Thursday, May 26, 2016


I’ve always known I’m an introvert.   Maybe that’s why what Susan Cain has to say in the first hundred or so pages of her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012, New York: Broadway Paperbacks) resonates with me.  So many of the things I love to do are solitary or quiet:  play the piano and the harp, write, read, hike, take long walks.    Still, I am a bit of a paradox: I like to work alone but I find group synergy enervating; I do need protracted periods of quiet to concentrate and be most productive, but I love to chat; I enjoy being at home and I love to travel.  So I find myself in this book (or, at least, the part I have read so far!)

Over the years, I’ve honed skills in facilitation, presentation, performance, and conversation, and even dipped my toe into drama.  On purpose.  Little by little, with intentional jaunts out of my comfort zone.  

Still, well aware of my default nature, I thought I would share some of Cain’s research and wisdom.

A Manifesto for Introverts (Susan Cain)

1.              There’s a word for ”people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers.
2.              Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.
3.              The next generation of quiet kids can and must be raised to know their own strengths.
4.              Sometimes it helps to be a pretend extrovert.  There will always be time to be quiet later.
5.              But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is key to finding work you love and work that matters.
6.              One genuine new relationship is worth a fistful of business cards.
7.              It’s OK to cross the street to avoid making small talk.
8.              ”Quiet leadership” is not an oxymoron.
9.              Love is essential; gregariousness is optional.
10.          “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

For me and my educator colleagues, Cain has tips to help educators honor introversion in our students:

1.              Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.
2.              Re-examine classroom “group-work.”
3.              Don’t seat shy or introverted kids in “high-interaction” areas of the classroom.
4.              Balance teaching methods to serve all the kids in your class.
5.              Try “pair-sharing” techniques.
6.              Wait five seconds after asking questions in class.  (In my experience, have students write a few ideas down individually in answer to a question before initiating a group discussion evens the playing field for introverted students.)
7.              Use online teaching techniques.
Details for each point are on pp. 348-349.

These snippets don’t do justice to Cain’s engaging and honest style and thorough research.  Pick up a copy of the book, and see what you think.  It’s already made a difference for me.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


Conversation is never about you.  It’s always about the other person.  It’s a journey of discovery, meant to get to know the other person, draw that person out, and find the richness therein.  It’s not a platform to relate personal accomplishments or to summarize past and future endeavors to a captive audience. 

The success of any conversation, whether you initiate it or not, depends not only on the questions that each person may ask, but, much more critically, on the follow-up questions.  It’s not so hard to ask an initial question.  For example:  What are your impressions of the meeting?  What does your week look like?  Any plans for the weekend?  The real test of conversational skill comes in what happens next.   After the reply, do you answer the question yourself? And, in so doing, switch the subject back to what’s really important, you?  Or, do you ask another question that will follow-up your partner’s reply, and show that you are truly listening and interested?  So, depending on the reply to the original question, you might zero in on why the meeting seems to so producive (or not!), a tell-me-more-about one key event in the week ahead, or a that-sounds-so-exciting/relaxing/fulfilling followed by an interest in details about the weekend event. 

Follow-up questions are critical for many reasons, in my experience.

  • They demonstrate interest in the other person.  What the person has said is interesting, and you would like to know more.  The person himself or herself is, de facto, interesting as well.
  • They communicate a posture of curiosity and an openness to new information.  You are less concerned about communicating your own opinion or viewpoint than understanding what the other person’s perspective might be.
  • They validate the other person’s accomplishments and epertise.  That individual has the opportunity to share the fruits of his or her reading, work, or travel.
  • They imply self-confidence.  You’re so comfortable in your own skin that you can focus on others.  You don’t need the constant validation of me-centered talk.  
  • They are other-centered.

What might be some useful follow-up questions?  Here are some that have worked for me:

  • Tell me more about the project/your experience/your findings/your trip.
  • What projects/activities are you involved in at the moment?
  • Sounds like that might be exciting/a lot of fun/hard work/a rich experience.  What was the most exciting/amusing/fulfilling/challenging aspect?
  • Why do you think the event/celebration/project was so well received? 
Invariably, answers to these questions lead to more rich discussion that allows me, after a time, to inject snippets from my own experiences or my own reading to provide a perspective that affirms what has been said or provokes more discussion.   I can hand the reins over again with another question, and we ride along together, each taking turns, until we arrive, enriched, at a destination.

The questions don’t have to be fast and furious.   Silence after a response can prompt a person to elaborate on what he or she has just said.  So can a paraphrase, or very brief summary of what was said.  The paraphrase lets you test how accurately you understood the message your conversation partner communicated.

What happens in the absence of follow-up questions, when we turn the conversation back on ourselves after the person has answered our question?  We risk communicating that our original query was merely perfunctory.  We asked because that’s what you do, but we’re really not that interested;  what’s important is what’s happening in our world.  What the individual might be doing is not compelling enough to delve into.

The purpose of conversation, then, as I suggested in a former post  (November 28, 2014), is not to tell people about ourselves.  It’s to investigate the experiences and thoughts of others to nourish our own life.   We can’t do that unless we follow up.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


The nurse’s comments got me thinking about the essence of advocacy. 

“Wow.  You really know a lot of people,” she said, as she directed my husband, still in his hospital bed thirty hours after bypass surgery,  from the surgical intensive care unit to the cardiac surveillance unit one floor up.  She and her partner had transfered the oxygen to a portable unit, hooked the IV bags to a pole attached to the bed post, and tucked the tubes feeding the fluid bags away from the floor.   I nestled his small black bag at the end of the bed, and found room in my own tote for the electronics.  On the way out of the room, I saluted the nurses at the station with a wave and a general thank you.  Their shift would end in an hour or so, and I wouldn’t see them again.  A small part of me was sorry to leave this group of dedicated professionals who had taken such extraordinary care of my husband.  Passing by the other rooms, I spied nurse Ryan attending to another patient.  He had been there the day before, surgery day, and I called out his name as I waved.  As we moved toward the exit, a person I didn’t know waved good-bye from the last room.

We didn’t really “know” these people, not in the deep, complicit way you would know a family member, a friend, or a co-worker, their mannerisms, gifts, or idiosyncracies.  We had met, them, though, and, yes, we had taken the time to chat with them.  Elmer’s recovery was in their hands, and we meant to let them know we  expected only the very best care.  The nurse’s comments reminded me that inasmuch as our conversations were sincere, they were also intentional.    They enabled us to advocate for Elmer and for ourselves.

As I mulled over the concept, I came to understand that our advocacy took other forms as well. 

We were present.  For the surgery day, as well as the day before and after, the children and I made ourselves comfortable in the unit waiting rooms.  We had books, board games, drinks, and food, and we were ready for the long haul.   Someone was with Elmer for every moment the rules allowed.

We respected protocol.  If the rules said only two visitors, we went two at a time.  When I stayed through the night on surgery day, the rules said one hour in the room and two hours away.  No problem.  We were there to support Elmer, not to get in the way of the staff doing their job.  (Today, in fact, the Saskatchewan government announced that, by Christmas, patients’ families will be able to visit at any time!)

We smiled and laughed a lot.   In that way, we supported each other and Elmer through a tense time.  He said afterward that our upbeat attitude helped him manage the stress.   Maybe it helped the staff feel comfortable as well. At the very least, it took the edge off.

We engaged with the staff.   We wanted them to know that we honored their work and the expertise and experience they brought to it.   Conversation was our tool, and the staff took the time to reciprocate.

We asked questions—about their work and families, about the procedures, about Elmer’s progress, about timelines and prognosis.  As Elmer regained his strength, he, too, chatted up the staff about their countries of origin, their experiences, and their interests.

We said Thank You.  On the first day, I mentioned to nurse Ruth how much I appreciated the timely flow of information.  She anticipated the details we would need and the moment they would be most valuable.  As a result,  we didn’t have to pull teeth to find out what was happening.  At those words, she stopped for a second.  A smile transformed her face, and she glowed.  I wondered how such ordinary words could have such a dramatic effect.  But then, as a teacher, I know how much any recognition of my efforts meant to me in my work.

What we had done, it became clear, was advocate through our actions, not our words.    One smile, one hello, one good morning, one story, one laugh, one remark at a time, we had communicated positive energy that buoyed not only ourselves and Elmer, but Elmer’s caregivers as well.

Actions unleash forces that either enhance our experience or make events we face more difficult.  Small, incremental gestures colour how people respond to us.  Whether we are intentional about those actions or whether we are oblivious to their effect, they impact the events of our lives.  Much better, then, to be conscious of the power of our actions in situations over which we might not have a lot of control. 

As the Chinese the poet Lao Tzu writes in a text I found just this morning,  “[The Wise Man] teaches not by speech but by accomplishment.”  Actions convey messages, and those messages have power.   Best, then, to make them positive and intentional, and watch them, say,  help someone recover from surgery or sustain his family or lighten the load of his caregivers.