Monday, December 30, 2013

Three Things That Blew My Mind in 2013

Last week I shared how a short conversation can lead to a small shift in perspective which, in turn, can clear up a huge misunderstanding. Isn't it true how it's often little things that can have the biggest impacts on our lives: A quick decision, a tidbit of information, a new short cut? There are three little things I learned this past year that kind of blew my mind and changed my every day life and health in big ways. They don't have anything to do with empathy, compassion, or communication, bu I thought it was worth the departure to pass them along.

1. You can make pasta, with sauce from scratch, in one pot, in about 20 minutes. For real.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

White Christmas and Misunderstandings

Snow by Jennifer C., cc license
It has been a magical holiday season for our household. Cadence is into everything Christmas, so we've been spending our days listening to holiday music, acting out scenes from "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," and playing 'Santa.' Laurel has taken to nursing on and off for several hours in the evening, which gives me the perfect excuse to sit back and watch holiday movies. I'm loving it!

My favorite holiday movie, hands down, is White Christmas. I love the songs, the dancing, and I sob at the end of the movie every time when (spoiler alert) it begins snowing. True story. I love it all in spite of the fact that the source of romantic conflict comes entirely from, one of my pet peeves, a misunderstanding that could easily be cleared up in less than five minutes. In this case, an innkeeper eaves drops on part of a phone call made by Bob (Bing Crosby) and repeats the misinformation to Betty (Rosemary Clooney). Betty becomes upset with Bob and, thereafter, perceives everything he says in the worst possible light. Instead of having a straightforward conversation about it, she decides to leave town. It seems utterly ridiculous.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Basic Listening Skills: Asking Productive Questions

Question mark sign by Colin Kinner, cc license
I once trained an FBI agent to be a crisis hotline volunteer. He had a big heart and he was an excellent listener, but the active listening skill set presented some challenges. He tended to slip into interrogator mode; asking questions was, by far, his favorite active listening tool. It took a lot of practice, but he learned to use questions differently and he quickly became one of our most effective volunteers.

Depending on how they're used, questions can be your greatest tools or your greatest liabilities when it comes to meeting the goals of active listening. When questions come from a place of genuine curiosity and they are worded as open-ended queries, you demonstrate that you care and the questions may lead to greater clarity and understanding for both of you. There are three bad habits, however, that result in less productive questioning and impede the goals of active listening. When questions are closed or leading and they account for most of your responses, the conversation becomes boxed in by your expectations. To boot, it shifts the pattern of the interaction such that you end up talking way too much and working way too hard. Breaking these three habits will liberate you while also resulting in more productive conversations.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Basic Active Listening Skills: Reflecting Content

Balls by Johnathan Nightingale, cc license
We've all been guilty. You're "listening" to someone talk, but your mind is working on something else entirely. You're planning tonight's dinner, wondering when the library books are due, or even thinking about the next point you want to make in the current conversation. Whatever your mind is doing, it is not actively listening. Staying present and fully attending to what someone is saying can be a real challenge. Putting your mind to the task of reflecting feelings and content keeps you engaged.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Basic Active Listening Skills: Identifying and Reflecting Feelings

Untitled by KaMa Photography, cc license
Here's something I've been saying a lot lately:

"Jason, burp cloth!"

Those silly things constantly fall off my shoulder, unnoticed, so that I rarely have one handy at that moment I desperately need it. Although my words don't change, Jason can easily determine the extent of the mess and urgency from the sound of my voice.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Active Listening Mindset: Non-Judgment

73/365 by Becca Peterson, cc license
Okay! Ready to be non-judgmental? This should be easy. Simply forget all of your current beliefs and opinions and then erase the words "good" and "bad" from your vocabulary. All set!

Seriously, though, judging gets a bad reputation in the active listening world, when our ability to make judgments is often important. In my previous life of preparing volunteers for the crisis hotline, I often reminded them that my goal was not to create "Stepford volunteers" or complete blank slates devoid of personality. Those human elements are essential to connecting. Also, being able to judge, or perceive, how one path forward may be more beneficial than another in an active listening conversation is an important skill to cultivate.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Trust and Surrender: Lessons from pregnancy, labor, and beyond.

Snuggling with Laurel Mei (Photo by Jason Pratt)
On Saturday, October 5th, we welcomed Laurel Mei Pratt into the world and into our family. I had a beautiful, out-of-hospital birth at The Midwife Center: Jason and I arrived there at 7pm, Laurel was born just before 10pm, and by 7am we were back home where Jason and my dad (parents drove up from VA) fixed us a big pancake and bacon breakfast.

Aside from the profound lack of sleep that comes from having a newborn and a three-year-old (no more "sleep when the baby sleeps," sigh), the past few weeks have been pretty amazing. Laurel nurses like a champ, soothes easily, and sleeps often. Cadence has made the adjustment to big sisterhood rather gracefully. It's been cool, and sometimes trying, to see how she works through the changes Laurel has made to the rhythm of our day. I feel incredibly blessed to have been entrusted with these amazing girls and to be supported by loving family and friends.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Active Listening Mindset: Respect

365.229 by Dyanna Hyde, cc license
R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me!

When I searched on Flickr for an image to go with this post, I was struck by the top three search results. The first photo was a wall ironically graffitied with the words, “young people have no respect for authority.” The second was a public mural with the words, “diversity and respect in our community.” The third was an illustrated quote from Baltasar Gracian’s Criticon: “Respect yourself if you would have others respect you.” I thought these well represent the wide range of ideas we can have in mind when we think about the term, respect: tolerance, love, obedience, self-worth, and acceptance, to name a few.  Clearly, our definitions of respect can vary greatly, so let’s begin by clarifying what we mean by “respect.”

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Missed Opportunities in Active Listening

Almost by Lauri Rantala, cc license
Last weekend, Jason and I held our first ever yard sale. What an interesting experience! There was one interaction I found to be particularly instructive for me on the importance of active listening in everyday life. I thought I'd take this week to share that, before getting back to the primer.

I wasn't expecting just how good it would feel to pass on an item to someone who was excited to give it a new home. One such item was my first sewing machine, which my mom got for me when I went off to college. We (the machine and I) had more than ten good years together, but a month before I got married, the machine jammed while I was hemming a dress and I couldn't get it to work. I had a list of wedding projects that needed immediate attention, so I decided to buy a new machine rather than taking the time to fix the jammed machine. It was moved to the basement where it sat, unused and mostly forgotten, for four years.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Active Listening Mindset: Focus

a vivid beauty.... by Vinoth Chandar, cc license
I used to tell my crisis hotline trainees that active listening begins before you pick up the phone. Meaning that in order to do active listening well, it’s important to approach it with the right mindset. Profound conversations occur when you are able to fully attend, respect autonomy, and leave judgment out of it. My original intent had been to cover these three areas in one primer post, but it soon became clear that each deserved its own space. Working towards the right mindset for active listening takes just as much work (perhaps more) as acquiring the other listening skills. We begin with focus.  

Monday, June 17, 2013

An Introduction to the Active Listening Primer

351/365 Books are like mirrors by Iryna Yeroshko, cc license
Over the past few months, I've been doing some "conversation coaching," helping folks work through and prepare for a challenging conversation they're facing. I find myself coming back again and again to some basic active listening skills that go a long way to promote more direct, honest, and still compassionate communication. In my humble opinion, our world would be greatly improved if active listening was routinely taught, modeled, and practiced in our schools, places of work, and homes. Unfortunately, that is not always the case and so it can be useful to be introduced to (or be reminded of) alternative methods of communication. Hence, I thought it might be fun and useful to put forth my own primer on active listening skills.

Friday, June 7, 2013

It Takes a Community: Inspiration from Promise Coaches

Last fall I was recruited to be a trainer for The Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern PA (TMP), an organization that "maximizes the opportunity for mentoring to transform the lives of young people so they may reach their full potential." TMP does this by helping other organizations develop mentoring programs and then offering ongoing support, e.g. by training mentors (that's where I get to come in!). One of the programs I've been supporting is the Promise Coaches Campaign, which "aims to create a college going culture in the City of Pittsburgh by empowering adults to help youth earn a high school diploma and succeed in college and careers.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Safe Port in the Storm of Life

Lightning @ Fay Lake PSJ by GunnerVV, cc license
Can I just reiterate how wonderful it feels to be writing again (especially in lieu of battling nausea all day)?!?!

Often when I share, here, my struggles with anger, strong emotions, and intense reactions, I'm met with some disbelief from friends and family. They have a hard time reconciling the "good Mary" they typically see with the other sides of my personality that make me who I am.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Reboot (and Happy News to Share)

I need to fix daddy's photos by Irargerich, cc license
Well, hello there. It's been a while.

My unexpected leave of absence has been due to something pretty wonderful, actually. I'm pregnant and looking forward to welcoming our new family member in October.

The first trimester was pretty rough. When I was pregnant with Cadence, I experienced the dreaded morning sickness - or more accurately morning, noon, and night sickness - along with general fatigue. Through that period, I was able to function well at work and then just crash the minute I got home. This time around, the symptoms were either worse, or the different circumstances of taking care of a toddler all day made them seem worse. Either way, February through April is a bit of a blur and I am just now finding the time and energy to think and to write a bit.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Detach from the Outcome for Peaceful Conversations (and Game Nights)

Killer Queen by aussiegall, cc license
Several months ago, early on in the life of this blog and immediately following a game night with friends, Jason asked if I was going to blog about how honest and gentle I am during board games. He was being sarcastic. At the time, I had no intention of sharing with you the beast I sometimes become when playing games. It's not pretty. And it's embarrassing. I mean, in what world does it make sense to feel so intensely angry at someone for simply thwarting my next brilliant move? In the heat of the moment, I've been known to swear and to tell people that I don't like them. Sure, it's usually under a shroud of playfulness, but the kicker is that deep down I wasn't enjoying myself. Deep down, I felt stressed because I was attached to winning and they way I was going to do it, when I had relatively little actual control over that outcome.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Are You a Receiver or a Broadcaster?

Cell Phone Tower by danielfoster437, cc license
I read an interesting article last week about happiness versus meaningfulness. At one point, it described the dichotomization of people being Givers (who seek meaningfulness in life) and Takers (who seek happiness). It's unrelated, but this got my wheels turning about the roles we typically take on during challenging conversations. In recent conversations I've noted how I switch between struggling to be understood and struggling to understand. Further, I've found that I tend to default to, and feel more comfortable, when I'm in the role of understanding the other person. It's an interesting dichotomy, and for the purpose of this post I'll call the types Receivers and Broadcasters. This comes only from my own casual observations and experiences, but this is how I would characterize those two types.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The "Reset" Button for Challenging Conversations

Go ahead. Push it. by flattop341, cc license
"...isn't it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?" - L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

We just put away the last of our Christmas decorations and swept up the last of the pine needles left by our dear tree. As much as I love the glow and warmth they bring to our home during the holidays, I've come to appreciate even more the space and openness they leave when put away. Our house immediately looks less cluttered and it feels like each room gets a bit of a reset as items are returned, or not returned, to their pre-holiday places. It has me thinking about "resets" in general.

Who doesn't love a fresh start? A clean slate? A chance to begin again? Realizing that it's possible to start again and being able to push that reset button is a powerful tool.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

When You Feel So Mad That You Wanna Roar...

mister rogers display - pittsburgh by HeyRocker, cc license
...take a deep breath and count to four. So says Daniel Tiger. I've been watching a lot of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, the new show on PBS from the Fred Rogers Company. It's safe to say that my munchkin is hooked - and the same may be said of me. Sure, I'll sometimes use the 20 minutes she's glued to the couch to get something done, but more often I end up watching with her.

I think what I love most is the way grown-ups are involved and portrayed. In some ways, it can be seen as a show about parenting. I can't tell you how many tools I've added to my parenting tool belt since the show first aired in September. However, what makes it especially compelling for me is that the adults on the show aren't perfect robots who exist for the sake of an episode plot. They have hobbies and interests, different personalities, and they display a range of emotions - from joy and playfulness to anger and frustration.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

What a Year for a New Year

Awaiting Sunrise by MikeBehnken, cc license
I've found myself doing a lot of processing over the past few weeks. At the end of the year I like to take stock of where I've been and then look forward to where I'd like to go. This year, as I think back and look ahead I feel like I'm drowning in questions.

How do I live alongside suffering?