Highwire Act

I thought this anecdote about stoplights was an interesting view into communication. I think we all know the aphorism of “walking a mile in someone’s shoes” which is not what this is about. To me, this story illustrates sympathetic communication. “Walking a mile…” illustrates empathetic communication.

In the training I’ve done, this sympathetic form was called “trying to get on the same balcony.” The metaphor being that we are all looking at a situation from high up on our own little isolated balconies. To understand someone, you have to do what you can to get on their balcony. You don’t need their experience or their background. You just need to see it how they see it.

I fail at this regularly in my personal life but I tend to be slightly more successful at work. There are techniques to help you walk the tightrope to that other balcony. There are questions you can ask and ways you can ask that help you get across. But, make no mistake, it is a highwire act. Next time you are thinking, “My [insert person who doesn’t understand you] just doesn’t get it and they are making me so angry,” consider how even at their best, it may be quite difficult for them to “see it your way.”

Often, the core of the work to get to this place is called “listening to learn” which sounds like some mealy-mouthed new age fluff until you try it. Our culture prides itself on achievement, reaching the goal, being first, being right. Listening to learn asks us to sublimate all those impulses and instead to try to live in someone else’s story for a while. I find this kind of conversation easy to do in my private life, but difficult to do at work. That seems counter intuitive given my observation that I can get on someone else’s balcony at work more easily.

I think the difference lies in the stakes. In my personal life, I’m generally looking to make new acquaintances or even friends. At its most callous and transactional, I’m looking for details and characters to put into the next thing I write. But, there’s no judgment. There’s no measurable outcome. It’s simply existence. At work, that all falls to side as the goals are legion and the measurements of success only slightly less hard to grasp.

This feels like another paradox that lives happily in my head without resolution and anxiety. Sure, I’d like to get better at the “down” side of this equation in both milieus but perhaps just seeing things from the many balconies of my mind is a step forward.

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