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Becoming adept at conversation; 5 tips that work even if your subject matter sucks.

In Becoming, life on October 20, 2015 at 1:42 pm

conversing

“Power off”

A woman, 30s, sort of a Demi Moore look to her, though less refined, walks into the elevator with me, talking to her phone.

Just the two of us, in a slow elevator.

“Power off

I smile, press the buttons, and

Power off

She’s fixated on her phone. My inner monologue starts writing itself, mostly in question form. Isn’t it easier to power off manually? I notice her nails are almost an inch long – how does she do anything? Okay, maybe it’s easier to voice-command. Does she use Siri for everything? Does Siri ever work well? Remember that time Siri responded to us, saying that she didn’t have the maps for Malaysia when we were trying to look for the closest metro station in DC? I’ve never used Siri since, though I almost got to be her voice in China. Ugh, imagine that, I’d be the bane of every iPhone user’s existence. Well, at least my Father would hear my voice this way.

Power off

Okay. I look over to her, awkward forced smile. Well, she’ll just have to go to the same floor as me. 

“It’s a new phone, I’m trying to turn it off, it’s telling me to swipe, it’s not working.” My awkward smile exchanged for a generous few seconds of her attention before she went back to her phone, forcefully pressing it, in all the wrong places, it seems.

“Isn’t it easier to turn it off manually?” Too many questions in my head, eventually one made it out.

“How do you do that?”

Oh.

###

Surprisingly, in the ever advanced world we live in today, we lose our abilities to do simple things, like turning off devices, and well, talking. Being sociable could mean a lot of things, but a good conversationalist it does not equate to.

We talk via our tech, into our tech, and with our tech, making real conversation with real people, in real time, less frequent occurrences. Few do it; even less do it well, because most people are out of practice. Sounds like a Millennial concern, which in 2015, counts for a heck of a lot.

In my experience, the best conversationalists are lecturing professors and children – which goes to show that it’s not about subject matter. I’ve sat through dreadful lectures and avoid children whenever possible. Content is important, certainly, it’s why we force ourselves through misery to consume mediocre shit. But conversing is an artform heavily shaped by style, and dictated through behaviour. It’s a thing of beauty, really, and once you’ve experienced beauty, anything less becomes mediocre.

A handful of seemingly simple things to try. Rudimentary? I’d go with foundational.

I. Listen

Two ears, one mouth.

Beyond basic math, a Google search with “listening skills” will yield 17,700,000 results in just half a second. Why so much material? Because we don’t, and the world clearly needs it.

Self-accounting is great for deep reflection – do it in solitude, in front of a mirror, but not in front of company. If you want to see a good one man show, go see stand up, and see how terrifying it is. If you are anything less than a professional speaker, do something with much less risk, and much greater value. Listen.

Listening allows for you to connect. Connection is the prize, but it’s also the work. Most people are nervous because they don’t know what to talk about.  Listen, and experience how liberating and great it feels with this problem solved. Listen, but don’t be a dead piece of wood. Respond, comment, sound back, ask questions… and see how the conversations grow.

II. Be present

Your presence says a lot about you. Your “air“, so to speak. Opening up yourself subjects you to being vulnerable, but yet, it’s the only way you can really feel, which is the only way you can really offer something. As you nurture this skill, you also develop empathy, (and thereby saving a couple thousands worth of therapy bills, on a modest estimate.) By being present, you are in turn, valuing and validating the presence of your company, which does two things of magic: 1) their self-esteem increases, and 2) the esteem they hold for you also increases. Being held in high esteem is perhaps, the most noble of all places, which is why it doesn’t come easily. But it’s really not magic, it’s just learned and trained behavior over time.

III. Be genuinely interested

Sounds like listening, but the focus here is on sincerity. No meaningful engagement is without it. Being genuinely interested enables you to pick up cues and hints – emotional, cerebral, and physical, so much better, faster, and more accurate than feigning it, which is deceptive and arguably manipulative. We all know someone who simply can’t take a hint – don’t become that person.

On a level of conduct, being genuinely interested is a mark of being respectful. Showing respect is rudimentary of all good conversationalists. The sharpened awareness that stems from it, is a bonus. Plus, you might hear something valuable – without having to pay subscription/tuition!  This is, in a way, the gift that keeps on giving.

IV. Be open to new ways of thinking 

There’s nothing more satisfying than learning something new. At the core of a good conversationalist is a good thinker. Good thinking shows your values, philosophy, attitude, and worldviews. How you think is your politics; a good conversationalist is a good diplomat. Diplomats don’t start wars.

New ways of thinking, at its worst, will inform you; at its best, will enrich you. Knowledge is power – you can’t lose this one.

V. Go beyond the charms; offer your art; speak to affect.

A good conversationalist is naturally charming; the reverse is not always true. When it’s not true, it’s disappointing, one could even argue – deceiving, and deception is just garbage.

Good conversationalists are artists, artists are givers, charmers are takers. Because most communication is non-verbal, the same line, said differently, have different effects. The way your words land is an art in its own right. Acting lessons, if nothing else, help with this. Get a coach, or just start saying things differently -repeat what others say in your head, people watch and be a fly on the wall. Watch good films and actively learn.

The best conversationalists have always had an affect on me. The way they think starts to influence the way you think, and before you know it, you start to share mannerisms in your speech and draw from the same vocabulary. Studies have shown that people who share the strongest relationships also have very similar ways in which they think … It’s the mental bond that has the strongest hold. That’s one reason one night stands are fleeting and tasteless. Always more seductive to be in someone’s head than someone’s bed. Mental space is a scarce commodity, but good conversationalists reside there.

Good conversationalists also reside in brick and mortar buildings, in that offline world. So stop reading this. There isn’t anymore.

{X}

P.S. Practice makes perfect.

P.P.S. There’s always more.

Whiplash, replayed through 10 piano teachers.

In Becoming, life, reflections on January 26, 2015 at 10:11 am

2015/01/img_3399.jpg

I saw Whiplash in the theater yesterday. A FULL theater, mind you. When was the last time that had happened? Opening night of Pirates of the Caribbean when I was in high school? Go see it if you haven’t yet. It’s number one on my list, for reasons obvious, and for reasons very close to home.

Too close to home.

Growing up, I’ve had a piano teacher for every place that I’ve lived for more than 6 months. 10 in total, thus far. My second teacher at the Tianjin Conservatory orchestrated most of my childhood formation, and had serious plans of sending me to Germany or the US when my fingers were ready. But my Chinese parents weren’t. My mother and I moved to Canada when I was 12, and without a piano, I was forced a break, until I wanted it again. I wanted it, but didn’t commit to it enough, which left my fourth teacher in a constant state of frustration and helplessness, “…my girl, if you just practice more, you can become a great pianist, not just a piano student…” That plea every week for years until I was 17, and forced a break, again. Like #2, #4 saw something special in me, but no amount of nagging was whipping me into shape. All those years, I’d been interested, frustrated, annoyed, wanted it, but ultimately, I didn’t get it. I was good, but I wasn’t great. I was told by many of my potential, but I never aspired to that greatness they alluded to. I hadn’t been inspired. Nor was I pushed. Perhaps a Fletcher in my life would have done me good. But someone better came along…

My fifth piano teacher changed my life. I was labelled his “protégée”, and after thirteen years of being on the keys, something finally cracked. I finally got it. There was love, inspiration, aspiration… all of everything. Something cracked… I put in the hours, three, four, five, every day. If in the waking moments, the tips of my fingers didn’t hurt, something was wrong. I practised on the piano the way Andrew practised on the drums. I frequently slept over in the studio. There wasn’t a bed, but three chairs sufficed. My needs were simple. My drive was ignited. For the very first time.

At 18, that’s all I wanted. A dangerous age for a desire that intense; nothing else mattered. The dinner table scene in Whiplash? I get that. I’ve had that. At 18, I was called a “musician” for the very first time. When that’s all you want… the words of your piano teacher, piano master, becomes the only voice in your life that matters. It’s a dangerous thing. I put my scholarship on hold, removed myself from institutionalized education, family, friends, most circles in life, and piano became the only focus. It’s difficult to explain, but the music was all I had. That amount of isolation eventually drove me deep into depression. The first time in my life.

Greatness, whatever the cost, I paid my dues.

Years later, a Trans-Atlantic move matched me to piano teacher #6, who only lasted for a single lesson, which had a lot to do with piano teacher #7, the Fletcher in my life.

#7 was the Head of the Music School where I had studied, and partially lived. Inside my locker, along with all my music books, there was a blanket. I would continue my habits of staying the night in the music studio, because that remained all I had wanted. I’d start my practice at 22h, work through the night, nap a few hours on the piano bench, then leave the building at 6h30 the next morning, for an hour of hot yoga at 7h. That was my routine for most days. That was not really allowed. But “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission“, a line from piano teacher #5 that continues to serve as my modus operandi. I never made time for friends, except for my best, and I stopped dating guys who had suggested that I take a night off practice. That coffee shop break-up scene? I’ve done it on repeat, only worse. I didn’t have the decency to meet in person. Piano was most worthy of my time. The guys who took away piano time was a text away from good-bye.

Greatness, at what cost?

#7 didn’t inspire, but he whipped, pushed, shouted, and did most things Fletcher did. He was the closest to have broken me. I left most lessons feeling like shit, and although I never let my tears roll down in front of him, I cried after every lesson – all but my very first. Then I continued to practice. Harder, longer. Three, four, five, six hours a day. I don’t know whether this is of any relevance, but you could smell him (the cologne) and hear him (footsteps, keys, and whistling) before you could see him. He ruled by fear, intimidation, and a sharp degree of arrogance that was somehow justified because he took on only the “very best“, and such a reputation made room for ways and methods of unreasonable abuse.

Greatness, how does it trade?

I gave it my all, and for all that’s worth, time under #7 was a one-way ticket to deeper depression; it had been the most destructive part of my artistic formation. From the Dean’s office, to counselling, I was advised to flight rather than fight. Another change of scenery. I was first linked to piano teacher #8 at the Juilliard School, who was a legend in many ways, but it was more so a “treat” than a routine, as I was commuting from Canada… When #7 still reigned as the head, there was little I could do. My ultimate escape was to Paris, their top political institute, and piano teacher #9, a retired professor from the Paris Conservatory.

Sometimes, I still imagine what life would be like, if I had stayed in Paris, but New York had other plans for me.

#10 was bat-shit crazy.

Greatness, at what cost?

Some define “insanity” as doing the same things repeatedly, but expecting different results. I’m a composer now.

Ten piano teachers later, piano remains my deepest love, but I work differently now. Acting school has had a lot to do with that. Jungle life has had a lot to do with that. Personal loss, among others, have humanized me. I still aspire to greatness, to be one of the greats, but the calculus have changed.

I have never subscribed to mediocrity, which in Whiplash terms, is frankly, “not my tempo“. Yet, excellence, innovation, perfection, or whatever drives the world forward… at what cost? at what tempo? and to what end? How many Sean Casey’s for a Charlie Parker? If we’re truly born equal, then greatness must be a miscalculation.

If Greatness is a miscalculation, then is it rushing? or is it dragging? Greatness, at what tempo? Timing, when it’s not magic, it’s a bad word. I have an expensive metronome; we’ve never quite been friends.

{X}