August 9, 2011
I love the movie While You Were Sleeping. It’s a ninety’s movie, I know, but it’s one of those I watch often and is part of a special set of familiar movies I enjoy while I’m multitasking. The fact that I know them so well means I can follow the story without having to pay a lot of attention to it. My favorite scene in this one is where the family is sitting around the table, each spouting off their thoughts in a tangle of subjects. The result is crazy and extremely funny.
Maybe I enjoy that scene so much because it reminds me of what happens very often at our house. Here are two recent conversations that happened around me…
The first exchange was in a car driving through Wildlife Safari with my brother Harvey and my dad. It went something like this: Harvey, “Yesterday I ate a peach that had no marks on the outside, but inside I found two live insects.” Dad, “In your pizza?” Me, “Peaches!” Dad, “I still have all mine.” Harvey, “Why did you throw them away?” Me, “You both need hearing aids!” Dad, “I keep mine in the refrigerator.”
The second one happened at lunch today. David and I were sitting in Carl’s Jr. with my brother and Dad. As we were finishing our meal my brother announced loudly (for that’s the only way he knows how to talk), “The purpose of a man is to love a woman.” As we all gaped at him, he continued, “Oh, yeah.” David and I immediately realized he was merely quoting the lyrics of the sixty’s song playing quietly in the restaurant, but my dad, who has never listened to popular music and who, because of his diminished hearing, probably didn’t know there was background music, looked at Harv like he was crazy.
I observed two important things from these two encounters. First, if we intend to have good conversations with people, we need to hear what they are saying. I hate talking to someone who I know is not paying any attention but is pretending to be interested. My favorite boss was a man named Kal Shadid. When you talked to Kal, he acted as if you were the most important person in the world and nothing was more interesting than what you were saying. When you were finished, he might disagree with you, but at least he listened carefully and heard what you said.
My second observation was that context is vitally important if you want to be understood. We once had a man living with us who was a graduate student in some kind of science. He was the kind of person who tried to give the impression that he knew everything. One day I came upon him and my nine-year-old daughter in the kitchen. He was lecturing her on the finite details of how a combustible engine differed from nuclear power or some similarly technical subject. Jennifer was looking at him, nodding her head and saying an occasional, “M-m-m. Really!” My brilliant daughter had realized that if you acted like you didn’t understand or had a question, he would go on in even more length and detail about the subject. This man, although an outstanding student, had no idea how to talk to a child—or sometimes, even adults. In order to have a real conversation, all parties have to be on the same page or nothing meaningful will be communicated.
Tonight, we have invited some friends over for coffee and conversation. So, if you come, we promise to listen carefully and to make sure we talk about things that we all can understand. We are excited to get to know some people better and find some common points of interest where we can connect at a deeper level. That’s the cement of real friendship.