What Does That Make You?

a muzzle pointed your way pops flat,
away, it echoes;
the round that gets you you won’t hear.

– Doug Anderson

Listen closely to the silence
or to the sounds of what is happening
just before the first shot. (Or perhaps
before the first gun). Because

this weapon is automatic, it will be hard to hear
the silence or what was happening before
the first shot (or gun) after the first shot.

Maybe you think it’s fireworks at first
or a parade of backfiring vehicles.

Do you duck or run or remember and attempt to enact
that superhero dream in which you take down the shooter?

There goes the whiteboard (the blackboard in
the underfunded district); there goes the ketchup;
there goes the speaker stack, a laptop, a small hand,
a plastic cup of beer; there goes the mixed media
collage, an eye, the back of a head, a knee, the
late edition, a shoulder, a heart.

You mean bullets don’t just make neat round holes?

The ketchup is blending with the blood.
The shot eye is oozing out to see. (Is the shooter
reloading – is it safe to run? or tackle him now – where’s
my cape, my tights, my dream journal? Does he
have kryptonite?)

Today the flag is at the top of the staff.
Tomorrow halfway to the bottom.
It should be upside down until the
scoundrels suckling at the muzzle
of loaded NRA money orders lose
their seats or die or both.

Either will do.

Who cleans up the body parts, blood and other fluids
each time this happens? Do they lobby Congress too?
Are they secretly praying for more work? Or are they
underpaid civil servants scouring a nation’s shame?

Theirs might be a lucrative American enterprise
like oxycodone in a culture perfectly designed
for mass shooting cleanup companies, addictive
pain killers and antidepressants.

Pain and depression are reasonable responses
to a sick society, wherein if you are well-adjusted,
what does that make you?
Ask Krishnamurti.

Addicted oblivion is a senseless, profitable
trade for understandable pain and depression
in response to a sick culture. What does
that make you?

There’s an ear, a finger, a perforated
popcorn bucket. The melted butter is
blending with the blood and the ketchup
doesn’t care.

What’s left of the lesson plan, the song,
our common prayer, the shopping cart,
the flickering illusory images on the
screen, is up against the wall
street prophets who preach

to the shooter and the shot,
the addiction and the cure, the
promise and the break, oblivious
to the goodness, truth and beauty
lost with each body broken,
heart stopped, soul released.

Listen closely to the silence
and to the sounds of what is happening
just before the first shot.

Do you duck or run or remember and attempt to enact
that superhero dream in which you take down the shooter?

You won’t hear the round that gets you.

How well do you adjust if you survive?

What does that make you?


Epigraph from “Doc” by Doug Anderson. The Moon Reflected Fire. Cambridge: Alice James, 1994.

Copyright © 2019 by Reggie Marra

Please scroll down for sample poems, which begin below the initial February 3, 2019 blog post.



Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation #16 – Stepping Back: Bringing a Bigger Picture into View

I’m pleased to announce that these 16 blog posts have revised and evolved their respective ways into the chapters of my new book, Enough with the…Talking Points: Doing More Good than Harm in Conversation (June 2020). Available in both paper and Kindle editions.

Front Cover

Welcome back. Here are the subtitles of the fifteen essays in this conversation series with links to each individual piece. As the writing unfolded and the content found its way into a workshop at the Unitarian Society of New Haven in early May, the following sub-headers (bolded) began to make sense. They are currently useful (to me), and they may continue to evolve. Stay tuned for more about upcoming workshops.

#1Introduction and Overview

Knowing Yourself, Your Biases and Your View – Working with What and How You See

#2 – Who (You Think) You Are in Conversation – Culture’s Hidden Influence

#3 – Who (You Think) You Are in Conversation, Part 2 – Beyond Culture

#4 – Suspending Preconceptions, Judgments and Assumptions

Honoring Facts and Identifying Opinions – Really? Will That Hold Up in Court or in the Laboratory?

#5 – Avoiding Labels, Insults and Generalizations

#6 – Honoring the Difference Between Opinion and Fact

#7 – Engaging Specific, Factual and Preferably Personal Examples to Support Opinions

Learning Intentionally – How Do You Want to Be, and What Do You Hope for, in this Conversation?

#8 – Curiosity, Knowing and Not Knowing on the Path of Learning

#9 – Learning, Understanding and Clarifying (Rather Than Teaching, Persuading or Disproving)

Acknowledging the Forest and Staying on the Path – Wow, You’re Human Too!

#10 – Finding Similarities as Well as Differences

#11 – Staying With the Agreed-Upon Topic

Emotion, Empathy and Ripple Effects – Feeling, Honoring and Regulating Emotions  

#12 – Recognizing, Understanding and Regulating Emotions

#13 – Understanding, Feeling and Embodying Another’s Story as if It Were Your Own

#14 – Who Wins and Who Loses if You Get Your Way – or I Get Mine?

Truth – Understanding “Truth” and “Truthfulness”

#15 – The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth

While some of these subtitles/topics are more complex, and require more work than others, each provides a foundational element for conversation that does more good than harm. Some are more or less “mechanical” skills that can be learned, but even those will be interpreted, understood and manifested differently based on the participant’s worldview (essays 2 and 3), and the extent to which the participant is aware of this worldview (i.e. does the person have a worldview or does a worldview have the person?). The worldview will also impact the intentional choices that are available to (that can be seen by) the participant.

Generally, someone who primarily identifies with a fundamentalist, absolutist, black-and-white view of the world is more likely to intend to teach or persuade, as opposed to learn and understand, than is someone who primarily identifies with a scientific, rational, evidence-based, okay-with-the-gray view of the world, and is more open to curiosity, following the evidence, understanding and clarifying. In the most extreme cases of these two views, the individuals effectively speak different languages – as much a barrier to resolving a dispute as, and perhaps more than, any of the content about which they disagree.

Each of us needs to ask how important consciously civil and intentionally mutually beneficial and respectful conversation is to us. Each of the subtitles above requires a deeper dive in order to be understood and embodied. Any one of them can enhance the quality of conversation. If you choose to begin, perhaps begin with something that feels easier; or begin with the one you know you need to develop; or take them in the order listed.

Just begin. Practice. The world needs you.

Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation, #15 – The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth*

Please scroll down for sample poems, which begin below the initial February 3, 2019 blog post.

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at https://reggiemarra.com/blog/.

While the importance of a commitment to truth is implicit in our exploration of opinion and fact in essay six (and, I hope, throughout this series of essays), truth deserves a more explicit starring role. Most of us have heard or read somewhere along the line that prior to testifying in court, we promise, swear or affirm that we will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Those words are generally familiar and in many ways carry meaning that is obvious (which won’t stop me from unpacking them):

  • Tell the truth: answer the question that was asked and don’t lie
  • Tell the whole truth: don’t leave anything out regarding your answer to the question that was asked
  • Tell nothing but the truth: don’t add or intermingle anything that’s not true in order to help your cause

While this essay does not address what happens under oath in a court of law, these three tenets are worth keeping in mind as we navigate the fate of truth in our day-to-day conversations – whether we are disagreeing, agreeing or casually passing the time. Also worth keeping in mind is the distinction between “the truth” and “truthfulness” – a distinction that informs this essay, and that I believe is accurate and useful. As we’ll use these terms here:

  • the truth refers to what is empirically provable1 and can be agreed upon by honest, competent observers who have no interest or investment in this truth being one way or another;
  • truthfulness refers to an individual’s honesty – choosing in any given moment to be honest –

“tell the truth” as he or she understands it; it is possible to be truthful and not tell what is empirically true.

If we revisit essay six’s auto collision at the four-way stop sign, the truth is that two cars made contact and sustained damage. Assuming for a moment that the drivers are honest and do not want to wrongfully vilify each other, each of them might be truthful in explaining what they think caused the accident (beyond agreeing that the cars collided and sustained damage), and each may be completely accurate, completely off the mark or somewhat accurate and somewhat off the mark amid their truthfulness.2

That’s a simple example and enough to make the point. In our disagreements and agreements with others, underlying our commitment to differentiating fact and opinion must be a corresponding understanding of and commitment to the truth and our truthfulness. Clarity of language is essential for such a commitment as is a willingness to do the work that clarification requires.

The complexities that characterize the content of much contemporary disagreement, the over-abundance of easily accessible information and much intentional misinformation that internet sources invite and allow, and selectively edited and sound-bitten televised news offerings render “the truth” at best difficult to identify, and at worst an unwelcome and troublesome nuisance. The ramifications of this complex over-abundance is especially evident among individuals who seem more committed to incessantly reasserting their biases in order to “win” the social media tit-for-tat or televised eye-rolling and shouting match of the day than to working toward an agreed-upon “truth” and negotiating in good faith with others who differ regarding how to interpret and act on this truth when it comes to local, national or international policy, whether to buy or lease, or which movie to see, diet to try or get-rich-quick scheme to purchase.

We return to intention. Why are you, am I, in this conversation at all, and what, if anything, does the truth, or our respective ‘truthfulnesses’ have to do with it? If nothing, then why bother? If something, why not everything? If everything, how might each of us behave if we were genuinely concerned with and committed to the truth and to being increasingly able to see each other’s truthfulness even as we disagree?

Don’t look to apparent leaders as exemplars for this behavior. Very few of them are up for the challenge, and while some may be, your best bet is to look within. Be the conversationalist you aspire to be. Take the risk of showing up with the intentions of understanding and learning, with nothing to prove, nothing to defend and nothing to lose.

In the next essay we’ll take a brief look back at the preceding 15 and explore a few exercises that can be helpful on the path.


*What we’re attempting to point to in this essay (and in this series) are useful, practical considerations for authentic conversation. We’re not delving into differentiating the mystical/spiritual realms of what is manifest-relative truth or Unmanifest-Absolute Truth; there is a time and place for these (even if time and place only exist on the manifest-relative plane) and this is neither.  

1What is “empirically provable” – i.e. true, shifts over time and with development. Cultures have (ever-evolving) maps of “reality” that represent what they believe is true. If something fits the current map, it’s “true,”; if it doesn’t, it’s not. E.g. prior to the mid/late 19th century bloodletting was an accepted “truth” in treating human ailments; over millennia it was true that first the earth (religion’s view), then the sun (early science’s view) was the center of the universe; the current (more advanced science) truth tells us that the universe is ever-expanding.

2Distraction, confusion, mechanical failure, etc. may come into play here, and even if each driver is honest, when faced with the possibility of insurance premiums going up, moving violations, having to explain to parents or spouses what happened, the temptation not to tell the whole truth or to in some way embellish it (telling something beyond the truth) might be tempting – putting them at odds with both “truthfulness” and the “truth.” That the two cars collided is the truth, as far as it goes. If our goal were to get to the truth of the cause(s) of this fictional collision we’d pursue this further. It’s not, so we won’t.

Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation #14 – “What’s the Impact of (Not) Getting My Way: What Will Be Won and Lost and by Whom?”

Please scroll down for sample poems, which begin below the initial February 3, 2019 blog post.

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at https://reggiemarra.com/blog/.

One of the “easiest” scenarios within which to explore these questions is in athletic competition. “Easiest” is in quotation marks because while participation in sport does not typically carry with it the life-and-death ramifications of illness, injury, violent crime and war, it is neither necessarily easy, nor without its larger ramifications.1 Simply put, when I win – when I get my way, my opponents lose, or at best, finish second. At their healthiest, competitors accept and expect this, and – especially for those who learn from their wins and losses, begin to develop those physical, emotional, mental and spiritual “muscles” that allow them to “win with class” and “lose with dignity”.

Whether we’re exploring a child’s earliest experiences with competition and final scores, or an elite athlete’s efforts to compete on a national or international stage, perspectives on winning and losing and the respective muscles these outcomes can build, play an important role in the development of balance, resilience, compassion and empathy.

Beyond athletics, these muscles will come in handy as we attempt to “win” and get our way at work, in intimate relationship, as parents, as children, in the classroom, in court, on the playground, in the legislature, in the operating room, with the therapist, in the voting booth, on the street, in combat, on our death bed, and anywhere else we believe something important is at stake.

Consider these selected historical wins and losses:

  • 1600 – Giordano Bruno is burned at the stake at the order of Pope Clement VIII for arguing that the universe is spatially infinite (asking if it’s bounded, what’s on the other side) and that God is both transcendent and immanent.
  • 1776 – British immigrants in North America declare their independence from British rule.
  • 1863 – the Emancipation Proclamation declares all slaves in the United States free.
  • 1865 – the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishes slavery, and the Ku Klux Klan is founded in Pulaski, Tennessee.
  • 1870 – the 15th Amendment removes race, color and previous-condition-of-servitude restrictions from the right to vote (for men).
  • 1920 – the 19th Amendment removes gender restrictions so women can vote.
  • 1924-1929 – Edwin Hubble, and later the telescope that bears his name, confirm Bruno’s first point (above).
  • 1945 – first atomic bomb detonated in New Mexico

For each of these (and for countless historical and current, public and personal events of your choosing) consider who won and who lost in the short term, who won and lost in the long term, and what the winners and losers actually won and lost in each case. Your worldview, which we explored in essays two and three, will influence how you respond to each of these – as my worldview influenced which examples to enlist (and the decision to write this series on conversation at all).

One of the most powerful change agents that produces winners and losers is technology – in the largest meaning of that word. Who were and are the winners and losers with the emergence of intentional fire, the wheel, the firearm, pharmaceuticals, electricity, the internal combustion engine, the printing press, the assembly line, human flight, the computer and robotics, among many others? Again, check in with the worldview behind your responses as you explore this question.

So now, “what do these selected explorations of history and technology have to do with who wins and loses when I get my way in conversation?” you might ask. Concretely and specifically, not very much; conceptually and generally, everything. In essay number eight, we explored our human tendency to ascribe meaning or make interpretations before we truly know what something means – what might be an accurate interpretation of an event. We spoke about getting comfortable with not knowing on the path of learning.

With every stance we take, every stand we make, every debate we engage – whether about which movie to watch, where to buy the groceries, going back to school, dealing with a bully, helping our kid navigate a first heartbreak, whom to support in the election, having the surgery, going to war, etc., etc., etc. – we are choosing to support a position that will lead to winners and losers, often in very minor and often in major ways. At our best it makes sense to know, or at least investigate, who these winners and losers may be and what and how much they stand to win and lose, so we have a sense of the not-so-obvious, prospective impact of what we argue for and against.


1For a more in-depth exploration of the ramifications of sport, see The Quality of Effort: Integrity in Sport and Life for Student-Athletes, Parents and Coaches. 2nd edition, 2013. The focus of this essay is on personal wins and losses and does not address those professional and intercollegiate competitions in which billions of media, advertising, sponsorship, corporate and organizational dollars are in play and at stake.

Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation, #13 – Understanding, Feeling, Embodying and Telling Another’s Story as if It Were Your Own

Please scroll down for sample poems, which begin below the initial February 3, 2019 blog post.

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at https://reggiemarra.com/blog/.

Most of us, during our ‘single-digit years’, hear a parent or teacher talking about the importance of never criticizing someone until we have walked a mile in his or her shoes. My first exposure to it directed me to never criticize another warrior until I had walked a mile in his moccasins. The message was and still is clear and valuable, and my adolescent self eventually saw it as another iteration of not judging my neighbor – of getting the plank out of my own eye before I pointed out the speck in someone else’s, of seeing someone else, another warrior or my neighbor in the context of his or her own life and history, and not just through my own.

There is, however, as I’m sure you know (gentle reader), a big difference between eventually being able to see something and authentically embodying and living it. In my direct experience of sincerely trying to walk a mile in someone’s shoes – of understanding him or her amid his or her unique circumstances, and in my observing others attempting the same task, it is clear that a significant majority of us who attempt this often succeed reasonably well in fitting into the shoes and walking the mile, but we do so as ourselves and not as the other. More concretely, and somewhat over-simplistically to make the point:

Our neighbor is navigating some troubling behavior with his 16-year-old, we feel judgment arise because we imagine we might navigate it differently, but then diligently remember the old moccasin-mile lesson from childhood and attempt to put ourselves into the details of our neighbor’s and his kid’s circumstances in order to better understand – and perhaps provide support. More often than not that’s exactly what we do. We put ourselves into their circumstances, but we have no idea what those circumstances look and feel like through their history and view of the world. What we need to do is find a way to feel and see things as our neighbor does while he’s wearing his shoes, and not just feel and see things as we do when we try them on.

We are taught to look at things and people and to try to understand them, and if we’re sincere in our looking and trying, we can understand some things and people in increasingly deeper ways – and that’s great. What we’re talking about here, however, is celebrating and building on this looking at people and learning to look as them – to see as they see, feel as they feel, in order to better understand what it’s like to be them in their circumstances (again, rather than be ourselves in their circumstances). No small task. So, while it’s helpful to try to feel the impact of the rebellious adolescent, divorce, diagnosis, pink slip, lottery win, lack of basic healthcare, sense of being inadequate or unloved, it’s more helpful if we can do so with an embodiment of the other’s sense and way of being in and moving through the world.

Laura Divine writes that this looking as another “involves being able to look through their eyes, from their body-mind-soul in order to get a sense of their unique way of seeing and relating…. This process of Looking AS is a powerful practice of embodied perspective taking.”1 It’s not something we can simply decide to do; it requires that we first become competent at looking both at and as ourselves – recognizing and embodying what it feels like to be who we are with our history, personality, biases and overall worldview, a competence that allows us to better differentiate what is ours and what is someone else’s.2

Now, when we see our neighbor struggling with his kid, we can differentiate the influence of our own experience of adolescence and parenthood from our neighbor’s particular history and experience, and better see and feel the current issue through his eyes and body, and perhaps revise our navigational advice (or keep it to ourselves).

As we become increasingly competent looking first at and as ourselves, and then at and as others, what we and others say and do begins to make increasingly more sense – even if we believe it would be best to revise (or end) our or their sayings and doings. When we take the time to listen, look, recognize, understand and attempt to embody, we can put ourselves into their story and tell it as though it were our own.3

Imagine being able to do this amid a conversation in which you and an other disagree.

Essay #14 will explore the question, “Who stands to lose, and how and what will they lose, and who stands to win, and how and what will they win, if what I promote truly manifests and what I protest truly disappears?”


1Divine, Laura. “Looking AT and Looking AS the Client: The Quadrants as a Type Structure Lens” Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 4.1 (Spring 2009): 21-40. For more information: http://www.metaintegralstore.com/spring-2009-vol-4-no-1/looking-at-and-looking-as-the-client-the-quadrant-as-a-type-structure-lens. Laura Divine is a co-founder of Integral Coaching Canada. I completed their coach training program in 2011 and currently work with some of their entry-level students.

2See essays two and three for more on personal history, personality, worldview and who we think we are.

3For more on the idea of telling another’s story as if it were our own, see the work of Narrative 4, an organization that uses “story exchange” to help young people develop empathy. “Narrative 4 harnesses the power of the story exchange to equip and embolden young adults to improve their lives, their communities, and the world.” https://narrative4.com/

Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation, #12 – Listening for and Feeling into the Emotions that Lead to and Emerge from Your Own and Others’ Words (and Actions)

Please scroll down for sample poems, which begin below the initial February 3, 2019 blog post.

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at https://reggiemarra.com/blog/.


Information regarding emotional intelligence or competence is abundant. Different definitions and models make it clear that researchers don’t agree on exactly what it is, and the scientific (research-based) definitions are often very different from definitions that are popular in the media. For this essay, emotional intelligence refers to the ability to understand and manage emotional encounters, an ability that includes noticing, understanding and regulating emotions in oneself, noticing and understanding emotions in others, and directing emotions toward constructive behavior.1

This essay explores the value of understanding emotional encounters in conversation, and does not attempt to “teach” emotional intelligence. Toward that end, one of the simplest and most useful (in the best meaning of that word) models of how our emotions emerge from the stories we tell and our interpretations of events and language appears in Crucial Conversations, where the authors depict a “path to action2 in which something happens, we quickly tell ourselves a story about/interpret it, we feel an emotion based on our story/interpretation, and then we act or speak based on the emotion (that’s based on our story, and not on what actually happened). Learning to recognize and interrupt this “path” is an essential step toward understanding, managing and regulating our emotions.

A more detailed version of this process is the late Chris Argyris’s “Ladder of Inference,”3 which zeroes in on the impact of what we do with our stories/interpretations. Argyris offers us a “reflexive loop,” in which we first select data from what we observe, then add our personal and cultural meaning, followed by assumptions based on the meaning we add, from which we then draw conclusions and adopt beliefs – which will impact what data we select the next time we observe something or something happens.

Both the path to action and the ladder of inference make it clear that our emotions are often, if not always, based on our own responses to, stories about and interpretations of what happens in the world – what someone else does or says, and rarely on the actual, external doing or saying. Here’s a current example. Less than 48 hours before this post went live, Tiger Woods won the 2019 Masters tournament (a factual, external event). Thomas Friedman’s column (based on his own observations, selected data, assumptions, conclusions and beliefs) about the win led to over 400 comments from readers who responded according their own reflexive loops.

Our work here is twofold: first, to listen for and feel into the emotions behind Friedman’s piece and his readers’ comments – some of whom respond to the column, some to the win and some to both. What selected data, added meaning, and consequent assumptions, conclusions and beliefs are operating behind these diverse amazed, compassionate, angry, resentful, frustrated, proud, disgusted, inspired, irritated, thrilled, grateful, discouraged, apathetic, etc. responses? Second, we can apply that same listening for and feeling into our own emotional responses to what we read (and how we feel about the win).

While any one of us can begin to answer the above question for a given respondent, our ability to answer with some basic level of accuracy and competence is tied to our awareness of and ability to name, understand and regulate our own emotions. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence4 has developed a research-based RULER program that helps participants Recognize, Understand, Label, Express and Regulate emotions. The process includes rating from 1-10 how one feels in a given moment on two scales – from low to high intensity/energy, and from unpleasant to pleasant. The rating leads to one of 100 emotion labels for how we feel – providing an opportunity to build our emotional vocabulary as well. The center has developed an online app as well.

In conclusion, emotions can run high in robust conversation – especially, but not only, when characterized by disagreement. Our ability to recognize, understand, name and regulate our own emotions can help us understand what happens to us in highly charged encounters, and is an essential step if we want to understand others’ emotional responses.

In the next essay, we’ll explore the possibility and process of understanding, feeling, embodying and telling another’s story as if it were our own.


1Paraphrase from Emotional Intelligence: A Coaching Masterclass (online) https://positivepsychology.com/course/a-coaching-masterclass-on-emotional-intelligence/

2Patterson, Kerry, and Joseph Grenny, et al. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002, pp. 93-118.

3Ladder of Inference / Path to Action PDF: https://reggiemarra.files.wordpress.com/2019/04/ladder-of-inf-and-path-to-action.pdf

4Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence/RULER: https://www.rulerapproach.org/solutions/

The Emotion Meter (Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence): https://reggiemarra.files.wordpress.com/2019/04/emo-meter.pdf

Mood Meter App through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence: http://ei.yale.edu/mood-meter-app/

Guidelines for ‘Adult’ Conversation, #11 – Committing to and Actually Staying Focused on the Topic of the Current Conversation

Please scroll down for sample poems, which begin below the initial February 3, 2019 blog post.

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at https://reggiemarra.com/blog/.

Alert: this post’s focus on staying focused raises more questions than it answers and points to additional reading that informs the topic.  

Think about any common family or workplace disagreement, where the initial statement addresses some specific transgression (real or imagined) like clothes not put away, lights left on, staying out later than expected without calling or texting, arriving to work late, not getting a task done on time, etc. Often, when the accused responds to the accusation, what follows may include the accused’s pointing out some flaw or transgression of the accuser, and/or the accuser’s expanding the initial, specific complaint about the accused to an overall criticism of who and how he or she is.

Many arguments about abortion are characterized by people’s positions on several related, but separate issues: a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body; a human fetus’s right to life; and law as handed down and/or interpreted by various religions, governments and science, among others. Rarely, if ever, is one of these the single focus of a conversation.

Arguments about proposed, and opposition to, gun legislation intended to reduce the number of gun-related deaths in the United States include disagreements on how to interpret the second amendment; whether or not it’s guns or people responsible for these gunshot deaths; contrasting U.S. laws and culture with those of other countries that have significantly fewer gunshot deaths; and how gun manufacturer’s profits are used to lobby and support lawmakers’ political campaigns, among others.

Listen to or read the rhetoric around the accessibility to affordable health care debate in the U.S. Among the directions that conversation might go are whether health care is a right or a privilege; why the alleged wealthiest country in the world does not provide its citizens with the same level of health care as most other post-industrial countries; why the insurance industry wields more power than healthcare professionals when it comes to what services can be provided and under what conditions; why pharmaceutical companies produce billions of profit dollars while many drugs remain unaffordable to those who would benefit from them; there are, as you know, more.

Finally, if you have the stomach for it, read or listen to virtually any political debate or press conference. Rarely are the questions asked actually answered; often the moderators or journalists are engaged in proving a point rather than genuine journalistic inquiry; most of the politicians give short shrift to what they hope to avoid and ‘much longer shrift’ to the sound bites and slogans that their handlers believe are most expedient.

What’s someone who deeply wants to engage authentic dialogue on one thing at a time to do?

The answers to this are complex and manifold. Culture (beliefs, worldviews, values) and society (systems, infrastructure and environment) play a major role in creating the disadvantages of staying focused on a single issue in conversation. Whether we’re speaking about in-person disagreements, social media slugfests, televised or streamed eye-rolling contests among ‘experts,’ or any other conversational exchange, the combined effects of limited time, limited attention span, complex issues, dissimilar knowledge/ignorance*, training, experience, awareness, purpose, etc. among participants, the relative ‘safety and anonymity’ of social media and the pressure to perform in public and perhaps win (or not lose) something, are not conducive to engaging in conversation in order to learn, understand and clarify.

One approach to beginning to address these issues is to ‘simply’ agree on some ground rules regarding the focus of a given conversation – what is within and outside the context of this particular exchange. Of course this is not particularly simple to do – especially on social media or within the confines of televised time slots bounded by advertisers’ appeals, and in light of any of the above mentioned dissimilarities among participants. Still, it is doable for folks who, indeed, have a shared purpose in their disagreement.

For more reading on this topic, see Jesse Singal’sThe New Science of How to Argue—Constructively,” and one of his sources, John Nerst, who coined the word erisology to capture the study of unsuccessful disagreement. Full links below.

In essay #12 we’ll explore the usefulness of listening for and feeling into the emotion behind your own and others’ words.


*ignorance in the denotative meaning of the word – not knowing something. We often throw words around (and at each other) without agreeing on what they mean. This includes, but is not limited to, the generalizations, labels and insults referred to in essays five and seven.

Jesse Singal: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/04/erisology-the-science-of-arguing-about-everything/586534/

John Nerst: https://everythingstudies.com/about/

John Nerst: https://everythingstudies.com/2016/01/12/erisology/

Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation, #10 – Finding Similarities as well as Differences in Disagreement

Please scroll down for sample poems, which begin below the initial February 3, 2019 blog post.

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at https://reggiemarra.com/blog/.

Often in disagreement both sides get so caught up in defending their positions and attempting to prove the other wrong in order to ‘win’ – whatever that might mean, they simply cannot imagine, or aren’t interested in speaking about areas in which their views are similar – or even the same. This is especially true when there’s an audience for their exchange. Two generic and general ways to express this are:

  1. Both (or all) parties in a disagreement disagree about which trees are most important, where these specific trees are, and how they should be cared for. In their focus on the which, where and how of the specific trees, they never notice that, in fact, they agree that all the trees together make up a specific forest, and they agree on where this forest is located and on many of its characteristics.
  2. Both (or all) parties in a disagreement disagree on how to do something and never notice that they agree on what needs to be done. There are exceptions to this, of course: an ongoing example is the state of the U.S. insurance-pharmaceutical-medical-government industry before the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (tens of millions of Americans had limited or no access to affordable health services for decades; some people were fine with that and some weren’t). After the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, many (not all) of those tens of millions did get access to health services, and the insurance companies raised the rates on others – in many cases making insurance unaffordable for a new population. On this issue, it seems there is disagreement on both the what and the

In essay six I briefly mentioned Ken Wilber’s concept of orienting generalizations,1 which, simply put, refers to stepping back from an issue far enough in order find a level at which opponents can agree (oh yes, we’re definitely talking about the same forest). Consider this rather striking example from Salvador Sanabria, former Salvadoran guerrilla, and law student when he served as part of a reconciliation team visiting Bosnia in 1997:

“These people don’t want peace. They want revenge. After 12 years of war in my country, we realized that no one could win. Both sides were exhausted, so we settled for peace. These people have not reached that point. They still have two or three more years of killing in them.”2

Sanabria spoke from the perspective of a war veteran who, along with his opponents, had recognized a shared desire for peace amid a shared exhaustion. He further recognized that the Croats, Muslims and Serbs with whom his team met were not yet able to step back far enough and find a common goal – a similarity or orienting generalization that would allow them to stop killing each other.

Fortunately, most of our disagreements do not match the scope, scale and slaughter that accompany civil war. Still, we dig in, arm ourselves with the arguments of our beliefs, and label, generalize and insult our perceived ‘enemy’ as they do us.

On a more ‘ordinary,’ practical level, each of us who is interested in conversations that minimize or eliminate differences rather than maximizing or creating them might begin to look for the relevant, respective what’s and how’s that inform our disagreements, share what we see with our perceived opponent(s), and in the best of circumstances, even agree to step back together until our views are broad and/or deep enough that we find a shared perspective – an organizing generalization. Noble work, not easy, and inevitably worthwhile – perhaps invaluable.

Two final points:

  • The process of engaging conversation that recognizes similarities and is grounded in genuine curiosity and a desire to learn and understand is easier when both (or all) parties recognize and embrace such recognition and grounding.
  • In the absence of such mutuality, it falls upon the courage, strength and vulnerability of those who do embrace this level of engagement to proceed in difficult conversations in ways that honor their embrace without putting themselves or others in serious danger – whether, physical, emotional or any other meaning of that word.

So practice looking for the similarities in situations in which the stakes are low – where the danger is slight and more of an inconvenience than anything else.

In essay #11 we’ll explore the value of agreeing to, and actually staying focused on, the specific content of the current conversation.

1Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston: Shambhala, 1995 (xiii-ix).

2Ryback, Timothy W. “Violence Therapy for a Country in Denial.” New York Times Magazine. 30 November 1997, sec. 6: 120-23. Archive: https://www.nytimes.com/1997/11/30/magazine/violence-therapy-for-a-country-in-denial.html

Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation, #9 – Conversing in Order to Learn, Understand and Gain Clarity, Rather than Trying to Teach, Persuade or Disprove*

Please scroll down for sample poems, which begin below the initial February 3, 2019 blog post.

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at https://reggiemarra.com/blog/.

*Conversations exist in which the parties agree that the nature of the discourse involves teaching, persuasion and/or proof/disproof – e.g. formal debate, litigation, scientific research, and professional trainings of various types. These are not the focus of this essay or this series.

Imagine engaging a disagreement (or agreement) with a friend, family member, acquaintance, colleague or stranger with the intention of learning from and more deeply understanding the other’s perspective and further clarifying your own. Imagine not being concerned with or interested in trying to convince the other of something, pointing out what he doesn’t know or why and how she’s wrong, ‘winning’ in some way or other, or making him or her look bad. Imagine showing up in conversation with authentic curiosity, the ability to listen deeply, and a desire to ask and respond to genuine questions, the only purpose of which is mutual learning, understanding and clarity. That does require imagination, you may be thinking.

The three general imaginings above are not a prescription for the right way to be in conversation. They are, I believe, practical and essential components for any authentic verbal exchange to have a chance of evolving beyond the alternating combative monologues, often vitriolic, that masquerade as ‘dialogue’ or ‘conversation’ in contemporary public and private life – and they would arguably have something to offer the formal debate, litigation, research and trainings exceptions mentioned above.

Engaging, as used here refers to listening, speaking and asking questions, again, with the intention to learn, understand and clarify with, from and through an authentically curious and open mind and heart. The curious and open mind helps us inquire, speak and understand accurately and skillfully; the curious and open heart allows us to accept and respect the other, and the common humanity we share.

One Approach That Helps

A deceptively simple clarifying question, even more effective when repeated, is something like1 When you say ____, what do you really mean by that / what does that really mean to you? I use this type question2 as part of a writing practice – and it works alone, with a partner or group, and also with coaching clients. For example, I’ll write a sentence, or some longer unit of writing and ask myself, What do I mean by that? I’ll respond to that question in writing, and then ask again, perhaps with different emphasis, What do I mean by that?  I’ll respond again and continue the cycle until I can no longer fine-tune my meaning. Once I get to that point, I may ask, How does this make me feel? Depending on my intention, I can then inquire into the meaning of my response to that feeling question. If you’ve never done this, try it.

To be effective in conversation, the question What does that mean? or What do you mean by that? must come from a place of curiosity and with a desire for learning and clarity. There are lots of ways to ‘soften’ these questions so they’re not heard as criticisms (What the %?*@! do you mean?!). Here’s one: The story I’m telling myself about what you just said is _______, and I’m wondering if that’s close to what you really meant. If so, great. If not, what did you mean? I really want us to be on the same page as we move forward (or something like that).

When it comes to listening through and with an open mind and heart, it’s essential to remember the importance of our awareness of the ‘lenses’3 through which we’re listening, even with our minds and hearts open. Each of us can open his or her mind and heart. Not every mind or heart is equally open.

I’ll leave you with a wonderful guideline that I first learned sitting in council when I enacted a Vision Quest in 1998. I don’t know its origin, but I learned it from Bill Plotkin and the guides at Animas Valley Institute. I believe it can serve anyone, anywhere.

                                Speak from your heart.

                                Listen from, with and through your heart.

                                Be of lean expression.

                                Be spontaneous (in the sense of being in the moment and not

In essay #10 we’ll explore the impact of holding the intention of finding similarities, and not just differences, with those with whom we disagree.


1I use the phrase “something like” here to emphasize that there is not exactly one correct question to use here. What’s important is what the question allows/invites us to do next.

2For more on this type of inquiry, find out more about proprioceptive writing (the example above in no way is intended to represent the teachings of Linda Trichter Metcalf, Tobin Simon).

3See essays two, three and four in this series for more on these lenses.

Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation, #8 – Curiosity, Knowing and Not Knowing on the Path of Learning

Please scroll down for sample poems, which begin below the initial February 3, 2019 blog post.

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at https://reggiemarra.com/blog/.

In essays #1, 2 and 3, I briefly alluded to the importance of “not knowing.” In essay #3, more specifically, I wrote: Not knowing is the core of ongoing learning, growth and development. As soon as we “know for sure,” we close to other possibilities. Hold your knowing lightly. Stay open. Depending upon your worldview and how you interpret the phrase, “not knowing” as a path of learning may sound like common sense – or like idiocy.

Students of Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn (1927-2004), among others, might readily embrace this language and approach, while students of conventional medicine (or engineering or climate change, etc.) might be more apt to prefer as much knowing as possible in order to do more good than harm in their respective endeavors. To be fair, most honest, well-meaning human beings prefer to have the appropriate knowledge before making choices or taking action in their personal and professional lives, where “appropriate” means relevant, adequate,* useful, kind and balanced.  Ideally, appropriate knowledge refers to both the exterior world – what we might know about practical applications of biology, chemistry and physics, for example, before performing surgery, building a bridge or proliferating fluorocarbons, and to the interior world – what we might know about ourselves – the worldview and lenses through which we experience, interpret and respond to life.

The relationship between knowing and not knowing that we’re moving toward here asks us to return to our differentiating fact and opinion, or, put differently, to look carefully at our human tendency to blend what we know as fact with our immediate interpretation of what the fact might mean in the moment and for and in the future. A common parable with which you may already be familiar makes this point:

In olden times a farmer was told by his neighbors how lucky he was because he owned a prized horse. He replied, “Maybe I’m lucky; maybe I’m not.” When the horse jumped the fence and galloped away, the neighbors told the farmer how unlucky he was. His reply: “Maybe I’m unlucky; maybe I’m not.” Several days later the horse returned, accompanied by three additional wild horses. “You’re so lucky,” the neighbors told him. “Maybe I am; maybe I’m not,” he said. One of the wild horses threw the farmer’s son, breaking his leg, and the neighbors told the farmer how unlucky this was. “Maybe so, maybe not,” came his reply, and when the army came through to conscript the oldest son in each family to go to war, they did not take the farmer’s son because of the broken leg. You know what the neighbors said and how the farmer replied.

When I shared that story in a high school in Tucson in 1995, one student said that something like that had happened to him. He explained that he broke his leg in a football game; in the hospital doctors noticed some things about the break and did tests that revealed evidence of early-stage bone marrow cancer for which he underwent treatment and went into remission. He now credits breaking his leg, which when it happened was traumatic and felt ‘unlucky’ at best, with finding out about the cancer sooner rather than later. What at first felt like a devastating blow to his football career and his dreams of playing in college, subsequently felt like a “lucky break” that may have prolonged – even saved, his life.

Simply put, we interpret and give meaning before we know what some event or moment truly means. Our ability to know what’s truly knowable about something, and to be comfortable “resting” in not knowing what is not yet ours to know allows us to remain authentically curious and open to learning. As we engage in conversation with someone with whom we disagree (or agree), the extent to which we recognize and acknowledge how much we truly know and don’t know about ourselves, the other, and the content of the conversation will strongly influence, if not completely determine each party’s openness to and opportunity for growth and learning.

Such recognition, acknowledgment and openness requires and cultivates vulnerability – not in the sense of weakness or being overly susceptible to harm, injury or loss, but rather in the sense of showing up fully and authentically, hiding nothing and trusting – even in the face of fear. How willing and able is each of us, in our respective roles as parents, children, significant others, students, friends, colleagues and workers – in the broadest sense across industries and professions, to let go, or at least monitor our initial interpretations of any moment, glance, smile, frown, gesture, laugh, phrase – anything at all, and intentionally explore and allow meaning to emerge** in increasingly broader and deeper contexts?

As Dorianne Laux wrote, “We think we know what each sound means” – emphasis on “think.”

In essay #9 we’ll explore the importance of engaging (listening, speaking and asking) in order to learn, understand and clarify, and not to teach or persuade (unless teaching or persuasion has been agreed upon by participating parties in the conversation).


*While it may be appropriate in certain circumstances to have comprehensive or exhaustive knowledge, it is very often appropriate to have adequate – sufficient or enough knowledge for what is required or needed, for a particular choice or action in a given moment. The roles of language, belief, interpretation and worldview allow different people to honestly embrace slogans like: Good is the enemy of great or Great is the enemy of good.

**To state the obvious, there are times when we don’t have the temporal luxury of allowing meaning to emerge – medical emergencies and other literal moments of life and death. That said, these are few and far between for most of us during most of the moments of our lives.