Effortlessly and Unintentionally Causing Pain to Others

nv08 chris heuer
photo from Northern Voice last weekend by Chris Heuer

I confess to still being an insensitive guy (though some people would say “insensitive guy” is a redundant expression).

I’ve been trying to get better at this, but I think it’s in my nature to be selfish and self-preoccupied and not spend enough time thinking about other people or their feelings.  I suspect it’s in most people’s nature. I know what to do (spend more time listening to people, pay attention with your whole body, respond promptly to requests and comments, don’t procrastinate, say ‘thank you’ a lot) — but I just don’t do it.

Lately I’ve been spending more time with people who are sensitive, partly in the hopes that they’ll be a positive influence on me. I was really surprised, then, when one of those people, Nancy White, confided that she was really distressed because she’d unintentionally hurt someone — a participant at her presentation at Northern Voice. I would normally not blog about such a personal and painful occurrence, but since it’s all been put in the public record by the participants, I figure it’s OK to talk further about it. It’s actually causing me as much distress as it’s causing Nancy.

Here’s what happened:

  • Nancy encouraged everyone at her session to “be fearless” and draw on craft paper and post on the walls of the meeting room something about a subject (the subject happened to be Ice Cream) that meant something to them, and to post on their blog their drawing, instead of just writing about it. The purpose of the exercise was to understand how visualizations add meaning and value to information, and to open ourselves to the additional personal understanding that comes from expressing oneself in pictures instead of just words.
  • One of the participants, the actress Meg Tilly, found the exercise personally devastating, and wrote about it on her blog. Here is a photo of her drawing, just to give you a bit of context.
  • Nancy was really distraught to have caused Meg such pain, and she wrote an apology on her blog.

Just to add a bit more to the story (since I was in the room at the time), when Nancy left Meg’s drawing to move on to one of the many others up on the wall, Meg (I didn’t know who she was at the time) cried out in protest (something like “but wait…”) in a voice that sent shivers up my spine. After that I forgot about it — there just wasn’t enough time to dwell on a single drawing, and the time for Nancy’s presentation was quickly running out.

No one was to blame. No one was really blaming anyone. But there was pain anyway, and it’s clear (from the blog posts and communications since, and from the comments to the blog posts) that the pain was deep, and isn’t going away easily.

There is a line in the movie Peaceful Warrior in which a young athlete, trying to impress his mentor with what he’s learned from quiet contemplation, from “gathering information from the inside”, says “The ones who are hardest to love are usually those who need it the most.” Nancy pointed me to a post by Chris Lott, another participant at Northern Voice, in which he says something similar:

I’Äôve been reflecting for the past few days on something Nancy White was talking about at lunch a few days ago. without going into too much detail, her point was that I would better understand someone who she knows that I admire and am constantly vexed with if I understood that person had a hard time accepting love.

For the past 18 months or so it has felt like everything I examined with any intensity came down to issues relating to scale. I suspect my next 18 months (at least) will be consumed with the problematic (sorry, I was brought up a postmodernist, where ’Äúproblematic’Äù is an acceptable noun) of love and all the things that cluster around it.

In a conversation earlier today about all this, I said to Nancy: “I suspect this kind of unintentional hurt occurs all the time without us ever being aware of it — it’s hideous to think about, but even those of us full of love and sensitivity probably inflict pain and hurt on others by what we do (and what we fail to do) every day. And the more social we are, the more we probably do it…I’m just thinking about how much I’ve hurt people I know and care about by what I’ve done and not done in the past few weeks…ouch…Responsibility is scary…no wonder so many refuse to take any.”

Nancy replied, and I agree, that (a) we can’t help unintentionally hurting other people, though we can probably learn to spot, and help others show us, cues that we’ve done so, and (b) the more people we know and spend time with, and the more open we are with them, the more pain we are likely to cause. I also think the actor in Peaceful Warrior and Chris are right that (c) as much as most of us want attention and appreciation, most of us don’t really want to be loved.

All of these truths are about Responsibility and its burden. When we stand up in front of a group as an ‘authority’, or talk to an individual one-to-one, or just communicate wordlessly with someone, we are being asked to take some responsibility for their feelings, their understanding, and even their love. When a member of the audience asks us a question and we answer in a way that is unsatisfactory to them (for whatever reason) they are hurt. When we say something to someone that makes them flinch or frown or leads to a ‘pregnant pause’, they are hurt. When someone looks at us, perhaps in invitation to some further communication and we turn away, they are hurt. It is not intentional. No one is to blame. But there has been a Failure of Responsibility. The word ‘responsibility’ comes from the Latin words meaning to promise back. All of this pain is the result of unintended broken promises.

Perhaps this is why so many people wall themselves away physically and emotionally, physically so they never have to accept this dreadful and unintentional responsibility, and emotionally so they won’t be hurt by others’ unintended failures of responsibility. In this sense, to be a social being, a teacher, a lover, a conversant, a member of community, is an act of great courage. It is the acceptance of enormous responsibility not to hurt or let down those with whom we dance in love, conversation and community. To do our best, not to “do no harm” (for that is impossible if we are social creatures at all), but rather to be responsible, to live up to the promise back to all with whom we engage. To respond.

There is another, safer form of social discourse — performance (from the Latin meaning supply what is needed). It is substantially one way, from performer to audience, and although there is a social contract in performance, and the performer has a ‘responsibility’ to inform or entertain, s/he is not required to ‘respond’. That is the role of the audience. If the audience fails to respond, it is the performer who suffers the pain. The performer need only ‘supply what is needed’; s/he is not ‘responsible’ for the audience’s reaction, response. That is up to them.

At one time, most education was performance. The instructor spoke and left the podium. The learning, the response, was the student’s job. At one time, most business was performance. The supplier produced and delivered, and the contract was done. The buyer (caveat emptor) was responsible for the actual use of the product. For some people, sex, and perhaps even ‘giving’ love, is and can only be a performance, an act, a supplying of what is needed. No responsibility. Take it or leave it. It is the recipient who must ‘respond’, take the responsibility. She the respondent (for it is mostly men who are the performers) is expected to appreciate, pay attention, and respond appropriately (with devotion, obedience, and perhaps multiple orgasms). No wonder we all want to love (and be adored by those we love) but we don’t really want to be loved (with the responsibility that places on us).

Today art, education, commerce, and love are, for the most part, no longer one-way performance activities. They are participatory, two-way, conversational, collaborative. We all have equal responsibility for their success, and the roles are blurring and disappearing. We all have to respond to each other, live up to the promise back to others we engage with. We all have the responsibility to be sensitive to others, and to know how our response (and even our lack of response) can cause anguish to them.

No one is to blame. We just have to learn the newest and most important social skill — improvisation. In my recent post on improvisation I defined its essential elements as follows:

The competencies include: active listening, paying full attention, inventing, self-expression, reacting quickly, remembering, teaching/helping quickly, learning quickly, letting go and letting come. There is a zen-like state that you can get into if you have, and practice using, these competencies: It’s a combination of extreme alertness and extreme relaxation. That’s only a paradox to the incompetent. Arguably, it is our natural state.

The tactics include building and drawing on others’ actions (“yes, and…” rather than “yes, but…”), exploring, reflecting, complementing, mimicking,and what someone has called “moving with and moving against”.

The attributes include intimacy, engagement, true ‘whole is more than the sum of the parts’ collaboration, and reciprocation.

If we were all good at improvisation, the way wild animals play with each other, energetically but somehow harmlessly, perhaps no one would be hurt. What do you think?

No one was intentionally hurt in the making of this article.

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16 Responses to Effortlessly and Unintentionally Causing Pain to Others

  1. Nancy White says:

    Dave, thanks for giving public voice to our conversation today. As I scan the “post Northern Voice” recap posts of some of the edublogger community with whom I hung out a bit, this thread of love has been strong, but along with it, the revelation of our insecurities, at the amazement of being loved by others. It is astonishing that all these brilliant people and yet it is so easy to feel unworth, or unloved, or unlovable. Ah, human beings.

  2. Jon Husband says:

    Johari window …

  3. Mariella says:

    If we were all good at improvisation, the way wild animals play ………..What do you think? maybe we could try to develope an inner on/off switch to disconect us from all our affective and cognitive processes that complicate it all….. I vote for an interchangeable beliefs/memory devise…

  4. minh says:

    There is also autonomy. The responsibility we have to rule ourselves, to function without debilitating dependencies on others for our well-being. I like the lists: competencies, tactics & attributes.As I teacher I seek to achieve redundancy: as a learner I seek fluency & autonomy.As a friend I cherish equality, affection and autonomy; I delight in useful insights into my character and mutual respect. When these things pertain I find friendship flourishes.As a colleague, collaborator, team player I find challenges. The development of useful processes can be stymied by people seeking, love, approval, leaders.

  5. Chris L says:

    The concept of improvisation– in the context of our participation in such a quickly changing social sphere– is a very rich one that I’d given no thought to at all before. I do talk a lot about fluency… and I would think fluency is fundamental to the ability to improvise.

  6. One problem stems from the demand for ‘instant intimacy’. People aren’t cereal boxes to be opened in order to mine for the prize inside. The reason is, if you find the prize too soon, you usually haven’t figured out yet if you wish to fulfill the promise attendent upon that demand. Inherent in “I want to know YOU” instead of ‘I’d like to meet you.’, is the assumption that you won’t spend your remaining three minutes pondering your discover, before moving on to the next prize which might be more sparkly than the last one.Responsibility exists in all relationships but that includes properly defining that relationship. Strangers are entitled to respect and help when encountered. But there are many levels such as acquaintance, colleague, friend, beloved, lover, etc. When all new acquaintances are promised full acceptance and love, it is a deception. Let’s not pretend we can offer hearts and flowers and all that we are to 150 individuals who happen to be around us. Love is infinite but the power to offer and accept it cannot be figured into one’s daily diary.10:50 to 11:10 A.M. Love Amy11:10 A.M. Turn off the computer and go to lunchThere is a difference between respect and friendship, friendship and love, love and devotion….Honesty demands an understanding of the differences and perhaps, not indulging those who believe they need to know all of you, all at once. If there isn’t another opportunity coming to get to know them, perhaps that opportunity never really existed at all.It really isn’t easy and it really shouldn’t be.Barbara

  7. Amanda says:

    That’s you in the picture, right?If I may make a suggest: Update your blog picture, as this one is much better and more recent.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    As much as this blog is written as a kind of performance, I have at least tacitly intended it to be a conversation, so I suppose I would be in big trouble if I did not respond. So consider this a response of sorts: Thank you all (whether you commented or e-mailed me or not) for your kind attention, and for making me think hard about things that are sometimes uncomfortable to think about. And an amazing coincidence, or maybe not: Today I got a call from Second City asking whether my company would be interested in a course on Improvisation! PS to Barbara: I agree it really isn’t easy, but I believe it really should be. We make it harder than it has to be. PS to Amanda: I swear my current blog picture is only 2 years old, and at my age that isn’t much :-)

  9. Siona says:

    Is it just coincidence that over the past few months I’ve become fascinated by the whole process and field of improvisation and the notion of infinite play? “Yes, and…” (I’m with Amanda. You look so wonderfully happy and at home in this photo. Just looking at it makes me want to flash a grin in return.)Thank you so much for sharing the still-unfolding story of Nancy and Meg and the participants there. It touched far too much in me to even begin a response here, and for this I’m grateful. So thank you Dave, and thank you Meg, and thank you Nancy, for these acts of courage, and of love.

  10. joan says:

    it’s the ‘stache vs. the goatee, Dave. mustaches make most men look a little sleezy, i’m afraid. the goatee suits you much better. update the shot on your site!!i also think you look more comfortable with who you are in the latest shot and that always looks good to other folks.

  11. sageservice@gmail.com says:

    Yeah, I thought it was worth writing to cast another vote for you updating your blog pic.

  12. Terry says:

    Great entry Dave…So much said here that touches on blind spots that lessen our social skills

  13. Nancy White says:

    Barbara, if you are keeping up on comments, I really appreciated your post. Lots of good food for thought.And as to the picture, and now having met you in person Dave, I agree, the NV picture much more expresses your essence than the one currently on the blog. In fact, I mentioned this to our mutual friend Michele!

  14. Thanks, Nancy. I drop in when I can but work in other venues with the realities of poisoning, which has undermined our entire concept of health care, human behavior, economics and the environment (not in that order!).However, I find the study of human behavior, which not only allows these self-destructive heresies, but which welcomes and confirms the authority claimed by others who do these things to us, with us, even for us. Since we don’t have time to evolve a new society, I think it necessary to show receptive individuals why they are being deceived into allowing and participating in these debacles. Mostly because we fear information and the damage to our self-images (real or perceived) should we be unable to comprehend it. And, as Dave notes, that leads to a sense of ‘learned’ helplessness which I consider ‘taught’ helplessness. I feel when information is provided, at different levels of clarity, people take on a feeling of power (if only at a voting booth or at the store check out line in product selection). Sometimes, that can be enough.One issue is that of obedience – the assumption that the ‘other guy’ always knows what is best for us. So, given the scenario here, a basic workshop type activity (draw ice cream) provoked an old memory.Not surprising and not uncommon. I define social fluency as a prescribed set of rituals in each culture designed to permit one from casually ripping into the heart and soul of another person. We cannot ‘KNOW’ everone we meet. We only ‘know’ our potential for harming each other from the earliest ritual of shaking hands to show no weapon was being grasped in the right hand. Just don’t come across a left hander who is a good improvisor … These days our weapons are more psychological,particulary when we go mining for other’s identities too casually. The participants in that workshop had the option to comply or not, as per their preferences. However, the implications of refusing to participate reverberate in everyclassroom and office, at every age level. While teachers and employers can and should monitor the effects of their exercises upon students, adults generally figure the option to ‘opt out’ belongs to their adult students. Old conditioning to please,get one’s money’s worth and intrinsic needs to continue along a line of self-discovery all play a role. Another social ritual.I don’t see the need for elaborate apologies here since any action can and will provoke a quandary in a person. In fact, learning theory dictates a state of disequilibrium will exist upon the introduction of any novel information which is disturbing until the individual absorbs it and reconfigures existing knowledge to accommodate it. Good learners welcome that process, others fear it. The expectation that a ‘leader’ (teacher, employer, politician) will perceive the internal struggle is not always realistic. We have to teach people that the premises upon which they operate may be more flexible than they think. hence rituals for adult education which may do well to begin with the instruction that any activity which makes someone uncomfortable can be altered as needed.We can opt out, change the name of the game by offering other forms of responses, flat out refuse by folding up our tents and going home.Minh’s comment about personal responsibility is very appealing if we begin teaching that concept to people early on. But learning and interactions are ‘risky’ if we have learned that such risks are bad instead of good. They are inevitable and a part of learning.Barb

  15. Sexy photo of you Dave!

  16. Dave Falconetti says:

    Enough kum-ba-ya love fest self-serving blathering. Get real. Y’all make me choke on my meatball sub. I’m out here not only saving the world, Dave-oh, but making some big bucks, and takin no prisoners. And I’m honest, and dont need to paste my photo all over da place.

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