“I’m trying to read between the lines of what you’re saying.” This is a sentence, word for word, from one of my colleagues. It was a smack in the face because lately I’ve been challenging myself to be more straightforward in my communication. Her response showed me I still fall short with directness, so I’m giving it some thought.
Being straightforward means being uncomplicated and easy to understand. Honest and frank. In the past I didn’t always feel safe or secure enough to share my thoughts as explicitly as I could. Being a Midwestern guy, or rather being a Midwestern gay guy, or rather still, being a Midwestern gay guy of color, I felt the stings and dangers of being open with my thoughts and feelings. So, in a survivalist sort of way, my style of communication became a less straightforward approach. I learned to test the waters of a conversation with warm-up words and surface talk before sharing any deep thoughts. I developed tactics to shield myself from shame, embarrassment, or harassment. I could artfully dodge conversations with topics that made me feel less vulnerable. I would speak in code so as not to overexpose my differentness. I would butch up my behavior when really all I felt inside was giddy. I would highlight my sense of humor to draw attention away from what I felt were my flaws. These social strategies were my protection, but they also created barriers to connecting more directly with others in meaningful ways.
Growing up, we learn to communicate based on examples and expectations of our families and social communities. When we find acceptance in communicating our thoughts, we practice that communication style like choreography until the steps become a sure-footed routine. When we have goofs in conversation we try to avoid repeating those missteps, adapting our instincts in order to fit in. Conversation by conversation we practice the acceptable steps and dodge the missteps. Conversation by conversation we develop our personal communication style, which is either as graceful as ballet, expressive like a modern dance, as assertive as hip-hop, or entertaining like a tap dance.
To dance around an issue means to improvise in order to avoid the immediate question or issue. When problem solving, tap dancing around the heart of an issue is not helpful to either party. By laying a bed of verbal flowers, before getting to the awful part, we send the nonverbal message that everything is okay, even though we’re feeling quite uneasy. It’s confusing and it sends a mixed message. By getting to the awful part sooner, it gives everyone a chance to be on the same page without having to read between the lines. We’re being clear about where we are, and we’re also setting in motion a more direct solution to our problems.
“Let’s just be honest. Even if it’s yucky we’ll get past it.”
In journalism, the lead is considered the most important details or information of a story. To bury the lead means to share secondary details first, postponing the more essential facts. It’s a common habit for guys to bury the lead, or flat out omit the important details altogether. We believe we’re saving time, saving face, or saving ourselves from the embarrassment of vulnerability, when actually we’re wasting time and missing out on beautiful opportunities for sincere connection with others.
One solution to avoid burying the lead is to BLUF. No, not bluff as in put up a false face. BLUF is an acronym for putting theBottomLineUpFront, the bottom line being those most important details. Try it out: The next time you have some news to share, good or bad, start your sentence with the words “The bottom line is….”, then fill in the blank. You might sound like you’re stepping into a 1930’s black & white movie, but I can’t think of a more straightforward way of getting to the point of your wishes, dreams, joys and pains. If it feels weird to say aloud, just think the thought, “The bottom line is…”, and see where it leads you. Still need some help with a straightforward approach? Borrow a lesson I learned from my niece. When it comes to putting the tough topics first, her advice is to “Rip it off like a Band-Aid.”
不仅仅是莎尔的简单方法ing the things that hurt the most. It’s also about sharing what means the most to you. I was telling a friend how frustrated I am that my parents often ask questions about my work, health and friends, but they don’t ask questions about my dating life. So what if there’s nothing to report. (And quite frankly the conversation might make me squirm in my seat…at first.) But it’d be nice if they showed at least a delicate interest. In talking with my friend, his response was “How will they know it’s important to you unless you tell them.” I wanted to kick his shins for being so right. As parents, my mom and dad are superheroes, but reading minds is not a required parenting skill. How will they know what’s important to me unless I tell them? It’s unfair to hold a grievance with anyone if you don’t share what grieves you. The bottom line is I have to rip it off like a Band-Aid and do my fair share of sharing.
The more we practice being straightforward the more we learn to trust ourselves and trust the validity of our thoughts and points of view. As a youngster, I learned how to protect myself socially, but today I don’t have to protect what’s true for me. I don’t need to perform a 40 second soft-shoe to express the dreams, joys and pains that are meaningful to me. By tap-dancing around the important information we delay any potential harm, but we also delay the love and healing that follows.
To dance in the cross winds of a judgmental society and the imposing beliefs of others is an act of courage and inspiration. When we are straightforward with our thoughts and feelings, we open up to the possibility of developing a unique and intimate folk dance with those we love.
*P.S. Of all the things I learned to do, I’m so glad I learned how to dance. Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were my ultimate dance idols. It’s impossible to choose a favorite. Gene danced with the spirit of every man. Fred danced with the spirit of the gods. When Gene danced it made me want to get up and try it because he made dancing look so easy and effortless. When Fred danced it made me want to sit down and learn because he was dancing the impossible with such ease. Gene made me feel connected to dance. Fred made me feel in awe of it. Together or alone, they are the spirit of Health & Handsome.
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