The Art of Asking

“I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.” Lou Holtz

This morning, as I was walking the dogs out to the end of the driveway to collect the papers, a young fellow on his way to high school slowed, rolled down his window, and said, “You have a couple of great Irish Wolfhounds!” I thanked him and mentioned they are Labradoodles. As he pulled away, I thought back to my own teen years and remembered clearly how important it was to me at that time to sound learned.

This isn’t to condemn the young guy for stepping out and making a statement. In fact, I find many young people are reticent to talk to people they don’t know, so kudos to him for acting neighborly and communicating! Nor was he completely off the mark, we have had many people think that they were either Irish or Russian wolfhounds; being first generation Labradoodles, they do not have curly fur like the later generations. Being an educated guess, I definitely would not put him into the category of the Abraham Lincoln quote I used in an earlier blog, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

I also do not know for certain that this teen was doing what I did back when I was his age, that is my own bias, but I do see it in many teens, especially boys. And although many times it indicates low self-esteem when we present ourselves as an authority, as was the case in my life before my 50s, I have no idea that this was the case this morning. However it does point to something that I have learned and could benefit many people.

As I have also mentioned in past blogs, our perceptions in life our totally dependent upon our experiences. We see, hear, think, and expect what we have already experienced. As we have already learned much by the time we are teens (but not near as much as we think at that age!), it is natural to delineate the vast amount of information that we are receiving through our senses, pigeonholing that information into easier to understand categories. Even when faced with something totally new, our brains are constantly searching to find like patterns from the past.

Unfortunately, this can result into what is called a closed system, categorizing new experience that we have into an old familiar group, and then shutting out the possibility of there being a different explanation for that experience. An open system, while it might initially categorize a new experience like one from the past, is open to the possibility that that categorization is incorrect and seeks clarification. Too many of us fall into the former closed system.

That is because, whether real or perceived, the older portion of our brain is constantly searching for threats. This closed system helps us to survive, let’s a look at an easy example. If we lived in Africa and had seen a female lion attack another human, and then we happen to chance meeting a jaguar, the older portion of our brain does not want the newer, thinking and analyzing brain to wonder, “gosh, I wonder if this new animal that looks like that lioness, really is a kinder, gentler kind of cat? Our limbic brain quickly categorizes the jaguar as being sufficiently like the lioness, despite the differ color, as a threat to our safety, energizing us to flee.

The key to learning as we get older, is to revert back to our early developmental ages and question everything. Utilize the positive aspects of a closed system, but recognize that it may be closed. Treat every experience as if it were new; allow the limbic brain to do its work of comparing and categorizing, but then question the process. Had the young guy this morning done this, he might have stated and then questioned, “You have a couple of great looking dogs; they look like Irish Wolfhounds, are they?”

This inquiry is fairly benign as it dealt with my dogs, and did not reflect specifically on me. What if, however, someone makes a statement about you that you categorize as hurtful when in the other person’s mind they are actually paying you a compliment? We all have had the thought, “what did he mean by that?” Having a closed system keeps us from enjoying the differences in people. I have a friend that I met in a spiritual setting that, had I not met him there, was so different from me that I quite possibly would have dismissed him as a flake. Not allowing myself to be a closed system, I got to know this person, and we had many enjoyable experiences over the years.

This lets us draw on our experience, while still keeping our thought system open in order to continue learning. Keeping in mind that when we apply our categorizations to others without asking questions, we do not allow ourselves to really know the other person. As I have stated before, we can use “I” statements and questions to inquire without putting our interpretation on the other; then, keeping an open mind (system) and really listening without judgment, we will enjoy a more complete understanding of the other person.

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Election Causation Error II

Or, “You Don’t Have To Believe Everything You Think.” I have this saying on a bumper sticker on the back of my truck. It is amazing what we can interpret from seeing, hearing, or feeling something, which may or may not have any basis in reality because we would be making a generalization from a snapshot. This concept came back to me the other morning listening to Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, on NPR. But first a little diversion…

Over the last several years I have found this radio program, while entertaining, has become more and more condescending to what I call the vast middle-class situated between the two coasts. I am not sure if indeed they are becoming more condescending or if I am simply more aware of what and how things are said. If you’ve never heard the program, they have several sections, played before a live audience, and having three guest entertainers, usually comedians.

I have already covered in an earlier blog my thoughts on how jokes really are not funny, but many comedians these days seem to delight in putting down their fellow humans, especially those they regard as beneath them. I have heard and read in the past about the ivory tower that “intellectuals” inhabit, mainly in the huge cities on both coasts, plus Chicago, but most especially New York City.

I know treating those we think below us with contempt is basic human nature, but it was brought home to me the other night watching a documentary on one of my favorite writer and director, Nora Ephron. Great film by one of her sons, but boy did it point out how those she associated with seem to consider themselves in a class above the rest of us. And this affliction really does seem to pertain to those in the visual, auditory, and written arts.

So back to the radio show in which they were yukking it up over Donald Trump’s “on the record” meeting with the New York Times in which he supposedly spoke over and over about the size of his hands. However, the dialog was not video or audio taped, with just a transcript released. I apologize, but one more aside. Back in the 90s, I had the unfortunate experience of participating in several lawsuits, but they were before it was standard procedure to videotape a deposition.

I became extremely adept at answering questions which, when reading in a transcript, seemed like the answer was succinct. Had you been present, you would’ve heard the sarcasm and contempt in my voice, which never made it to the printed page. Even better, when the attorney challenged me, I simply stated, “What do you mean?” making her or him look stupid.

So I can imagine, only knowing Trump from a few videos and quips, how he was (or thought he was!) probably being funny and self-deprecating. However, the joking inflection of his voice would not have made it to the printed page. And yet these comedians drew a conclusion over the sterile written words in the transcript, that Trump was actually serious and still obsessing over Rubio’s hand size correlation rather than trying to be funny.

Not only did they make the classic mistake of drawing a conclusion from a correlation (you may remember that since being raked over the coals in my dissertation process, I am attuned to and have encountered many such fallacious arguments!), but also they did not even recognize the context. Either that or they purposely chose to cast that meeting in the dimmest light possible. Or both! So much for the self-professed superiority of the performance intelligentsia!

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