Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ties that Bind

Every interaction with another person is an opportunity to either make a connection or sever one. Just as our brains are constantly making new connections increasing cognitive intelligence, our words and actions can make connections that increase our social intelligence.

The great thing about social intelligence is that it can be taught and learned. Not everyone is born gifted in social skills. Quite the opposite--we are actually born handicapped, thinking only of ourselves and our wants and needs. Any action counter to this innate inclination grabs our attention. The other night, I was eating at Burger King with my two young grandsons. They had finished their chicken nuggets and milk and I bought each of them a warm, double chocolate cookie for dessert. Cohen, 4, took a huge bite out of his (picture: Cookie Monster) and fully half broke off and landed under the table on the dirty floor. He looked at me, cheeks full of chocolate, eyes full of alarm.

"Nema!" he mumbled around his mouthful in desperation. "Get my cookie!"

"Oh, Cohen," I lamented as we both beheld the cookie lying in a muddy puddle from our boots. "It's full of germs now." I glanced up at two year-old Sawyer who was passively observing the drama as he knelt in the booth beside his brother, holding his intact cookie. "Maybe Sawyer will give you a bite of his?"

Sawyer, Chocolate Lover that he is, did not even hesitate. He handed Cohen his untouched cookie with a smile. Wordlessly, he watched Cohen devour half of it in one bite. Cohen kept pushing the cookie past his chocolaty teeth as he watched for our reaction. "Save some for Sawyer," I warned. He squeezed the entire cookie in his mouth, noted the look on my face, and reeled out a half-inch sliver from the edge and handed it back to his brother. Sawyer popped the remnant into his mouth without complaint. This, for the uninitiated, is not normal toddler behavior. This was Heroic Generosity.

My seventh grader comes home with Tales from Junior High nearly every day which I try to use as springboards for discussions about social skills. Victoria was in a play recently where she had a rather large part. It involved weeks of practice, memorizing of lines--a lot of work. She met many new friends as no one in her little network was in the play. She was especially nervous for the last performance as everyone in her school would be attending. When it was over, she texted one of her friends to ask what she thought of the play. "What play?" the friend replied absentmindedly. "The play I was in," she prompted. "Oh, that play...what was it about again?" Victoria patiently explained the plot and ended with her own question. "Weren't you paying attention?" No response from the friend.

Here was a teachable moment: What was Victoria looking for? Simply, "Good job--you did great!" would have sufficed. Why couldn't the friend give that? We talked about what her motives might have been for withholding good. Regardless of whether she liked the play or not, found it entertaining or boring, when your friend does something big you encourage and support them. It's an unwritten rule. Likewise there are a number of things you don't do in seventh grade: You don't trip your friend in choir so she falls flat on her face and then laugh along with the whole class. You don't make comments in the locker room. You don't tell others her secrets. You don't tell her you liked her hair better before she cut it.

If only children were the only ones who lack social savvy! Adults can behave just as badly and sabotage their relationships without even knowing it. Some of my personal pet peeves go like this:

Me: Don't you think that guy over there looks like your brother John?
Friend: No.

Me: I just love the new coffee flavor from Caribou!
Friend: I don't.

These are pretty minor, but basic. Some among you, and I suspect you are lonely, would say, "What? Aren't I entitled to my own opinion? Do I have to agree with everything you say?" And to this, I would respond, "Yes. In matters that don't matter--AGREE. It's polite."

This is something I have taught my children. Is it dishonest? Perhaps. But a little restraint can be a balm in everyday conversation. Everything doesn't have to be a debate where you defend your platform. That makes you tiresome. Sometimes, you have to do more than just be agreeable to protect peoples' feelings and it is called employing "tact." Example:

Me: I got my hair cut.
Friend: (clearly hating the New Do but realizing I can't glue the hair back on) Oh, you are just aDORable. You could shave your head and still be the cutest ever.

That isn't actual lying, by the way. My friend loves me. My friend thinks I'm adorable. Hair will grow back but hurt from too much honesty can cause wounds that fester forever. Tempering your own opinions, curbing envy, and bridling moodiness are very healthy to relationships.

Me: We are going on vacation to Florida next month!
Friend: Must be nice! (jealous) I hate the beach! (more jealous)

There are many variations on the above theme: I got a new job, bought a new house, I'm pregnant--can all be announced to unenthusiastic friends who (apparently) hate jobs, houses, and babies. GET OVER YOURSELVES, I say in my head to these people. Put yourself in someone else's shoes for five minutes and allow yourself to feel happiness for them. Then, speak.

What these insensitive rebuttals are is Conversation Killers. My husband and I have an analogy that we call, "Keeping all the balls." Here's how it works: I say something to you, toss you an imaginary ball:

Me: Hey, did you watch the Oscars last night?

You: (catching the imaginary ball) No, I don't watch that crap! Hollywood is full of a bunch of godless weirdos and I never even go to movies so what do I care about who wins a naked statue?

You kept my ball. You did not throw it back and have effectively shown me you are not interested in playing with me. Or if you are, you will determine the rules. Suppose, even if those were your truest feelings, you had responded with:

You: No, I missed it! Did something interesting happen? Tell me about it!

You have just tossed the ball back like a good sport insuring that the game will continue for some time. For extra credit, you might practice the fine art of The Segue. After politely tossing the Oscar Ball back and forth a few times, you could change the subject and introduce something else:

You: Did you happen to catch the last episode of NCIS?

This is totally acceptable and, with practice, you can get really good at it.

It is impossible to learn this level of social network building unless you develop an Interest in Others. Again, since birth, our primary interest has been ourselves, so this takes some cultivating. Since it is easiest to be interested in those who are most like us, start there. For instance, if you are a stay-at-home mom who homeschools and makes bread every day from scratch, begin with someone in this camp: Practice being interested in her curriculum, her children, her recipes and don't try to one-up everything she does and resist the evil imp in you who wants to turn each interaction into a competition. Once you get comfortable playing catch with people similar to yourself, be daring--branch out: Ask a mom who works full-time and has 4 kids in the public school how she manages to do it all. Compliment a single woman from church who is going back to school on her ambition and inquire about which class she finds most challenging. Engage a senior citizen in line at the grocery store by commenting on the contents in his cart and the rising cost of food. Ask a preteen girl on your block what she thinks of Justin Beiber's haircut.

There are basics, such as smiling and using eye contact to engage others. But relationship building is about so much more. Take turns with those conversation balls. Don't expect the other person to keep lobbing them into your lap while you start a collection. This is no fun at all for the pitcher and, once they run out of balls, they'll find someone more engaging. On the other hand, don't chuck all the balls like missiles at someone forcing them to run in self-defense. Real conversation is a sport, a dance, that requires a lot of practice and good timing.

I'm convinced that all of us long for meaningful connections with others. I work at an elementary school and every day I see things even from the very young that destroy these ties: Jealousy, sarcasm, teasing, ball-hogging, score-keeping, comparisons, pride, gossip, insensitivity. No one has to teach these qualities--they come as part of the human package.

But we are not without hope! New and better skills can be learned to replace the ones we're born with. My favorite building tools are a set of questions which I make a conscious effort to employ every day:

-I was wrong, I'm sorry, will you forgive me?

-What do YOU think?

-How do YOU feel about that?

Some of the best advice I've ever heard on relationships comes from the book of Philippians: "Don't act out of selfish ambition or be conceited. Instead, humbly think of others as being better than yourselves. Don't be concerned only about your own interests, but also be concerned about the interests of others." Phil. 2:34

Lord, give me a humble heart like yours that seeks to serve, not be served; that looks out to the good of others before myself. On my own, I want everything to be all about me. Help me love like you love, Jesus. Amen.


  1. This is wonderful Dawn! And convicting. It's something I try to be mindful of, but sometimes my ugly side decides to hoard all the balls.

    Oh and my heart broke for Tori. Junior highers are some of the most insensitive people I know. Sometimes it seems that it takes too much for them to connect with anything happening outside of their own world. I'm sure she did a great job!!!

  2. This is incredibly insightful, Dawn. I am blessed to know you.
    Oh, and I don't bake bread every day in case you want to edit that part. wasn't about ME???

  3. Just read this and have been humble about a few recent conversatios...thanks for the reminder to get back on track.

  4. SwagBucks is a very popular get-paid-to website.