Friday, November 28, 2014


She  “always create[s] intelligent conversation,”  commented a friend of mine, in conversation about someone she knows.  What does it take, I started to wonder, to create conversation, first of all, and intelligent conversation, after that.

1.  Remember that conversation is about the person I am talking to, not about me.  My goal in conversation has to be to draw the other person out, to
a.  find out what is going on in that individual’s life;
b.  communicate sincere interest in those events and their related feelings;
c.  give him or her the opportunity to share. 

2.  Ask questions to invite the individual to delve into details.   People feel affirmed when others are interested in their experiences and perspectives.  Follow-up questions, indicate a sincere desire to know more.  A single question, on the other hand, seems perfunctory, a question posed out of duty.   If that question is followed up with a personal experience, especially one that changes the subject, the conversation has been hijacked.  It’s become a personal forum.  Compare these illustrations of a parallel conversation, the first an other-centered conversation (top), and the second, what that conversation might look like hi-jacked into self-promotion (bottom).

1  Hi, Linda, how are you?
2  I’m fine, thank you.  And you?
1  Well, thank you for asking.  When  did you get back from your trip?
2  Last week.  On Tuesday.
1  You look so tanned and refreshed. I’ll bet you had a great time.  What’s one highlight for you?
2  Well, let’s see.  The entire trip was fantastic, so it’s hard to pinpoint one thing.
1  Still, something must stand out.
2  You know, I did go ziplining for the first time.  It was exhilarating.  I’m proud of myself that I overcame my fears. . .

1  Hi, Linda, how are you?
2  I’m fine, thank you.  And you?
1  Well, thank you for asking.  When did you get back from your trip?
2  Last week.  On Tuesday.
1  We just returned ourselves from a cruise last month.  We had such a wonderful time.  The weather co-operated, and the food was amazing.  We met so many interesting people.
2   How long were you gone?
1    Ten days this time.
2    How did that work for you?
1    It was just right.  We felt we had short-circuited winter just a bit.
2    Good for you! . . .

I’ve been on the receiving end of both of those types of conversations.  Life-giving in the first instance, draining in the second.  Mea culpa, mea culpa, I have also been the perpetrator of more than a few hijacked conversations (bottom), where I have been more focused on myself than the person to whom I am speaking.  To be fair, I do congratulate myself when I do manage to do it right, to fan a conversation from its embers into a flickering, radiant warmth. 

3.  Use active listening.   I am most successful in conversation when I focus on the other person’s feelings.  Did the individual experience satisfaction? joy? excitement? apprehension? sorrow?  These feelings are a lead into follow-up quesions or statements.  If I can paraphrase those feelings, my partner is likely to add rich detail and some reflection to what he or she has already said.

3.  Ask permission to share stories, experiences, or knowledge.  During a course in Cognitive Coaching I took last year, I learned that asking permission to share experience or knowledge, especially in professional circles,  shows respect for my conversation mate’s own abilities and management skills.  Of course.  Why had that never occurred to me before?  If, in personal conversation, asking permission could seem awkward,  I can at least wait for an opportune moment to interject, once I’ve maintained the focus on my mate for a good long time, and even then, just open the door a smidgen with a general statement first.  

4.  Maintain receptive body language.  Eye contact, leaning forward, nodding in agreement or anticipation, smiling, all these tried and true techniques encourage people to continue talking.

5.  Steer away from discussion of other people.  The conversation can’t be “intelligent” when it’s centered on analysis of people’s habits or foibles.

6.  Learn to tell stories concisely and effectively.  Scott Adams, author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big (2013), includes the art of conversation in the list of skills everyone needs a working knowledge of (along with pubic speaking, psychology, business writing, accounting, basic design, overcoming shyness, a second language, golf, proper grammar, persuasion, hobby level technology and proper voice technique, just in case you’re curious).  He recommends dusting off the structure of a story you learned in school, and applying it to experiences you want to relate.  If you can make them funny, so much the better.

When conversation works, it’s magical.  You are caught in the moment, oblivious to anything else going on around you.  You don’t want to look away, or move a muscle lest you disturb the mood and send an inadvertent message that the conversation needs to end.  “Intelligent” conversation is even more powerful—other-centered, inclusive, generous, peppered with memorable snippets and noted for its sweet, lasting aftertaste.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


“I look like my mother in this coat,“ I said to my husband, on the way out the other day.  The quick glance in the entrance mirror as I opened the door confirmed my statement.  In my mother’s long beige wool coat, a bright, sky blue scarf wound around my neck, I couldn’t ignore the resemblance.

On the way to work, still wrapped in my mother’s warmth, I had to admit that the likeness was not only physical.    As I age, I resemble her more and more . . . or maybe I’m just more aware of the similarities. 

Like my mother,

·  I love a well-set table, and I take great pains to make everything just right.  I use the china often, set off with her wedding silver, knife blades turned inward, as she taught me.

·  I have my own distinctive fashion style, preferring quality signature garments that last for decades to trendy fads.

·  I am always cold.  I need a hood and gloves when others are still in fleece tops and sandals.    Scarves and shawls now occupy one whole dresser drawer, and I have taken to wearing my boots all day to keep my feet warm.

·  I lose earrings; they catch in the scarves.

·  I monitored my children’s language as they grew, as she monitored mine in both French and English, and, although my children poke fun at my zeal from time to time, all three are articulate and well-spoken.

·  I love to cook.

·  I turn on the light over the sink, as she always did.

·  I make a big deal of birthdays and special days in the lives of those I love.

·  My grandson will call me “Mémère.”

·  I’m an introvert camouflaged in an extrovert’s persona, impatient for quiet after an entire day of listening, asking questions, smiling, making eye contact, drawing people out.  Let’s be clear, I enjoy people, and my inquiries are sincere.  My source  needs frequent replenishment, however, for sustainability.

·  I am prone to malaproprisms, especially with names.

·  I am tenacious, a nice way of saying “stubborn,” and self-reliant.

·   I need to be useful, to contribute, especially to my family.  Sometimes, though, I forget to ask what form that help might take, and my efforts can be gauche as a result. 

·  I flatter myself that I have even a smidgen of her strength, though I haven’t (yet) been tested as she was.

I am proud to be her daughter, and comforted that I resemble her in any way.   On this, the fifth anniversary of her death, her determination shored me up, and I finished the day a little ahead of where I thought I’d be.  I will need that strength in the time to come.  I look to her example to sustain me.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


During  Round 1 of the bicycle sit-ups, number twenty–six or so, to the accompaniment of CBC News,  I hear Brian Stewart and Peter Mansbridge reminisce about their fears around the eventual fate of the Remembrance Day Service at the National War Memorial.    I stop, sit up for real, and pay attention.  “No one will bother to show up at these events,”  Stewart recalls saying in the seventies.    Back then, Stewart continues,  organizers would “be lucky to get 1 000 people.”  Last year,  30 000 attended, more than 50 000 this year.  That was then; this is now. 

The world is a different place than it was in the seventies when the conversations Stewart and Mansbridge alluded to occurred.  World War I had ended sixty years before; one generation  had lived since the end of World War II .   Despite the Cold War, the War in Vietnam, and trouble spots in Central America and the Middle East, we indulged in the illusion that the world was a more peaceful place.  Besides, those conflicts did not touch us, Canadians.  They occurred in distant lands, and didn’t involve our own fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers.   Our military served in emergency relief or peace-keeping missions with the United Nations, with only an occasional casualty.   International conflicts did not involve us, a peace-loving and peace-keeping nation.

It is true, as Stewart and Mansbridge state, that the efforts of schools, volunteer organizations, and veterans’ groups have had a  “remarkable effect” on raising awareness of the significance of Remembrance Day.    More critical than those efforts, though, in my view, has been the rise of terrorism metamorphosed into unmitigated evil reminiscent of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and the Rwandan genocide.   We learn of rampant, large scale murder, public beheadings, kidnappings, and, just yesterday, the senseless killing of 48 Nigerian students by a suicide bomber pretending to be a student in that school.   The murder of innocents.

No longer is the violence restricted to other lands, either.  The irrationality infiltrated through the tributaries of the Internet has polluted vulnerable consumers and resulted in the killing of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in a parking lot and Corporal  Nathan Cirillo at the War Memorial,  as well as the invasion of Parliament.  In the assassinations of a few weeks ago, the chilling reality of the flag-draped caskets of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan on the tarmack  and along the Highway of Heroes has become even more immediate.

My uncle, Lucien Guay
In the past, Remembrance Day was a remote connection.  For me, it meant thinking about two uncles whom I never knew who died during World War II.  My mother, consumed with grief still each Remembrance Day over the loss of her younger brothers, could not bring herself to watch the service on television.   For my own children, though, remembering was even more distant—photographs, stories, documentaries, about important people and important issues, yes, but devoid of direct connection.  Gratitude for the enormity of the sacrifice always the overarching theme, still our memories were once, and twice, removed.

Now, remembering is different.   It’s not longer remote.  As a nation, we hold in our hearts fresh memories of lost mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, nephews, nieces, cousins.   The violence touches us now:  our families, a small city, a symbol of our national identity.   In my view, that’s why Canadians attended Remembrance Day services in such large numbers today, “numbers not seen in our time,” in Stewart’s words.  Now, with a clarity that was not before possible for the post-war generation, we understand what the sacrifice means.

Friday, November 7, 2014


 I know when I get up in the morning that I may be facing icy roads on the way to work.  The forecast the night before predicted temperatures of -2 C° and snow.  That means ice, and maybe slush.  Yuck.  Forty-five kilometers of slush and sleet on a two-lane highway with other people on the way to work and freight trains camouflaged as trucks on a mission of their own.  Everyone is in a hurry.

My goal for this morning is simple, really.  I want to stay on the road until I get to the office.  So, I gear into my winter driving mindset. 

First, I stay philosophical.  Calm is better than tension. I will get to work when I get there.  Five or ten minutes won’t make a difference. 

Second, I shift into ice-driving strategy.  As I turn the corner and merge onto the highway, I aim for about 60 km / hr while I test the road.  I avoid any slush on the road as long as I stay in the tracks, but I am concerned about black ice that’s impossible to detect at the best of times, never mind in the glare of headlights at dawn.   Gradually, I run it up to 90 km / hr.  The speed limit is 100 km / hr.  I don’t feel comfortable going any faster right now.  I keep my wipers on, and I turn them up to high speed when I see a truck barreling toward me in the oncoming lane.

Third, I let other drivers suffer the road rage.  Vehicles pull up behind me, and pass.  Some are careful as they go by, and settle in just ahead of me.  One heavy black half-ton races ahead, spitting up snow, to make a point, I guess.

I am the driver people swear at when they arrive at work on a snowy morning.

“People like that shouldn’t be allowed on the roads.  They don’t know how to drive,” they complain.

When I hear those complaints, I readily raise my hand and admit to their face my membership in the club of people others designate as bad winter drivers.  “That was probably me,” I add, smiling, looking  for the downcast eyes and the fleeting blush that will betray a wisp of embarrassment.   However transitory, the disconcertion compensates a little for their smug confidence that their SUV will get them where they want to go at top speed no matter what the road conditions. Maybe they are the ones who don’t know how to drive. 

I am a good driver, winter or summer.  I am careful.  I am conscious of the effect my speed has on the traffic flow.  I don’t text.  I rarely use the car’s bluetooth capability.  I listen to the radio.  I like speed as much as anyone, but not at the expense of traveling faster than the traffic or the weather conditions  of  the day, or my comfort level with both, can bear.  It’s not so much my own safety I’m preoccupied with; how could I live with my carelessness hurting someone else?

Fourth, I laugh.  I remain unapologetic.  If my driving habits help others feel good about their own driving skills, well, then I’ve done them a random act of kindness.  On the next intemperate morning, as I diagnose the road to  find my comfortable speed, maybe the drivers that line up behind me can pay that RAK forward, and reserve judgment as they pass.