Conversing: Two roles in a conversation

I assist in an online podcasting workshop where a student recently asked:

Could knowing all these [interviewing] techniques be making us more aware of the style, and […] getting us further away from the natural, inherent style we all have […] ?

I’ve mentioned before that I distinguish between “interview” and “conversation” in what I’m currently recording for podcast publication, (for Movers Mindset and other shows.) Today, I’m just going to gloss over that distinction and riff off this student’s excellent observation. Whether we label it “interview” or “conversation,” there’s a key milestone people go through when they realize that practicing something intentionally, is going to—at least partially—paper over their own innate style. This is a normal step in any journey involving mastery practice. After sufficient practice, you will find you still have an innate style; It’s simply different than the one you started with.

I believe that my role as a conversation partner, (being who my guest needs me to be for us to have a great conversation,) and my role in serving my listeners, (being who the listeners need me to be for them to enjoy and/or learn from a great conversation,) are antagonistic. The better I perform at one of those roles, the worse I perform at the other. That’s the balance I’m trying to work out each time I press record. Techniques which serve well for one role, can be detrimental to the other role.

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Fear of missing out

The constant interruptions and distractions of our society are, to me, the opposite of philosophy. Getting caught up in minutiae. Getting caught up in things that don’t matter. Getting caught up in things that are designed to exploit and antagonize us and our emotions.

~ Ryan Holiday from, https://ryanholiday.net/stop-watching-the-news/

The way out from the chaos is to first convince yourself that you are in chaos, and to then decide you don’t like the current situation.

It will not work for you to try taking a hiatus from all the distractions. If you try, (just some “for examples” here,) to put your phone down during dinner, or to have a no-internet weekend with your partner, or no internet-surfing in the bedroom, etc., these small diversions from your normal existence will be uncomfortable. So of course you won’t want that small discomfort to grow larger! And there you go; that’s the exact opposite of how you would expand the tranquility in your life. If—somehow—you deeply wanted more tranquility, then you would automatically do all those things I mentioned and many, many more.

The other day I drove to my favorite gym only to discover they were closed that day. It happens that this was announced on Facebook. (I’m not on Facebook.) This experience was not the least bit annoying to me. I drove 20 minutes each way. The ride was pleasant; Just like every other time I drive in a car because I long ago resolved the issues with myself which caused driving and riding in cars to be annoying. I did not begrudge that 40 minutes as “wasted,” and I simply went on to the next thing I wanted to do.

I’m not railing against Facebook. I’m pointing out that if you fix your life, Facebook no longer has an attraction for you.

You are not obligated to be constantly reachable.

You are not obligated to have an opinion on every topic someone might raise in conversation.

You are not obligated to help every other person you physically or virtually encounter.

What obligations do you have?

What do you truly desire?

What is the meaning of life?

Actually… are those even the right questions to ask oneself?

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Anything noteworthy since

One of my recent acquisitions is this door-stop of a volume, Forty Thousand Quotations Prose and Poetical, published in 1940. Several thoughts spring to mind at this point:

Obviously, this book is 80 years old. Wait, no, that was not obvious to me. I was thinking, “1940… Wow, that’s like 60 years ago,” followed not as quickly as it should have been by, “…no wait, that’s 80 years ago.” So the first thought I’ll share here is that the years pile on like onion-skin pages. Year after year after year after year and before you realize it: Door stop. (Both you have a door stop, and you are a door stop.)

Upon arrival I immediately flipped through it to see what I’d gotten for my $14-plus-shipping. The book says, “prose and poetical,” but I don’t know diddly-squat about this Douglas fellow. There could be forty thousand stinkers better left forgotten. My verdict: The density is low. Perhaps 1 in 4 strike me as even worthy of inclusion in the book. Still, ten thousand quotations prose and poetical are worth 2/10 of one cent each, (in my book.)

It’s said—I’ve heard it said, I’ve said it myself now many times—that our favorite quotations say more about ourselves than of those we’ve quoted.

Is this book a snapshot of 1930’s America? Let this sink in: There’s not a single quote from anyone related in any way to World War II. There isn’t a single modern tech genius in here either. But wait! It was printed in 1940, yes. However the copyrights are 1904, 1914 and 1917. This book is a time machine come to me across more than a century.

I generally give books the page 88 test. That’s laughably near the front of a book which has— (Wait, wat?! This book has exactly 2,000 numbered pages! That’s another tangent I’m not following. Ahem.) Page 88 is laughably near the front of a 2,000 page book. As I carefully flipped towards 88, I was briefly anxious when I thought the entries under “anxiety” might run to page 88, but fortunately, no. The two columns of page 88 cover the tail end of, Apothegm (“a short, pithy and instructive saying or formulation,” honestly, I had to look that up,) then Apparel, and then Apparitions runs onward to page 89.

The first full entry on page 88 is:

A few words worthy to be remembered suffice to give an idea of a great mind. There are single thoughts that contain the essence of a whole volume, single sentences that have the beauties of a large work, a simplicity so finished and so perfect that it equals in merit and in excellence a large and glorious composition.

~ Joubert

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The joy of being wrong

Now more than ever, opinions divide us. Meanwhile, our ability to effectively communicate has degraded, fueled by social media algorithms and self-selected information silos that confirm our biases, calcify our world views, and consequently drive us even further apart. As a result we suffer—individually and as a collective.

~ Rich Roll from, https://www.richroll.com/podcast/adam-grant-580/

I’ve been cherry-picking episodes of the Rich Roll Podcast, and this is another superlative one. Roll’s discussion—about a half hour in if memory serves—of trying to be a “lighthouse” makes clear an important point about modeling behavior: Be the change you want to see in the world.

Grant and Roll talk a lot about Grant’s new book; That’s a model for a podcast episode which I usually do not like. And they talk almost as much about competitive swimming and diving, which are two more things I’m generally disinterested in. But to my delight, I enjoyed through (contrast with the more usual ‘sat through’) the first half, and currently have the second half awaiting my ears.

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Peach baskets

In conversation there must be, as in love and in war, some hazarding, some rattling on; nor need twenty falls affect you, so long as you take cheerfulness and good humor for your guides; but careful and measured conversation is always, though perfectly correct, extremely dull and tedious—a vast blunder from first to last.

~ Arthur Martine from, Martine’s Hand-book of Etiquette and Guide to True Politeness

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“Kid, anyone can fix it with the right tools. It takes a real mechanic to fix it with a peach basket full of junk,” was the punch-line life-lesson from a story my dad used to tell from his first days in the elevator trade.

I’ve mentioned this book by Martine before. Large parts of it are patently ridiculous. But there are parts of it which are solid.

Anyone can learn something from a well-written book. But it takes a first-rate mind, and a lot of practice, to read through a peach-basket full of assorted crap, find the right parts, and find a lesson or three along the way.

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Baked geese crap

Everything we do matters — whether it’s making smoothies to save up money or studying for the bar — even after we’ve already achieved the success we sought. Everything is a chance to do and be our best. Only self-absorbed assholes think they are too good for whatever their current station requires. Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing and wherever we are going, we owe it to ourselves, to our art, to the world to do it well. That’s our primary duty. And our obligation. When action is our priority, vanity falls away.

~ Ryan Holiday from, https://ryanholiday.net/how-you-do-anything/

I sometimes think back to a summer I spent working on a golf course. As a grounds keeper. These days, I’m still pretty fast with a string trimmer. A job string-trimming a golf course teaches certain skills. Every day that summer I hopped on my trusty red 10-speed bike—I think it was actually originally my mom’s bike—and ride… just for fun I Google’d it… 5 miles to work. I distinctly remember the coolish Pennsylvania mornings.

It just this moment occurs to me that my “the weather today will be…” prognostication skills are generally quite good. Probably something to do with riding a half hour while wondering if I was going to get roasted in the sun, soaked in the rain, or pleasantly browned.

Meanwhile I learned many things. About getting along with other people to greater or lesser degrees of success. About how laughter makes work lighter. And about good healthy, sweat labor. I already mentioned the string trimming. But my favorite was how we used to edge the sand traps. Every day—at least as far as I can remember—there’d be the same work to do; we’d simply advance our way around the course based on our boss’s early-morning directions on a whiteboard. “edge traps 8/9” for example… along with a few more. One guy was the greens keeper. His responsibility was just to mow the putting greens and tend that grass. Move the pins (the tall flags stand inside special metal cups set into the ground) periodically. Another guy—an aged adult, so he was probably like 38 at the time—was the fairway mower. Willie was his name. I remember his last name, but I don’t want anyone hunting him down. He’d drive a large farm-sized tractor pulling gang-mowers like a flock of geese behind him. All the grass was always cut with reel mowers.

Anyway. Sand traps. We used to edge them with a machete. You see, the edge of the trap, where the grass meets the sand, has interesting geometry. The lawn may not be level, it often was sloped or curving like a little hill. So the “cut” is not just, “hey yo, no blade of grass sticking out that way!” but also, a perpendicular (to the plane of the grass bed) curb of sod (the grass, roots carpet part) and dirt. A string trimmer just sort of beats things up into a rounded mess. With a machete—and a crap-ton of stooping, back-breaking, labor—you can cut everything in a perfect plane. It’s as if you made the perfect cut through layer cake, creating a smoothly undulating curb perimeter, angled perfectly. wack wack wack wack …we’d just walk around the trap backwards, walking on the grass. wack wack wack wack… fifty, maybe a hundred swings. Every sand trap is different. Then we’d clean the trap. Weed it, rake it, sift it, then shape the sand. When we moved on, there’d be not a single bit of anything besides sand in the trap. It’d be gorgeous.

Craftsmanship.

One day, “trim the lake” was on the board. Again. We’d just done that the other day. It was one of the most god-awful horrible jobs. It was basically a very big pond, with not much water flow, particularly mid-summer. The bottom was muck-tastically nasty with geese crap and—wait for it—9 gazillion golf balls making for treacherous footing. The weeds grew in the water. With a string trimmer you can actually trim a bit below the water level if you’re adamant about it. (As we were.) When doing this chore you had a choice: You could stroll into the water and muck to reach the weeds 6 feet out in the pond, or wreck your back, (I don’t care how young you are, this wrecks it,) straining all around the lake to reach out there with the trimmer. Regardless, in the heat of summer, those water-whatever weeds needed a wacking every few days.

On this day, I stood by the artificial rock weir that impounded the pond. I looked at my work boots, being well-shod to deal with the muck, but not so much for standing directly in the water to trim. I looked at the weir. I thought about having to sacrifice my back to reach the weeds. At the weir. I looked at my golf cart—we had the best ones. Special motors for hauling trailers and actual loads and extra batteries. And my we don’t screw around here double-string trimmer and gas can. My face shield. I looked back at the weir.

And I went for it.

I strolled into the stream, moved a bunch of rocks and pierced the maybe 2-foot tall weir… and drained the entire lake. Then I spun up my trimmer and… there are two ways to string trim: One way is a sort of judicious, scalpel wielding, if I twitch it leaves a mark that takes a week to grow away, and I’m going to have to clean up all the mess I make. And the other way is BANSHEE STYLE! I strolled into that disgusting muck and strode around the entire thing with the trimmer throttled wide open… non-stop… at like 6:30am. Muck, geese crap, golf balls, weeds… everything flying every which way… none of it on me of course because, duh, string-trimming guru.

Meanwhile, the sun crept higher.

I don’t know how long it took me. Not long. I don’t think I even had to refill the trimmer’s gas tank. But all the while, the sun started to bake the mud and muck.

Now the area (the general regional area I mean) had a lot of farms and you got used to all sort of smells. Pennsylvania smells (to me) like petrichor, and maybe a dash of cow or horse manure baking on a field. Us Pennsylvanians are all like, *yawn* “whatever bro’.” But baking geese crap and muck, as it turns out, is another thing.

Yes, when I finished trimming I reassembled the weir, but as I mentioned, the little creek’s flow rate was low, and it took all stinking-to-high-heaven day for that thing to fill submerging the muck. I was vindicated amongst the groundskeepers, including my boss who went to bat for me so I could keep my job, because we all freakin’ loved it. It looked awesome and stayed awesome for like TWO WEEKS!

But to my knowledge, no one ever did it again.

That was the first time I effectively closed an entire golf course.

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Scenes

Because they can only show scenes, …

~ Ryan Holiday from, https://ryanholiday.net/sorry-an-epiphany-isnt-whats-going-to-change-your-life/

Check the following against your experience: Except for sleep, or fits of unconsciousness, my life is a perfectly seamless and continuous experience. It has no montages, elisions of time, “jump cuts,” nor cross fades. I’ve never experienced a rerun of any moment; every moment is the next moment found directly after that moment that was now, but is now just past.

From my point of view, every other person… every book… every movie… every image painting film story… I experience those in one, compressed form or another. I catch up with a friend over lunch; I get two weeks of their experience compressed into a thirty-second story. Rocky goes from zero to hero in a two-minute (I’m guessing) montage. That person experiences an entire year; I experience their birthday dinner.

Everything out there is a small scene from some real experience. Is it any wonder it’s difficult to understand?

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A right to know what?

It’s hard to quarrel with that ancient justification of the free press: “America’s right to know.” It seems almost cruel to ask, ingenuously, “America’s right to know what, please? Science? Mathematics? Economics? Foreign languages?” None of those things, of course. In fact, one might well suppose that the popular feeling is that Americans are a lot better off without any of that tripe.

~ Isaac Asimov from (Newsweek Jan 21, 1980) https://media.aphelis.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/ASIMOV_1980_Cult_of_Ignorance.pdf

tripe n. 2: something poor, worthless, or offensive

That’s the second definition, and is clearly the one Asimov was using. For some reason, I believe I would have said that the first definition had something to do with fish. (It does not.)

In addition, suspecting that Asimov knew a thing or three more than me, had not made a capitalization error in writing “mandarin minority”—you’ll have to click now, won’t you?—I spent several minutes in my Dictionary and learned a second thing.

And finally a third thing: 1980. 2021. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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Conversing: Generating great questions in real-time

What more could you ask for?

Pick any two ideas, presume they are connected, and present that connection as a question.

I’ll wager you’re thinking, “that’s easier read than done.” But, it is easy. Simply ask:

Is there a connection between X and Y?

Exercise: Pause here and think of a few random pairs of ideas. The faster you pull the ideas out, the better. Take two ideas and say the question in your mind. Are they not surprising, the trains of thought which spring up? If you manage to stump yourself in finding a connection, would it have been an interesting exchange if another person had been involved?

Where’s the trick?

The trick is right there in the very first line I wrote, in the first phrase:

Pick two ideas.

The two ideas are connected; that’s how your mind was able to pick them. The trick uses your mind’s built-in super-powers of observation and curiosity. To ask a great question, people focus on finding a question. It’s far easier to make a question out of something great.

Clearly the degree of greatness of your question depends on what ideas you pick. Fortunately, the more you pick-two and ask about the connection, the better you’ll get at picking better ideas. You’re refining your mental observation skills and refining your taste in which ideas will combine into a great question.

Complications

In mechanical watches, a “complication” is some additional function. Indicating the day of the week, the date, or the phase of the moon, are in reality not that different in terms of complexity; They are each simply a complication. It’s the total number of complications that impresses the watch aficionados.

I’m going to throw a bunch of complications on top of this idea. By analogy with the watches, I’m suggesting that no one of these is any better or more complex. Each complication is simply a possibility you could add. One of your goals, in any conversation I care to think about, is to have your tools and skills disappear in service of the conversation. Only through experience can you learn how complicated to make things. It varies based on every conversational parameter you can imagine. Sometimes, the barest simplicity is the best choice—“is there a connection between X and Y?”—and sometimes…

It’s not you, it’s me. If the question you’re posing might be too personal, taboo, etc. you can couch it in a dash of self-deprecation. “I know this sounds weird, but is there a connection between X and Y?” Your conversation partner can easily parry—in fact, people will automatically and subconsciously parry this way if they are uncomfortable—with, “Yes that’s weird. What sort of wacko would ask that?” Being a great conversationalist, you can then proceed in another direction. (Or press on!)

The joy of wonder. Rare, (and possibly psychotic,) is the person who isn’t sucked in when you express honest wonder. If you really are wondering—that is probably how you picked those two ideas in the first place—then it’s going to be obvious that you’re enjoying asking about the connection. “Oh, wow! Now I’m wondering if there’s a connection between X and Y.”

Grammar ain’t all that. Did you catch that? That last example wasn’t a question. Turns out, it’s not necessary to speak a grammatical question. All you ever need to do is convey that you have a question. In the Movers Mindset podcast I get endless mileage out of saying, “And of course, the final question: Three words to describe your practice.” Which is a statement stapled to a sentence fragment, and I don’t even pitch-up at the end to make it sound like a question. Statements using “wondering” are the obvious way to do statement-questions. But there are more: “I’m astounded I never realized there’s a connection between X and Y.” That one has a quiet little question—“is there actually a connection here?”—tucked in under the loud astonishment. There’s also, “I can’t believe I never noticed the connection between X and Y.” Even snarky, “…next you’re going to tell me X and Y are connected.” Complications sure, but filigree has its place.

There can’t possible be more

I’ve described this entire thing as if it were something you do once, (and then use the question.) Eventually, you can generate two, sometimes three or more, two-ideas-and-a-connection questions before the pause gets pregnant. With practice, you can regularly generate 2, and then choose the one you like better.

This is particularly important if you’re trying to lead the conversation—“lead” as in “let’s go for a stroll and I secretly want to show you my favorite bakery along the way,” not “I want to lead you to a mugging”. Being able to ask great questions is one thing, but being able to ask a series of great questions that lead to a through-line, however tenuous, is pure wizardry.

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Mirror image of negative visualization

The fatalism advocated by the Stoics is in a sense the reverse, or one might say the mirror image, of negative visualization: Instead of thinking about how our situation could be worse, we refuse to think about how it could be better.

~William Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life

I use negative visualization very often. “What could possibly go wrong?” is one of my favorite interjections. Everyone thinks I’m making a joke—and in part I am—but what I’m really doing is actually thinking about what could actually go wrong.

I’ve learned, (slowly after far too much struggle because: i dumb,) that the more simple I can keep my life, the better. I want to be clear: The complexity I wrestle with—and which wins and beats me down—is all stuff I’ve invented. Not simply accepted, but outright invented. Things I want to create or see get done or ways I can help when someone asks and on and on and on. My brain is a snow globe of ideas.

And that all springs from my apparently hardwired drive to make things better. So, practicing refusing to think about how it could be better.

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