgerow?

The main tactic to make space for this is to loosen up your schedule. I just re-took the MBTI personality test and discovered that I’m borderline between Judger  or “J” (the type of person who likes to have a strict schedule) and the Perceiver, i.e. “P” (the one who likes to keep their options open). I believe that Personality Type isn’t static. I used to be a pretty intense J, but it’s the P who likes to make up stories. It’s the P who has empty space in their schedule, and likes to keep it that way. In other words, partly because I learned to coach and to write fiction between 2009 and 2014 while being under-self-employed meant that I naturally had a lot more room in my schedule than I used to, and I had to adapt to that lifestyle, which meant becoming comfortable again in the hedgerows.

I can’t tell you excactly how to loosen up your schedule. That’s a problem for you on an individual level. (If you’re having trouble doing it on your own, you’re a candidate for a wax job). After all, it was somewhat forced on me by a variety of circumstances. One thing I can say for sure is that without it, I wouldn’t be the motivational listener and storyteller that I am today, certainly not with the same quality and excellence.

I think this is something that business coaches often don’t really find their way into. They move from high-powered executive positions to hard-charging coaches who are constantly selling and networking, rarely with time themselves in the hedgerows. This makes it difficult for them to invite people into the hedgerow. For those of us in a busy Western world, or in a busy business environment generally (and they tell me now that things are even busier in Seoul and Singapore than they are in the USA). But business people don’t need your help with more cultivation. They need help exploring hedgerows.

The Garden Gnome

Want to improve your empathy? Go read a novel.

Once upon a time, there was a simple garden gnome named Bill. Bill was the kindly looking type of gnome, with half-glasses he used for reading. It wasn’t so much that he was looking down his nose at you, as he was looking over his cheeks. You know the type. Of course he wore a red cap and a green vest, except on Tuesdays when he wore his plaid one. Bill the Gnome knew all the woodland creatures by name. Hubert the Turtle, Wally the Rabbit… Bill even had tea with Guinevere the Red Fox on occasion. One sunny morning, as he walked along, he came across an old copy of The Wind in the Willows, upside down in a patch of ferns. “I know,” said Bill, “I’ll take this over to Nancy the Field-mouse. She’ll love this story.” So off he waddled, to find Mrs. Nancy, without even stopping to wonder who might have lost this beautiful book. And so his adventure began.

I have for some time this year had a theory that reading fiction would make one a better listener. But now I’ve found some exciting research that proves it, so don’t take it from me. When it comes to social sciences, I’m no academic. I’m just a simple practitioner of empathy and fiction. But some folks discovered that fiction does indeed increase empathy – and even more importantly, reading non-fiction is a negative indicator!

Of course the volume was something Old Gravel-Pit the Snow Owl had dropped one night. He’d been reading by the light of the moon when he saw something far below his treetop perch that caught his attention. It glistened as though it were a very large rodent with one eye open and the other eye closed. Was some cheeky woodchuck winking at him? How dare he? And so, forgetting his book, Old Gravel-Pit (we have long forgotten how he came by this name, I suppose that somewhere along the line they added the “Old” part, though perhaps he was born with it, being an Owl and all) and … Where was I? Oh – and forgetting his book he swooped down to take what was rightfully his; that is, anything he sees, as far as he is concerned, be it a woodchuck or a pocket-watch.

Here is the Abstract from an October, 2006 paper by Raymond A. Mar, et al, in the Journal of Research in Personality:

While frequent readers are often stereotyped as socially awkward, this may only be true of non-fiction readers and not readers of fiction. Comprehending characters in a narrative fiction appears to parallel the comprehension of peers in the actual world, while the comprehension of expository non-fiction shares no such parallels. Frequent fiction readers may thus bolster or maintain their social abilities unlike frequent readers of non-fiction. Lifetime exposure to fiction and non-fiction texts was examined along with performance on empathy/social-acumen measures. In general, fiction print-exposure positively predicted measures of social ability, while non-fiction print-exposure was a negative predictor. The tendency to become absorbed in a story also predicted empathy scores. Participant age, experience with English, and intelligence (g) were statistically controlled.

Of course it turned out to be a pocket-watch some careless gnome had dropped; it would go nicely with a plaid vest. Gravel-Pit the Snow Owl was disgusted to find that it was both inedible and also useless at telling any sort of story. He went in search of his book again the next evening as the sun went down, and it was just as Bill the Gnome turned out of the woods and into the field, that Gravel-Pit finally saw his book waddling along. Without thinking how the book might be moving on its own, he snagged it in one talon. Poor, surprised Bill forgot to let go of The Wind in the Willows as it lifted off, and soon he realized that he didn’t want to let go of it anymore, now, being so high off the ground, and up he went, higher and higher, sailing towards the Great Wheat Field where one could get lost, and beyond!

Do you feel for Bill? What would you rather do, read more about Bill, or go find this Study online and read it all? Did you really read the abstract, or just skim it? Did you just jump ahead, absorbed in the story, to read more about the silly gnome? (If so it’s a good sign for you as an empathetic person and for me as a writer!) Now I’m not saying that this little story I slapped out in a few minutes about a gnome and an owl contains any sort of literary brilliance, but the truth is, we hunger for story (which gives us something to think about), more than we do for non-fiction (which is where we get told what to think). Chances are you aren’t reading this article while on a date. No, you go to a movie!

Today I was working with a new coach, who was trying to get a visual picture for himself of what he wants to become in this next phase of life as a coach. I asked him to think of characters in movies or books that he admired, and he came up with Gandalf the wizard, (for how he’d like to be) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (for the types of clients he wants). The key is becoming deeply involved in reading a story, not in movies.  Movies don’t count for developing empathy (at least not as far as the research shows.) Still, asking people about movie characters is an excellent way to help them visualize. Fewer people are reading fiction all the time. And we wonder why we’re lacking soft skills? You could go read the report, or you could take my word for it and go grab a novel.

Adam G. Fleming is a leadership coach specializing in creativity and the author of one novel, White Buffalo Gold, 2012, available on Amazon.

Memory’s Patina

In courtroom psychology, where facts are king, memory has been shown to be one of the more unreliable tools for discovery. Each time we recall an event, our brains add to or subtract from the experience, creating a patina, adding layers of varnish or grime so that while the antique table of our memories looks less and less like it did the day that memory was made, we only recognize it years later as the shiny antique we now see.

If an ancient memory is like an antique table, what is the value of stripping it back to its bare facts? For those who love the PBS show Antique Road Show you know that stripping the patina and refinishing a piece of old furniture actually lessens the value of it, but in some cases a painting or piece of furniture can also be restored by an expert, giving it even greater value. In the same way, your memory, coated over with layers, may become less valuable as a tool to illuminate beauty and principle if stripped by confrontation with the basic facts; as if it were a pearl stripped back to the initial grain which irritated the oyster. On the other hand, the idea of “cleaning or restoring” corresponds to the idea that we might take that memory and distill from it the underlying principle, making it elegant again.

We do not want to strip the memory to bare facts, but we do want to highlight the beauty of what we learned from it, what stays with us as evidence of the refining of time which makes it more valuable. It isn’t the wood of the table (though it may be from an extinct tree such as the American chestnut – that is the like the last remaining person whose personal memory includes World War One). The beauty is the patina itself, something nobody could create, it’s only made by time.

So. Memories attached to emotions, are one of the most reliable tools for getting at the principles of what impact events have had on the speaker’s life. For example, my memories of Congo are not perhaps factual, (see Congo blogs in archives) but the principles I’ve drawn highlight what was valuable in the experience.

We might even say that the writers of the four Gospels, who waited some thirty years, may not have given us the facts, in the strictest sense, that they might have if they were involved in some sort of daily journalism during the days of Christ. On the other hand, their somewhat delayed picture may be even more valuable for the patina they added; the things they remembered because of how the principles continued to ring true over time come closer to an illumination of the indelible reality Jesus left them with than what a newspaper man might have given us looking at events in real time.

The Listener understands that truth may contain facts, but no true story contains all facts, and therefore a motivational listener is unconcerned with knowing all facts. Long before Christ walked the earth Lao Tzu speaks of the “Myriad things” or “Ten-thousand things” while Solomon ridiculed the quest for all facts “everything under the sun is vanity.” The aim of their poetic philosophy is to uncover principle, not to catalog fact. They realized long before computers existed that nobody would ever be able to collect all facts in one place and that facts were, in fact, relatively superfluous to the discovery and illumination of truth.

The Listener hears stories constructed from Memory knowing that such stories are, as time goes on, scientifically unreliable in terms of factual reconstruction of events, but that the same Memory is remarkably reliable in its able to recall emotions experienced or established during an event. In my recollections of Congo/Zaire 27 years ago, my memory now has such a patina that you should not trust my memory to give you a perfect rendering of the facts. You should be able to trust that the patina on my memory will give you a very accurate rendition of how the events shaped my life. And that is the reality I now live.

Canonized books of story or poetry which have been used as factual sledgehammers cause us discomfort, but their original impact in society was due to their usefulness in the way their story elucidated truth regardless of factuality. The first question to ask when studying canonic texts is not “is this or that a fact?” but rather, “how does this story impact me emotionally? What true principles are here?” If the story should turn out to be factual as well, all the better.

The Listener reads fiction with abandon, uncovering truth wherever it may be found, and reads non-fiction with caution, recognizing that each fact stacked upon another fact could build a tower of Babel; that a large collection of facts twisted for the writer’s profit is less valuable than a single principle uncovering some absolute truth. And so, for example, the books of the Bible, if you take them to be fiction, read them with abandon, and if you read them as non-fiction, read them with caution. When you listen to a companion, encourage their wildest fantasies, let them ride unicorns to the ends of rainbows where they find pots of gold, and take their statements of fact (particularly when remembering facts of long ago) with a grain of salt.

Hedgerows

Hedgerows

Wendell Berry loves to talk about how we need to maintain healthy hedgerows where the wild meets the cultivated. Those hedgerows are places where foxes live, where biodiversity is maintained in favor of monoculture.

My wife does most of the gardening. Along the south side of our house, nearly invisible from the street, we have a variety of fruits and vegetables in a narrow strip. (We have a city plot so I’m talking about a strip south of the house between our foundation and the property line only six feet wide.) There are squash, tomatoes, rhubarb and raspberries this year. I know my veggies, but I’m always making up names for the flowers because I never know which name goes with which blossom.

“Look at these chrysanthemums, they’re nice,” I say.

“Those are peonies,” she says.

“I like the daisies,” I say, and she tells me they are lilies. I shrug. Doesn’t matter. Can’t eat them. As a writer I’m more Garrison Keillor in this way than Barbara Kingsolver. Keillor admits he doesn’t know from trees. Kingsolver manages to write novels that are more about plants than they are about the people who cultivate and destroy them.

But I know milkweed; I’ve known it from childhood, and I’ve become more excited about it since reading Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. I’ve allowed it to come up in a corner of my back yard. That’s because milkweed is the only plant on which the monarch butterfly will lay her eggs. It’s called a weed, but the blossoms do have a sweet smell. Today, while I was looking over the raspberries semi-productively, and suddenly, halfway through our second summer of allowing milkweed to stand in my mini-hedgerow, I got the reward: a monarch butterfly showed up and flitted about.

Making space for hedgerows are important to biodiversity, and when we strive to become better listeners we also need to make space for a hedgerow. The analogy works two ways. First is the milkweed. That’s the space in your own life for time to create; I mean down time. It’s really hard to help someone slow down if you haven’t practiced it yourself. Taking time today to snap photos of “our” butterfly was that creative down time when it doesn’t matter if anything really gets accomplished.

The second hedgerow is like the butterfly itself showing up, and it happens during a listening session. This is a conversational border area, a place (usually at the beginning and end) of a conversation where we aren’t just cultivating our usual corn and beans, that is, trying to be productive with our time. Instead we’re just wandering through some down time together. The biodiversity in the hedgerow of a conversation can show us that wild side in our humanness. There’s value in that wild side, beauty, moments of migratory musings and shy potential which can lead to the best stuff. It’s why I prefer an hour session to a half hour. In 30 minutes, I can coach and issue beginning to end, but I don’t have the time for that extra moment to notice the best little pieces of life. Hedgerows have to be cultivated, too, but it’s a cultivation of non-plowing, non-sowing. Make space for these kinds of margins in your week (allow milkweeds), and then in your conversation (be alert for butterflies).

Slowly Moving Rivers

Slowly Moving Rivers

I walked by the mill-race today, and the water moved lazily past me. It was almost as if the river said to me “I have nowhere to go in particular, but something magnetic compels me into motion.”

I, too, was stuck. I had nowhere in particular to go, insofar as I had all afternoon to write, and only wanted a few good words, maybe just 450 when I can easily write 4500 in that amount of time. 450 well-placed words, rather than 4500 aimless ones, is better. I felt that I wasn’t moving much, so I went for a walk instead.

Sometimes peoples’ progress is imperceptible, or so slow it almost drives you crazy. Like a slowly moving river, their approach is wide rather than narrow, they aren’t shooting through the rapids.

They wind around, rather than going in a straight line.

Their path is full of algae, even fallen branches, sometimes trash – shiny, empty skins of old Doritos bags, Pepsi cans sitting sideways, their mouths half-filled with muck. They aren’t moving fast enough to sweep the debris.

Are they getting anywhere at all? Does it even matter to them when the world around cries out with urgency?

I thought the river was in a conversation and it would turn out that the river was the listener today, but this is not the case. Today, the river was the one being listened to. Nearly stuck, almost a pond.

But not quite. Gravity continued to gently play her part, softly drawing the river north, never screaming or begging for much motion; just a little, continuing the flow, and it would be enough.

When we’re listening, and hoping for progress, and inviting people to move, we must remember that an aqueduct such as the Pont du Gard has a drop of 34 cm over a kilometer; that the river in my town is only 801 feet above sea level and has plenty of time to get there with very little gradient.

Vitruvius, a first century civil engineer, recommended no more than a drop of 1:4800 for an aqueduct. That’s because too much drop puts undue pressure on the system and causes more rapid deterioration of the entire system.

It’s easy to panic when we think that there isn’t time.

But there is time. Be like gravity, a slow steady pull. Even those who don’t seem to be moving very fast will one day get to the ocean. Your 375 words will be like 375 cm of drop in an aqueduct. Don’t try to use gravity too fast; the system may degrade from pressure and erosion.

When things move slowly (and you move beside them slowly) you’ll see things a rushing river or a dead sprint might not give you: two turtles sunning on a log. Four ripe blackberries you can eat. A robin with a worm. Slowly, you have the ability to avoid getting goose crap on your shoes. Slowly, you’ll see a duck kicking her way upstream. Slowly, the river gets where it’s going and you don’t miss the scenery, either. It’s two for the price of one.