Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Maybe I know more than I give myself credit for

Today I went to a seminar on managing conflict in the workplace. It was one of those things you do for "development," meaning you're not as good at as you ought to be, so you go listen to an expert tell you how to be better.

There's a reason I'm not good at dealing with conflict. I'm a Myers Briggs INFP, one of the defining characteristics of which is hating conflict. I really do want everyone to sit in a circle, join hands and sing Kumbaya, but if I can't get that, I at least want people to not yell at each other. When the araguing begins, I try to become one with the wallpaper and disappear.

But temperament preferences are not excuses, and I'm all for improvement, so away I went in search of techniques to face my fear of conflict, hoping I wouldn't have to pretend to be tough and unyielding in some some public role-playing exercise.

So imagine my surprise when the expert opened with a review of five different strategies for dealing with conflict, one of which was -- avoidance! Plus something else I know I can do -- accommodation! And collaboration! Each an appropriate action in certain circumstances... Okay, so I'm not so good at some of the other strategies more appropriate in other situations. But at least I don't start with a complete lack of relevant skills.

The next section of the seminar was about how being tough and unyielding, pushing your solution, is what people often think they need to do. But that usually doesn't work because it only causes your adversary to be tough, unyielding and committed to their own (different) solution.

What to do instead, according to this expert? Listen. Listen without judgment or defensiveness. Listen for clues to what your adversary's real interests are -- often something much deeper than what they're saying. Listen for places where your interests align with theirs, and begin with that common ground. (Sort of like the marching orders Obama has given George Mitchell as he heads off to the Middle East...)

You mean I don't necessarily have to be good at being tough and strident to be moderately adequate at dealing with conflict?

You mean, I might already know how to do at least some of this?

Sometimes, the value of a seminar is not in learning something new, so much as learning to give yourself credit for what you already know.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Moving along

Somewhere amidst the past few days' coverage of events leading up to tomorrow's inauguration, I read an article postulating that boomers, a cohort to which I belong, are responsible for the divisive nature of political discourse of the past 16-20 years. In pushing society's boundaries, not trusting anyone over 30 and protesting wars and social ills, we framed up the rancor that has prevailed throughout two boomer presidencies, but is about to be replaced by a new generation of leadership.

I'd never thought about things that way, and while I happen to believe my generation accomplished a few worthy things, I've got to admit this point of view has merit. I hate the thought that divisiveness will define the boomers' legacy. But I'm tired enough of partisan squabbling --Rush Limbaugh's bombast and Nancy Pelosi's sniping sound equally stale -- that I'm ready for my generation to get out of the way.

I won't try to articulate what tomorrow's events mean for our nation and our society. There are plenty of others pontificating on that, and there's nothing I can add that hasn't been said 100 times already, or seen on the faces of people who are gathering for this moment in history.

What I will do, however, is put forth some words by Jonathan Alter, writing in his book about the first 100 days of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency at the lowest point of the Great Depression. Those days were worse than what we've thus far experienced in this downturn, and Alter's telling reveals plenty of political divisiveness in that time as well, but there are notable, and hopeful, similarities, to the change I pray we are about to experience.

A week after his 1932 election, FDR gave an interview to the New York Times. The presidency, he said, is "predominantly a place of moral leadership." He reviewed the work of great earlier presidents... and concluded that each of them were "leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified." Now, seven months later, the new president had shown moral leadership, proven himself a leader of thought and clarified important ideas about the country. The results were spectacular... the change was almost spiritual. Times were tough and almost certainly would remain so, but help was on the way.

By itself, no single quality possessed by FDR was exceptional. It was a magical alloy of attributes: his ebullience after the dour Hoover, his theatricality upon entering the big stage, and his pragmatism in a time of destructive dogma. Those combined into a new vision of security for the American republic - the ideal of a more benevolent state no longer "trapped," as he later put it, "in the ice of its own indifference."

And finally, this, from a speech he died before he was able to deliver: "If civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of relationships - the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live and work together in the same world at peace."

Seems like something our new guy might say. In any case, we boomers have had our chance. It's time for us to move along, or better yet, follow the leader and help make better things happen.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Two Americas

Today I've had an unexpected encounter with the concept of "two Americas." Not white and black nor male and female. Not red-state and blue-state. Not have and have-not.

The two Americas I've experienced today are the America that's actually happening, and the version of it beamed to us on TV.

Let me explain.

I arrived at the gym today with my portable radio tuned to NPR just as live coverage of the free inaugural concert was about to begin. As I hopped on the elliptical machine I noted that the gym TVs were tuned to CNN, which also promised live coverage of the concert. "Cool!" I thought -- I'll be able to see the concert on the tv, and hear it through my earphones.

On the radio, the proceedings began right on time with the band playing Aaron Copeland's always-inspiring "Fanfare for the Common Man". I looked up at the TV, which was showing ads for Coca-Cola and a chain of resort hotels, then promos for Campbell Brown and Larry King Live. Okay, they're probably just getting the ads out of the way, I thought, they'll cut to the concert when the popular performers come on stage.

Sure enough, once Denzel Washington took the microphone, made some appropriate comments and introduced Bruce Springsteen, the TV screen showed scenes of the crowd at the national mall... but wait! That's not The Boss, that's Wolf Blitzer. I hear Bruce Springsteen, but I see Wolf Blitzer. Then Soledad O'Brien. Then some fascinating statistics in a little box of type at the bottom of the screen about the location of the Lincoln Memorial.

On the radio, Springsteen concluded his performance to audience cheers as Laura Linney and Martin Luther King III took the stage to address the crowd. Surely the television audience will get to hear what they have to say, I thought... oops, no, cut to a commercial for Flomax.

And so it went. As the thousands at the mall, and thousands more tuning in to NPR heard people like Tom Hanks, Marissa Tomei and Samuel L. Jackson reading the words of inaugural speeches past from the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt, the television audience saw ads for Cialis and Microsoft. As Renee Fleming and Stevie Wonder sang, Anderson Cooper interviewed a spectator who had shaved his head to spell "Obama."

To be fair, CNN did broadcast the president-elect's brief address to the concert crowd, and it appears as though HBO had exclusive television rights to broadcast the concert, which would explain CNN's odd definition of "coverage." But as my earphones delivered Beyonce 's stirring rendition of "America" while the TV screen showed a CNN correspondent pointing out the empty steps where the Oath of Office will be administered, I was grateful for my little $9.99 Radio Shack connection to that America.

CNN will be offering live coverage of what they are breathlessly promoting as "The Moment" on Tuesday. I'm sure it will be widely watched, brought to you by the nation's top advertisers. Just be advised, if you wish to be witness to the moment, take a radio and fresh batteries, just in case the swearing-in happens during the other America's commercial break or Wolf Blitzer's blather.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Thought for the moment

"For a dog, every morning is Christmas morning. Every walk is the best walk, every meal is the best meal, every game is the best game. We can learn so much by observing the way our pets rejoice in life's simplest moments. Take time every day to celebrate the many gifts that are hidden in the ordinary events of your own life."
- Cesar Milan (the Dog Whisperer guy)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A breath of fresh air

Our household began the new year by having our home's air ducts cleaned.

We had over the years heard various points of view on the wisdom of duct-cleaning -- some claiming it's crucial to HVAC efficiency, others that it's a waste of time and money. Skeptics that we are, we leaned toward the waste-of-money perspective, as evidenced by the fact that we'd never had them cleaned. (Nor, apparently, had several previous owners: one of the items fished out of the vents by the duct-cleaning crew was a newspaper page from January 26, 1969).

But after 27 years of sharing this space with two kids and an assortment of cats, dogs, hamsters and guinea pigs, we decided it couldn't hurt.

There was plenty of ook to clear out, of course. There also was mold growing along the inside duct surfaces. At least that's what the duct-cleaning crew told us as they presented materials detailing the dire consequences of such a situation. No one in our household has ever suffered from respiratory ailments, so I looked at their "mold detector" with a fair amount of distrust. But in the end, the unsavory thought of blowing mold throughout the house every time the furnace fired up persuaded us to ante up for the sporicide treatment and an ultraviolet light to keep regrowth at bay.

I don't know whether we really had mold in our air ducts, or if the stuff they sprayed did anything more than reduce our checkbook balance. I just took their expertise and their recommendation on faith.

And real or imagined, the air does feel fresher these days.

This all crossed my mind as I settled into watching the tv talk shows on this Sunday morning that's just a few days into the new year and a few days away from the inauguration of a new President. The pundits on Meet the Press, the President-elect himself on This Week, even the combatants on a re-run of Friday night's McLaughlin Group, while realistic about the many thorny problems that face our nation and our world, with different points of view about solutions, still seemed ready to be hopeful that the new administration can lead us toward positive steps out of this mess.

I'm hopeful too. Yeah, we've got a a really big build-up of problems, the existence of which I don't question like I did the mold in the air ducts. There's a whole lot of dirt, contaminants and worse that, frankly, we all had a role in contributing to, and all must help clean up. I know it won't be easy and will probably entail some pain and personal sacrifice.

But I trust the new guy. I am taking it on faith that he has the smarts, the will and the right sporicide to move forward in an appropriate, positive way that will disinfect the mold and set a healthier course.

And that makes me breathe easier. For now, at least.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Thought for the moment in the new year

“My father has always inspired me. He said, ‘don’t wake up at 65 and think about what you should have done.’”
– George Clooney