May 30, 2024

Bah, Humbug!: The Season of Dysfunctional Dialogue

christmas-vacation-chevy-chase-carving-turkey-dinner It’s Christmastime again. The season when we all try to decompress and review the past year and vow to chill and get along.

But somehow the opposite seems to happen. I’m stressed because I can’t get it all done in time—tree, decorations, shopping, cooking. The last person I want to be cooped up with on Christmas Day is my aunt, who never smiles. And then there are all the projects, both at home and at work, that aren’t going to get done because I’m putting all the “some assembly required” toys together. Can we just skip Christmas this year?

I used to love Christmas. I loved it when it was for me, the only child, the center of attention in a small family…the music…the food…the smells…fires in the fireplace…snow in the backyard…staying up late…Perry Como’s Christmas special…Mary Martin in Peter Pan (now I’m dating myself).

So why do I have all these challenges now?

I’ve learned to have them. That’s right. I’ve been trained to stress out. I compare myself against what I think I should get done, and I come up short. So I get upset with myself and stay up later and work harder, only to discover that there are even more things I’m not getting to. And then a friend calls and asks if I’d like to go ice skating. ARRRRGGGHHHHHH!

So what’s the difference between the kid who loved Christmas and the grown-up who’d just as soon skip it?

The kid was all Learner/Researcher, with no stress-producing preconceived notions that we grow up to apply to ourselves when we develop our full-blown Knower/Judger. And these notions create a dysfunctional dialogue.

This dialogue can be either internal or external. It’s the grown-up, responsible part of us with all the have tos and shoulds, which somehow has problems meeting expectations. We judge. That’s what human beings do when we’re operating on autopilot in our K/J. And stress puts the whole process on steroids.

The season just exacerbates the native challenge of the dysfunctional dialogue, and the results can be explosive.

The more I’m in my K/J, the more likely it is I will engage your K/J. If I say something offhand that your K/J doesn’t see the same way, and represent it as fact (a judgment), the future of our dialogue is already in jeopardy.

For example, I could say, “Christmas is for children”—a statement I deem as fact, when in reality it’s just my opinion…my judgment.

Now there are no limits to the way the listener can react:

• “Nice” (noncommittal and nonjudgmental)
• “I totally agree” (the lucky judgmental response that’s probably not going to lead to dysfunctional dialogue)
• “Kids get too much attention” (beginnings of pushback)
• “Then why do the grown-ups spend all the money?” (counterpoint)
• “Jesus is the reason for the season” (misdirected judgment)
• “I’m Jewish” (offense at the judgmental statement)
• “10 pounds by January 1” (a judgment of negative outcomes)

See how it can get incendiary?

Did you have any of those potential responses when you were first experiencing Christmas? I certainly didn’t. Christmas was just full of wonder and possibilities.

Here’s the point. K/J-to-K/J conversations support the dysfunction. When we operate on autopilot (as most of us do most of the time), we are most likely to use judgment based on our experiences, our prejudices, and our life’s rules of should and shouldn’t, right and wrong, good and bad, to engage in conversations—because to set all those aside and engage others from our L/R is…well, a lot of work!

To do so, I’d have to think like that child at Christmastime—open to anything, judgmental of nothing, with no expectations—believing that all the world is a wondrous place and the possibilities are limitless. How could I have an argument when that’s my frame of mind? Can you imagine the quality of the conversation when both you and I are in this condition?

Psychologists refer to the L/R-to-L/R conversation as the “intimate” conversation, where there are no agendas, no judgment, no cherished outcomes. Doubt is explored, data (without personal interpretation ) is observed, and we connect in a noncombative manner…much like a child.

Alas, recognizing the benefits of this mindset doesn’t make it any less work. I am pretty much addicted to my rules of life, which seem to get violated a lot during the holidays. Commercialism offends me. My aunt offends me. Grandkids get on my nerves. I’ve already gained 5 of those 10 pounds. See all the judgment in these statements? They underlie how I will engage in conversation. And I harbor tens of thousands of them…and so do you.

So we might want to work to improve our interpersonal communication this Christmas. And maybe all of next year…and maybe the rest of our lives.

This Christmas, I’m going to attempt to be more childlike. I’m going to act like I don’t have all those rules that disagree with yours. I’m going to gain some perspective on the importance of my opinion (because I realize I never have enough data to form an accurate one anyway!). I’m going to allow myself to doubt, and see what happens.

Here’s wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas.

(I still miss Perry Como’s annual Christmas special.)



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