Archives for the month of: March, 2013

[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, April 2013]

We’ve all had the experience of reading about something or gaining a new tidbit of knowledge, and then we immediately encounter it in another context.  For example, in my school years, I once learned about a particular Greek story in literature class, only to be amazed when that very story ended up being the correct answer on a television quiz show later that evening.  And of course, how many times do you hear people say that as soon as they bought a particular model of car, they “see it everywhere?”  Is it coincidence when these events happen?  Or is it more likely that such experiences were always there, we just weren’t attuned to them until we had new knowledge to influence our thinking?

Let me cite an example from the other side.

In one of my past jobs as a counselor, I had an oil painting hanging on my office wall.  While I didn’t expect high praise or admiration for it, I noticed my patients never even seemed to “see” it. At first, I thought it might just be that oil paintings are “snooty” to folk who were generally educated only to the grade school level.  Maybe my patients were more parochial or traditional in their art experiences.  Or possibly, they ignored it because they didn’t share my particular taste in art.  But this was a 16 X 14-inch, framed canvas, and it hung directly opposite the patient’s chair.  And no comment at all?  By contrast, my coworkers would backtrack from halfway up the hallway to grab a closer look when they caught the barest glimpse of the piece from outside my office.  Was it possible that the painting didn’t “exist” in the worlds of the patients?  I noticed they’d look at me, and around the office in general, but their eyes never even came to rest on the largest object in the room.

I began to suspect this was an example that learning literally changes what we are able to perceive; and that we don’t make associations from what we observe if we don’t have the inner world to spark our attention toward particular outside cues.  Could it be that lesser-educated people survey a more blank world?  Or rather, that much in their visual field escapes their notice because it lacks any relevance to them?  Absent formal research to rule out other possible causes–and I admit there are many other alternative hypotheses for this observation–I still think it behooves us all to keep trying to learn something new each day.  If my hypothesis is correct, lifelong learning and proactive self-challenge can help ensure we’re attuned to our world to the greatest extent possible.  If nothing else, chains of little coincidences from our inner world to our outer world allow us to maximize our good experiences in life.

You know what?  Why don’t you try testing my little hypothesis?  All you have to do is go read something interesting at your local library, or check out information sources online–say, Wikipedia or a history site–and then see if you “coincidentally” run into something in your day-to-day life related to what you’ve just learned.  Maybe I’m wrong…but even still, you’ll have learned something new and bettered yourself just a little, huh?  I think that would be worth it for us both!


[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, March 2013]

It is both liberating and frustrating to realize that human beings are not machines.  When we have to cooperate toward the accomplishment of a shared goal, one can’t just yoke us together like standardized parts and set us on “go.”  No, even in groups as small as two,  joint action cannot be taken unless each member first has a connection of some kind, a give and take.  That takes time, attention and most importantly, rapport.

“Rapport” means that both parties feel heard, respected and that there are areas of shared interest.  Although rapport can be difficult to build, the reward is that you can get cooperation and performance with others in ways impossible without it.  Anyone who works with people knows that sometimes, it isn’t the message but the *messenger* that makes the difference between a project that succeeds or one that flops.

Many professions use rapport to achieve their goals.  Counselors obviously need a critical level of exchange and respect if they are to achieve a clinical relationship that helps their clients make changes in themselves.  But they don’t have a monopoly on it.  Sales people, administrators, educators, legislators and doctors too find they accomplish more when they have a positive relationship with others in their spheres.  The odd feature about rapport is that most of us don’t realize how essential it can be, until we don’t have it, or we have to work with someone who is bad at building it.  A hostile or cool relationship from colleagues, coworkers or clients can absolutely devastate efforts to accomplish a goal.  Energy gets tied up in fielding miscommunication, overcoming distrust, resisting authority, punishing resistance or making amends.  Fortunately, while many people seem to have a natural gregariousness and charisma that make rapport-building effortless for them, rapport-building skills can be learned by anyone.

One technique for nurturing rapport is the use of “truisms.”  Psychologist Milton Erikson, operating in the 1960s, defined a truism as “a statement of what is.”  They are inarguable phrases that can be used in conversation with others that form a basis of shared reality, a way two people can immediately agree, and begin the mutual exchanges necessary to form and feed rapport.  Erikson was particularly adept at using truisms he suspected the other person *believed* to be true, rather than those that were directly verifiable by observation.
Here are some examples:

1.  “You’re obviously not stupid.” 

People may have low self-esteem or tell you they aren’t very bright, but very few really consider themselves completely inept.  You can build rapport by showing them that you see they have some ability.

2.  “You seem to pride yourself on being plain-spoken.” 

Have you ever met anyone who says, “I’m a vague and evasive person?”  No, most of us consider ourselves straightforward, the “I just tell it like it is” type.  Acknowledge that about others, and they’ll come to see that you trust their judgment, opinion or feedback.

3.  “I bet you’re a perfectionist.” 

Again, in my experience, no one ever describes themselves as sloppy or mediocre in their work.  Once you show someone else that you see they value how they get things done, you
not only give them a compliment, but you set a higher standard for them.  Now they have to live up to the perfectionism you’ve seen in them.

These three truisms may not be “true” in the sense that some people have a poor understanding of themselves.  Their behavior might not line up with their beliefs.  But remember, when building rapport, the goal is not to confront them about it.  That comes later, once you *have* the rapport.  First, you need to recognize things about them that they already seem to believe.  Once you have that positive exchange, you gain the credibility with them to help them reexamine themselves and make other changes down the road.  And really, isn’t life is just better when you have something positive on which to build?