Monday, July 29, 2013

The Complexity of Connecting

Struggling to connect...
I often find myself struggling to connect with other individuals.  I find this personal challenge not only appears in conflicts at work and home, but also manifests in friendly interactions.  This often undermines both team cooperation and personal intimacy with loved ones.  Connections develop trust and respect which in turn support cooperation and understanding.  I am looking at my own past ability to build connections and learning new ideas to become more effective.

I am learning the power of turning my attention inward.  The more effort I put into exploring the complexity of myself, the more I see similar complexity in others.  This illumination of the complexity of others inspires me to throw off my assumptions and generate curiosity.   I am finding this curiosity for others’ depth underpins my successes in empathetic connection.  As a result, my peers tell me I am becoming a softer, gentler and more reliable ally at both work and home.

Struggling with Others

When I engage in conversations I notice that clear communication can be hard to accomplish.  When I find myself in a situation with another party where we are both entrenched in a position tensions begin to rise.  Despite all my best intentions the conflict would often escalate.  Conversely, in friendly conversation, I often find myself not understanding why a given topic is of importance to the other person.  For instance, in my past my partner would ask me, “Did you hear X person died today?”  I would be unable to understand why that death mattered to them.  In both of these extremities, my experience of the other person feels like it is obscured in some way.

In the case of a really negative interaction, it can seem that the other person becomes so obscured that they almost cease to exist.  As my perception of the other person evaporates, I experience the conflict as a mysterious unseen force against which I stand alone.  This isolation is self-reinforcing.  The more I lose sight of the other person, the more I feel alone in a gale of words.  In this loneliness I often turn my focus more strongly to myself for support.  This self-centered attitude just feeds into the disconnection I feel with the other person.

I find the disconnection of negative interactions straight forward; it is harder to notice the same occurring in some of my more friendly interactions.  A loved one will come up to me and tell me about a fact or event which has occurred.  In an instant I am a bit lost.  I have been presented a fact, but I do not find any inherent meaning in the fact and as a result, no emotional reaction.  Conversely, I realize my loved one finds a great deal of meaning in the topic.  We both now become frustrated by our apparent inability to personally connect on the topic.

In both of these situations, the internal thoughts of the other person are hidden from my perception.  In the case of the conflict, I find myself so isolated from the other person that their internal complexity completely disappears from my mind as a topic of consideration.  In the second case, I become aware of complex thoughts at work in my loved one’s mind but have an inability to personally connect with them.

These experiences can leave me feeling trapped within myself causing other people to be a complete mystery.  At times, I have no comprehension why a person brings a given topic up, or why such a seemingly small issue enflames into a large conflict.  To help me address these instances, I have always carried with me two tools for dealing with these situations: problem solving and respect.

Embroiled in conflict, the tool of analytical problem solving allows me to identify options, weigh ramifications, and quickly cut to an effective solution.  I boil down conflicts to the level of a complex math problem to be solved.  Problem solving will resolve questions quickly, but I find that it separates conflict participants.  I feel hollow when I slip into treating people and their feelings as if they are just variables to be solved.   I’m sure they feel something similar.

When a topic of conversation is of no meaning to me, I find that showing respect for the other person’s passions provides them needed support.  This respect for how important the topic is to the other person offers them someone to talk to about their passion.  This respect simulates interest but it also isolates since it does not engender a deeper connection about why the other person holds a passion for the subject.

I am excited about exploring how complex systems are both built and operated.  I am also very passionate about my happiness, being around happy people, and working to try to spread happiness to others.  This combination of technical curiosity and emotional drive is what led me to my career of designing complex destination entertainment products.  As I have grown professionally in my field to take on more responsibility and leadership, I have found my inability to connect with others a greater and greater hindrance.

I characterize this disconnection as a lack of understanding for the complexity of others’ experiences.  I have realized that the challenge of seeing complexity occurs not only with others but with looking within myself.  Since I am readily available for study, I chose to delve into my own inner workings with the hope of better understanding my emotions and experience.  My hope is by getting to understand myself better, I will better understand others.

Exploring My Own Complexity

My journey of self-exploration continues to be the most exciting and educational adventure I have yet undertaken.  I have found untold worlds to explore by shining a light on my emotions, my history, and the complexity of this thing called self.

For as long as I can remember, my emotions have been mysterious to me.  I find that they drive a great number of the choices I make and color my perception of the world.  I experience emotions as powerful forces occurring deep within me and felt throughout my whole body.  Often language can be used to blur the boundaries between emotions within and what is external in the world.  A statement like, “That made me really upset.” implies that emotions may be imposed from outside.  Other thought lines such as, “That was such a sad song.” attribute emotions to external objects.  These types of externalizations are at odds with how I experience emotion.  I find clarity in unpacking the relationship of external events to internal emotions.  My favorite example for emotional understanding is a sports goal and the emotions that follow.

When a player scores a goal at a big game, thousands of people are each flooded with emotions.  Those emotions can include: release for the kicker, stunned solitude for the goal keeper, decisive urgency for the field officials, joy for some fans, and frustration for others.  Since so many different feelings happen at once, it is clear that the goal itself does not directly make people feel anything specific.  The goal as an external event acts as a catalyst.  It was a final trigger after a very long series of experiences reaching back deep into each person’s history.  How each person feels in the moment has less to do with the goal and more to do with what it symbolizes to them.  The goal becomes a powerful metaphor which can spark emotions set deep in personal experiences.

I learned emotions are generated in the subconscious, the oldest part of the brain.  This powerful animal brain processes vast amounts of parallel information, quickly making complex connections across dispersed topics and time periods.  The subconscious allows me to pull my hand from a hot surface before I am consciously aware of the danger even though I am miles and decades from that first lesson with fire.  Being without linear ordered thinking, the subconscious cannot generate concepts and language leaving emotions and reaction as its primary communication method.

The subconscious constantly takes in my surrounding situation and compares it to my past experiences looking for repeating patterns.  When my present echoes a past situation from which I have learned a powerful lesson, positive or negative, the subconscious generates emotions to warn my conscious mind of the impending pattern repetition.   The importance of this brain mechanics is that my emotions tell me much more about my past than they do about my present.

When I feel scared, angry, or defensive in a given external conflict, I can now understand that those emotions are warning me about where conflicts like this have gone in the past.  These emotions do not however tell me anything about where this particular conflict will actually lead.  Emotions offer an educated guess for my own insight and protection, but they do not offer a truth about the present.

Acknowledging this complex web of emotions, history, and unspoken thought underpinning so much of how I experience the world leads me to see others in a whole new light.

The Complexity of Others

With my exploration of self, I incite my curiosity for the inner worlds of others.  With the knowledge of how my past colors my present, I am struck by a new found humility for how much I don’t know about any given person.  I now know each topic someone brings up carries the unseen weight of thousands of past experiences, thoughts, and feelings.

I feel a calming effect in discussions.  A great majority of the feelings and experiences underpinning a conversation are hidden from view so I have much less urge to take words at face value.  I can now resist the temptation to assume another’s emotions must necessarily be all about my actions in the present.  Questions that on the surface seem to me to have straight forward solutions are now tabled in favor of curiosity.  Why has the person not come up with the straight forward solution?  Is the person really trying to solve this question, or are they using this question to get at a much deeper and more intriguing topic?

I speak so little of what goes through my mind in an interaction.  If this is the same for the other person, limitless curiosity and compassion is required to really get a good understanding of both sides of the interaction.  Forging my curiosity into insightful questions has really taken many people by surprise.

The questions I strive to ask usually assume the complexity of both the person and the topic chosen for discussion.  Asking questions about the assumptions and whys of a topic is very powerful.  These questions diffuse tension, express empathy for the other person, and often inspire all parties to see their own thoughts in a whole different perspective.

Building Connections

My effort to explore myself and to respect the complexity of others has led me to deeper personal connections both in the office and at home.  With tighter bonds between us, I am now more likely to see my peers as allies within in conflicts, working alongside them to reach a resolution neither of us could find on our own.

My genuine curiosity for the feelings and experiences of others in the moment has increased honesty and trust levels in my interactions.  In showing curiosity, others relate that they feel more connected to both themselves and to me.  In turn, they often increase their curiosity back towards me.

With increased trust and honesty, I build courage to tackle bigger root level issues from which multitudes of other conflicts and errors propagate.  With connected coworkers and family, formerly taboo topics I thought may be too big to be addressed become much more accessible and less explosive.  I also find I now have a supportive group of peers open to tackling these big issues together.

Energized, I am now building connections with others.  Every single person has an infinite well of experiences and emotions to share and explore.  I have found the best connections don’t come from reaching out, but from reaching in.  My adventure of connections is just beginning.  If you have found interest in this essay on connection, I would love to connect with you.

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