Thursday, August 26, 2010

Silence: A Subtle, Yet Powerful Ally

Silence isn't something that many of us are naturally appreciative of, particularly in social situations. So accustomed to an endless flow of words, it's easy to feel a growing tension whenever silence lingers during a date or in a group setting. As I learn to relax my pace of life and social flow, I have begun to develop a deep appreciation for social silence. While it might first seem like something to be avoided, a fuller analysis reveals that there are more instances where silence confers positive benefits than where it hinders relationship.

Game Application: On first dates, especially, silence is a very powerful thing. Once attraction has already been established, allowing silence to linger serves to do several things. First, the tension that naturally accompanies periods of silence serves to further build and heighten attraction. Second, by demonstrating that you are comfortable with being silent around your date, you give her implicit permission to also relax and enjoy simply being; after the first few times, this works to develop more comfort. Third, by not constantly carrying and directing the conversation, there is space for more two-sided interactions, which is great for establishing real connection. Fourth, the periods of silence offer space for non-verbal communication, which is generally more powerful and efficacious than verbal communication, especially in any romantic setting. Lastly, the simple fact that you aren't saying anything means you aren't killing attraction by saying too much or saying the wrong things.

Non-Game Applications: Silence is what affords people space to think more deeply, sort through their own thoughts and feelings and make internal progress on a topic. As such, leaving ample room for contemplation is a vital technique which is usable within a broad array of settings. In a teaching setting, leaving more room for answers encourages further thinking by those who aren't quite as swift to think of an answer, or who are more hesitant to express their thoughts. The more silence you allow, the greater the depth of learning that can occur. Similarly, in a coaching or counseling relationship, space is one of the most crucial elements of the relationship. In both instances, since any real change must emerge from within, it is crucial for a client to be fully aware of their own thoughts and feelings, which only occurs with ample mental space. Even on a personal level, silence is an indispensible ally. Embracing silence always results in a greater depth of personal peace and a higher level of awareness. As a spiritual practice, silence is one of the most challenging and yet most valuable rituals an individual can engage in. Whether used for the purposes of prayer, meditation or simply stillness, silence provides the space needed for a soul to connect with the divine.

In all these instances, silence is something that is incredibly powerful. The slight discomfort that might be felt initially can hardly compare with the rich benefits offered to one who appreciates and fully utilizes silence. In social situations, silence is not golden simply because it is the absence of speech. Instead, silence itself is a positive good that is underappreciated and often underutilized. Only as a person begins to see the positive power that silence has to offer, can that silence be harnessed for personal and social enrichment. Once that understanding is reached, however, there is scarcely a limit to its potential for positive effect.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Insightfulness of a One-Line Marketing Slogan

This morning, as I was driving to meet with a new potential client, there was a sign that caught my attention. It read, "Everyone drives used cars." At first glance, it seemed like the typical appeal-to-popularity type of marketing gimmick used to convince you, as a consumer, to join the masses (real or imaginary) by making the same choice they all are supposedly making. My second thought, in analyzing the one-liner from a logical basis, immediately shocked me with the profundity of the statement. It wasn't merely an appeal-to-popularity. It was a statement of logical fact. That simple fact is one that has been quite obscured to us, due to mental conditioning.

When considering cars, as consumers, we are taught that there are two extremely different categories of vehicles: new and used. These categories of vehicles are presented to us as polar opposites. New vehicles and used vehicles are sold at different places, for different prices by different sorts of people. New vehicles are presented to us a superior choice, FAR more valuable than any used vehicle could hope to be. Used vehicles (except when being described by a salesman) are old, decrepit things that are merely functional, but not especially desirable.

That one-line slogan cut through all of that socially-conditioned thinking. The simple fact is, the only actual difference between a used one, is simply that it has been owned by someone. But even an ostenibly new vehicle can quite accurately be described as "used" a mere week after its purchase. The moment the car is even driven off the lot, its market valuable depreciates, and it may properly be classified as a used vehicle. Hence, the statement "Everyone drives used cars," is a mere declaration of fact. The fact that we have accepted the taxonomies offered to us and created an artificial mental distinction between new and used vehicles is a sign that we often embrace the modern tendency to taxonomize things without giving them much thought.

The other insight this slogan offers is that social status is mostly a mental illusion. Social perceptions play an undeniable role in influencing the decisions we make and the judgments we make of others. A person's car is a sort of status symbol. Regardless of the actual substance and being of a person, people use psychological shortcuts to judge a person. I recently read about a fellow who performed a social experiment. He scheduled dates with two different women. With the first woman, he dressed up really nicely and picked her up in a brand new Bentley. With the second woman, he wore very casual clothing and picked her up in an old beat-up car. The content of the dates themselves were essentially the same. Yet, the way the two women viewed him was extremely divergent. While one had an extremely positive view of the fellow, the other woman described him as a "loser." The exact same guy was perceived in completely different way, simply based on the way he dressed and what car he drove.

In that regard, the brilliance of the slogan is in the way it highlights the way we often don't even see things through our own eyes, nor do we judge things rationally. Instead, we often allow other people's judgments and categories to be used in lieu of our own. We accept the inaccurate and agenda-driven perceptions of others and use them as a shortcut to thinking things through on our own. Humility offers us an alternate way to approach life and people, by pointing out the wisdom of suspending judgments and by pointing out the potential pitfall that arises when overcategorizing various aspects of life.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Essential Ingredient for Meaningful Teaching

The most effective sorts are teaching are the ones that are student-centric rather than curriculum-centric. While curriculum-centric teaching focuses ostensibly on what students "ought" to know, student-centric teaching emphasizes that which students will actually find personally meaningful. This is not a paradigm generally embraced by teaching institutions. Curriculum-centric teaching is the norm in American public schools, private schools, and churches today. This misplaced focus is one of the major reasons why most teaching is perceived as irrelevant. If the goal of teaching is for students to be better prepared for life and better equipped to face various challenges, then it is imperative that students learn things that practically impact their lives. In order for students to learn things that practically impact their lives, it is necessary that whatever is taught directly addresses things that pertain to students' lives.

Curriculum-centric teaching does not effectively meet this need since curriculum-centric teaching has several instrinsic limitations. The first limitation of curriculum-centric teaching is that curriculums are developed by the people who teach, based on their own impressions of what students will find useful rather than being developed directly based on feedback and inquiries from students. The second limitation of curriculum-centric teaching is that it is fairly inflexible. Since curriculum-centric teaching typically emphasizes specific lessons that must be taught in a specific order, there is little room for day-to-day flexibility or deviation from the scheduled content. Additionally, since curriculums are generally developed and refined over a period of time and not prone to be changed rapidly, many of them are based on the real or perceived needs of students in times past, rather than being developed in response to the needs of today's students. The third limitation of curriculum-centric teaching is that it is uniformly "taught" to a broad range of students, whose varying levels of foundational knowledge and learning styles serve to negate the effectiveness of what is taught. Curriculum-centric teaching cannot be easily adapted to the needs of individual students or groups of students.

Student-centric learning, contrastingly, focuses on what students actually need to know. It is form of responsive, dynamic teaching, rather than being static and inflexible. For a teacher to teach students content of relevance, it is indispensible for teachers to be aware of what matters to students, what students struggle with, what students think about, and how students think. For this sort of awareness to be developed, teaching must be a relational experience rather than a merely "academic" one. An atmosphere of open dialog and direct student feedback must be continually cultivated. Simple "factual" communication is insufficient to gauge what students are actually learning. Instead, two-way communication must be the foundation of learning.

As an illustration, there is a profound difference between a teacher informing a student of a fact, and a teacher answering a question posed by a student, even if the hypothetical content is exactly the same. When a teacher informs a student of a fact, this may be a fact that the student does not care about, has no deeper comprehesion of, or already knows. However, when a student poses a self-motivated question, the answer then given is one that is desired, likely unknown and one which the student is prepared to develop a comprehension of. The best way to prepare students to learn is by encouraging them to ask questions, showing them how to ask questions, and having an environment where question-asking and open discussion are encouraged.

Upon the foundation of open dialog and relational learning, is it certainly possible to teach specific lessons about specific topics, since relevance has already been established. After (or even during) the teaching of specific lessons, it is best if there is room for direct feedback about the helpfulness and relevance of the lesson. Apart from establishing that a specific topic is relevant to a student, however, there is limited usefulness in teaching specific lessons. Relevance is the most essential ingreident for meaningful teaching. Anything that is taught must be relevant to the students' lives, comprehensible by the students, and taught in a manner that ensures students are able to connect with the way it is being taught.

The focus in developing lessons should be on quality, rather than quantity. Rather than throwing lots of factual content at students and hoping for them to retain some of it, teaching would be far more effective if most of the time were spent on seeking to develop relationships with students and determining topics of relevance. A few lessons that are highly relevant far outweigh the practical value of many lessons with limited relevance. This is a paradigm that is utilized by effective salesmen, effective couselors, and effective entrepreneurs. Developing a strategy that ensures relevance to the target market is the key to success for those sorts of jobs. If a similar paradigm were adopted towards teaching methods, the quantity of teaching and time spend teaching would decrease, while the quality of the lessons taught would increase exponentially.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Facades We Use

With some friends, deep and meaningful conversation flows naturally. With other friends, the conversational depth almost never exceeds that of a puddle. In the past few days I've had some extremely rich and fulfilling conversations with friends. One friend and I were discussing how people connect with each other. There is always the general social conversation that most of society favors: small-talk, polite inquiries into well-being, topics deemed of general interest. While that helps keep things comfortable and light, in many ways it's a way of avoiding deeper connection.

Though many people secretly crave deeper connection, most people also are fearful of being genuine or vulnerable with others. In group settings, this insecurity is even more pronounced. While people might be willing to discuss things that are more personal in a one-on-one context, in a group setting there is much more general hesitance to express one's true thoughts and feelings. Of course, apart from some expression of one's true thoughts and feelings, neither friendship nor deeper connection can occur between two people.

Facades of all sorts inhibit such connection. Whenever we act or speak in such a way as to disguise our true thoughts or feelings, we are utilizing a facade. Fundamentally, there are two types of facades. Some people have cultivated an unconscious facade. They are not aware of the social-exterior they display (or at least attempt to display) to others. Most people who have an unconscious facade also expect others to utilize a similar facade, and actually have a harder time connecting with those who do not have a similar facade. Such people generally feel a desire to connect with others, but are unaware of their own insecurities and fears which prevent deeper connection.

Another sort of facade is the intentionally-crafted sort. This type of facade is not an accidental or subconscious creation, but instead is consciously developed with the explicit aim of effecting social interactions. Those who have crafted facades generally possess a deeper awareness of their own mannerisms, behaviors, and speech patterns as well as a heightened awareness of social norms and the perceptions of others. As a result of "trying on" various personalities and testing various mannerisms, they generally are fairly easily able to see through the facades of others, and also are more able to manipulate the perceptions of others.

The other kind of person, the most rare sort, is the truly genuine person. Such a person generally does not utilize a facade of any sort in social interactions. Truly genuine people generally are genuine for one of three reasons:

Some are completely oblivious to social norms and perceptions and therefore violate all sorts of social norms simply on accident. These sorts of people tend to be social misfits who aren't necessarily disliked but generally have a harder time fitting in with any social group.

Some people are extremely naturally assertive and therefore take no thought for whatever social norms they violate. They do what they like, say whatever they're thinking and simply leave their words and actions unfiltered. These people are often perceived as jerks and assholes, but also are admired and loved by some, simply for their unapologetic (and often raw) genuineness.

Some people have completely worked through their own insecurities, and as a result of having a deep self-acceptance, in meekness they offer themselves to the world as they are, unconcerned with the judgments of others. These kinds of people are often aware of social norms, but neither adhere to the social norms, nor flagrantly violate them. They have a certain grace and easy-going presence about them.

Those people who are very genuine have a greater capacity for developing deeper and more lasting connections based on genuine respect. Yet, the path of being genuine is not an easy one to walk. In a culture that is quite superficial and expects a certain level of superficiality, it takes boldness and humility to be aware of social norms without being enslaved to them. Yet, the eschewing of facades is a necessary prerequisite to connecting with people more fully. Both the fear-based unconscious facades and the crafted and calculated facades generally do more harm than good. They keep people socially "safe" while simultaneously preventing people from building the relationships they desire.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Glorious Mess

As I was listening to some new music, I began to ponder the human condition. Sometimes people puzzle me. Sometimes I puzzle myself. For being intelligent beings, it often boggles my mind how much chaos, drama and complication surrounds human life. Human existence isn't something that is nice, predictable or formulaic. It's anything but.

The simple truth is, we are imperfect people, living in a broken and disconnected world. Each of us is trying to make sense of it. Each of us looks for meaning in life. Some discover that the only meaning behind it is that there isn't any meaning. Some find fulfillment in the arms of a person. Some find satisfaction in a particular hobby or pursuit. Yet, there isn't a single one of us who doesn't occasionally feel out of place. As if this world isn't quite the right sort of place. As if we're merely outsiders. Maybe we shake those feelings off and try something new. If only we can discover the right secret, everything will feel right.

So we make mistakes. We try new things. We go new places. We meet new people. In search of... something. We're not really quite sure what. Sometimes, we feel that we've found it. The new somethings enamor us, and for a few moments everything feels okay. But, the feelings never last. The spell is broken and the feelings of disconnection return. It isn't okay to feel so out of place, is it? There's so much that we're supposed to be thankful for. Why does everything seem to be a struggle? Even when everything seems superficially well. How are you doing, they ask? "I'm fine," is the standard reply. But, are we? What does it mean to be fine?

As my thoughts transcended, I began to ponder what God must think of humanity. Does He love us in spite of our flaws and imperfections? Does He manage to find some enjoyment in us despite our endless quest for happiness in all the wrong things? Why did God create us, knowing that we would stray? Why would He create a world which He knew would be a fallen and broken world, tainted by sin and defaced by human rebellion? He seems to find joy in the midst of all it. How does He manage that?

Maybe God doesn't like things that are simple, perfect, and formulaic. What if God created our world not in spite of its fallenness, but because of it? What if God loves people not in spite of their flaws, but because of them? What if God enjoys watching and participating in the little stories of our lives exactly because they are dramatic and full of drama? What if God gave us a broad range of emotions, because there is meaning and purpose in experiencing all of them? What if God delights in the chaos and unpredictability of it all? What if He takes pleasure in the small and large ironies? What if God is less concerned with sin and punishment and more interested in the journey and direction of our lives?

What if this world isn't merely a mess? What if God didn't want to create a perfect universe? What if God made things exactly the way He did, because He wanted it to be a glorious mess?

Just a thought.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Faux Democracy

Those in the know have well been aware of the fact that though America is a purported representative democracy, in truth it is neither representative, nor is it a democracy. Though allegedly the will of the people is what governs our land, there is no longer even a pretense of such a structure. The governmental system of checks and balances that was instituted by our Founding Fathers has completely broken down. The system is running amok, and has effectively negated the checks and balances that were emplaced to prevent tyranny.

As today's news heralds the overturning of the California ban on gay marriage, so the power structure is again revealed for what it truly is. Twice, the people of California voted that only marriage between one man and one woman should be recognized by the state of California. Proposition 22, enacted in 2000, was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2008. For that reason, Proposition 8 was proposed for the November 2008 election, giving the voters another opportunity to express themselves. The voters again chose to define marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.

Yet, today our government has yet again declared that they do not serve the will of the people. The legislative, executive and judicial branches of the government have again demonstrated that their agendas are more important than the will of the people. Each branch continues to overstep their legally-appointed bounds, as we see the judicial branch effectively working to create their own laws, through striking down or reinterpretting those laws they deem unfit. The legislative branch is more than happy to spend taxpayer dollars and pass oppressive laws in spite of public opposition to various acts and pieces of legislation. The executive branch readily oversteps their boundaries by involving us in unapproved wars, violating clear rules of procedure in enforcing the law and engaging in scare tactics as a means of extorting citizens.

The writing is on the wall. Anyone who misses the clear revelation of the power structure in America is either ignorant or living in denial. The American government is not concerned with the well-being of its citizens. Presently, government qua government functions only to further its own agendas and perpetuate an increase in governmental power. Today marks another victory for tyranny and oppression. For those of us who love freedom and who believe that the only legitimate role of the government is to serve the interests of its constituents, this new ruling is yet another harbinger that America is no longer a nation that believes in either of those key principles. We are living in a faux democracy. Even those things that we directly vote for are not given serious consideration by our overlords.