Talking habits that jam reflection    
Recognizing conversational habits that interfere with thinking and learning

Our conversational habits sometimes interfere with our ability to think.

Bellyaching: This is the habit of finding what’s wrong in every situation, not to improve but to be justified in not attempting much.

Few habits interfere more with learning than the habit of complaining. Bellyaching is highly addictive and many people accomplish only a fraction of what they could if their time and attention were not taken by whining. It becomes easier to whine than to plan and act, but it’s planners and actors who win the prize.

Bellyaching allows people to feel superior without much effort. 

One way way to deal with bellyaching is to acknowledge the problem briefly and then to direct attention back to more important questions: What would you like to be different? What can you do to move things in that direction? What did we learn from this? What can we do differently next time?

Gossip: When something like bellyaching is aimed at another person’s failings, it’s important to nudge the complainer away from judging and toward understanding. We have deep instincts that drive us to try to make sense of other people. Unfortunately this instinct leads some people to focus on the weakness or peculiarities of other people.

Most malicious gossip, after all, is not true. Rather it is a fiction: a theory about another person. Gossips report that a person did or said this or that and then weave the facts seamlessly into statements of what the person intended or was “really up to.” But seldom does the gossiper know what someone else intended.

Because making meaning of other people’s behavior comes to us so naturally and so readily, gossips are often not aware when they leap from fact to theory. They even love to bolster wild theories with shrill assertions: “And that’s a fact!”

When we pass on unconfirmed theories about other people’s motives we are gossiping. This is not a minor problem. Serious gossips are attracted to one another, but other people tend to avoid them because it’s not possible to be a gossip without others knowing it.

Since community-centered teaching involves young people in interactions with community members and since the work has a public dimension, it provides lots of opportunities for gossip. Which means it provides lots of opportunities to contemplate the harm done by gossip.

First, it’s unfair to pass judgment on others when they can’t give their side or defend themselves.

Second, it tends to escalate problems. As destructive information about people moves through human communities, distrust and dislike are spread, making the community less able to do the work it needs to do.

And finally, gossip wastes time and energy that could be better spent on other things.

Gossip is best handled by ignoring it, but if it persists a direct approach might be needed: Let’s not say bad things about him. Please don’t tell me bad things about him. There is probably another explanation. You don’t know.

Alternative explanations for behaviors can be suggested. Questions such as “Why do you think he behaved that way?” Or “How can we help her?” can prompt gossipers to move toward a better story, one that might moves things closer to what ought to be.

Record Playing: We all have little scripts that we run from time to time—previously formulated thoughts or stories that we’ve told dozens of times before. Many people perk up when they hear cues to replay these old recordings. Often such tales are amusing or interesting, but just as often they’re a way of avoiding thought.

We like to say things that win approval from our audience, so it’s easy to rely on tried and trusted scripts. But too much reliance is laziness—trying to force new situations into old molds. Instead, we should try to see what new light today’s experiences bring.

Again, such gambits can be met by asking questions that point the speaker toward the new territory at hand. Avoid getting caught up in swapping old tales and re-focus on the details of the current situation.

Skipping: A particularly difficult pattern to break is the habit of jumping to new topics or interrupting to point out trivial or insignificant details. Some people need to report that their pen quits writing or that someone’s eyelash has a speck on it. Skipping around is a common strategy for people who are getting bored or insecure with the direction a conversation is going. It is sometimes an intentional distraction.

Give persons who are skipping the attention and at the same time encourage them to be more serious. “Is this conversation boring you? Are we discussing the wrong questions?” Such responses make the person aware that his disruption is noted at the same time they invite them to reflect on why they are disrupting.

2004 Michael L Umphrey | Permalink