Young people, here’s the good news. With perseverance and good luck, you can actually get better at certain social skills even in your 60’s.
I’m a person who reads a lot, writes a lot, thinks a lot and has something to say about just about everything. I’m not shy about saying it and because I spend so much time thinking about certain things and working hard on crafting an informed point of view, think it entitles me to be heard and taken more seriously than someone with a first-draft opinion. That translates to some people as arrogance and an insistence on being right and I have to accept that there probably are some grains of truth in those perceptions. But on the other hand, I can also deeply listen and even change my point of view if I hear some equally thought-out arguments.
So when it comes to something happening in the world that I think is a dubious decision, outrageous, unfair or just plain wrong, I can go from 0 to 60 in five seconds and start spouting like Old Faithful on steroids. But I’m actually starting to learn two things:
1) Don’t react wholly from hearsay evidence and investigate more clearly the actual facts. In the past few days, I’ve made harsh judgments about certain people’s actions or situations based on them or other people telling me something and then later discovered that it wasn’t quite how it was portrayed. So Lesson No. 1: Don’t react fully until all the facts are in order.
2) Then if you’re going to speak to someone about it or write them a letter (e-mail okay, but no tweets or texts), write 3 letters and only send the third one. In this order:
a) A no holds-barred “you’re an idiot and I hate you!” rant where you get it all out on paper. And then burn or delete later.
b) A calmer and more balanced revision with a few positive things to say to balance
the critique. Save to cut and paste some good sentences later.
c) The final draft that begins, continues and ends with a respectful tone, starts
positively, critiques firmly but dispassionately, supporting all statements with
things that factually and actually happened and prefaces with things like “Consider this…” “”Might we at least…?” “What if…?” “Your thoughts?”
While writing the last, ask yourself things like “Do you want to prove you’re right or do
you want to have an actual dialogue? How would you react receiving that kind of
letter? Is the tone right to encourage more listening than defensive reaction?"
So that’s what I’ve been doing the past few days trying to stand up for two different people who I felt were treated unjustly. I felt bad that I reacted so heatedly without knowing all the facts and proud that I bothered to investigate them further and then write three letters instead of one. Four days later.
But a word of warning. All of the above takes time. Not only the time to actually write three letters and talk to the necessary people to get the facts straight, but time thinking about it all and keeping it in mind. But at the end is the beginning of the actual factual and respectful dialogue we all, I believe, would genuinely like to have. It’s the opposite of the impulsive tweet and the angry e-mail and the mindless shouting and over-reaction that is poisoning our national discourse. And therefore time well-spent.
Meanwhile, good news! Parts of the body will diminish, the memory may start to leak, in some sad cases, the heart may start to close, but I can testify that at 66 years old, piano playing, teaching and learning to listen and speak respectfully can all continue to improve. And that’s something to celebrate.