Wednesday, December 14, 2005


I have a couple of things in mind today. First thing I need to do is redeem the positive side of jigsaw puzzling after that last post. And secondly, I need to discuss a seemingly unrelated theory on the art of conversation.

So scratch the negativity in my last post about jigsaw puzzles because truth is, no matter how grabby, rude or inconsiderate the puzzling participants may be, I will not give it up. Despite all my complaints about piece snatchers and hogs and the deceitful tapping of those who pretend to be making progress, there is another side of jigsaw-puzzling with friends that is more important than that stuff.

What is more important is the conversation that happens during this process. Amazingly, what I have noticed, is that when we are engaged in assembling a puzzle, with eyes focused on puzzle pieces rather than each other, surprising thoughts are revealed and vulnerabilities are exposed. In fact, discussions of delicate or grim matters that so often congeal at the onset now flow like water. ‘Soul’ enters into the dialogue in a significant way. Façades crash and burn. And rather than ‘flat’ subject matter, I find reserved people speaking freely about things that they would not normally discuss. And so, puzzles will remain on my social agenda, despite the chaffing behavior mentioned in my previous post.

Now I want to sideline this discussion for a moment and turn to the business of looking directly at another’s face when conversing. Have you been led to believe, as I have, that looking another in the eye is critical to good communication?

I don’t know how you feel about it, but I don’t get it. As a child, I avoided looking anyone in the eye. Now whether eye-avoidance was part of my self-conscious personality (extreme shyness), or a symptom indicative of Autism, or the watershed effect of instructions well instilled in my mind to “never stare at anyone”, I can’t be too sure. But I avoided looking anyone directly in the eye for years. I found focusing on their eyes uncomfortable and my discomfort was even greater when they focused on mine.

But then came the day that I attended a Communications Seminar offered at my workplace. And the Communications Goddess instructing this seminar could not stress enough how important it is to look another straight in the eye. How focusing on a speaker’s eyes and face is an act of attentiveness, good manners, and socially compulsory. She assured us that there is no point in talking about work situations with a boss or supervisor unless you look them straight in the eye while doing so. And although you may be perfectly qualified for that promotion, there is no point going to the interview if you are not prepared to look each of the interviewers straight in the eye. In fact any in-person conversation becomes null and void if you do not look the speaker or audience directly in the eye.

So after this seminar, I began working on the matter. It was a painful process. Disconcerting and difficult. And although, eventually with the passage of time and with practice, it became a bit easier, it still didn’t feel right to me.

So last week I decided to investigate this matter a bit further. And guess what I found out? Research in the art of ‘conversation’ and ‘conversation-openers’ leads to a totally contradictory view of this business of looking someone straight in the eye. Researchers have discovered that if something matters, really matters, it is best discussed, it is more openly and honestly discussed, when the conversationalists are engaged in activities that prevent them from looking directly at each other. That to get to the bottom of another’s problems, whether it be something upsetting your elderly parents, or the sexual preferences of your mate, or teen anxiety, or problems younger children face, it is important to have a discussion WITHOUT looking them in the eye. Because, without the discomfort of eye-contact, emotions such as fear and anxiety will start to surface. Things that need to be said, but are difficult to say, will be revealed.

So we seriously err when we say to our mates, children, or friends, “Come here, my dear, and sit down across from me so I can talk to you.” And by doing this the trusting conversation we intended to have takes on the sensory chill of a police interrogation. Which is fine if one is solely on a fact-finding mission. But so often when talking to those we really care about, we are looking for root causes, emotional stuff that stems from buried concerns. In-the-face conversations become stilted and awkward, and we wonder why every comment on either side is highly suspect. It so often seems that all that is said is not right or real. Well, that is because it isn’t right or real. But the problem can be fixed.

Just get out a jigsaw puzzle, go to the kitchen table, look closely at those pieces, and while doing so, have a right and real conversation.


Blogger Eleanor said...

I totally "get" the joy of jigsaws and what a neat tie-in to the subject of open, meaningful conversation. My dad and I used to have some fabulous heart to hearts with our heads bent over a puzzle, and it was a natural thing for me to get into with Stephanie.

I entirely agree with your points about eye contact. Of course it's necessary in certain situations, but I find it really uncomfortable in others. My most meaningful chats have been side by side, rather than face to face. Busy hands or feet, and eyes focusing elsewhere, seem to enable the soul to open freely.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Roberta said...

Hi eleanor. Nice to hear we share common joys. I love your descriptive final phrase about enabling the soul to open freely. (strikes me, as a gardener, that maybe this phrase should be transplanted -- perhaps in a poem or greeting card).

3:39 PM  
Blogger Eliz said...

I love jigsaw puzzles.

My oldest has aspergers syndrome (high functioning autism). He could not look anyone in the eyes. It was extremely painful for him to do. He actually still does not, but he has learned the art of looking at the persons eyebrows or cheeks. He can do that.

BUT his psych rarely sits across from him during a session. They leave the office and go for long walks. They play basketball or throw a football.

BTW until he 9 or 10, he wouldn't realize you were speaking to him unless you were in front of him and looking at his face. So while he couldn't look at you, you had to be looking at his eyes. Isn't that weird?

7:56 AM  
Blogger Roberta said...

Hi eliz. Thanks for stopping by. I'm happy to find another lover of jigsaw puzzles. If you and eleanor were close by, you know what we'd all be doing tomorrow evening. Putting together a puzzle - a monster puzzle - and wildly chatting away while doing it.

As for your other comments, I found them intriguing. Satisfying to know that those working with your son understand his discomfort and have found a way around it.
The conflicting bit about getting his attention when he was younger certainly indicates that there is yet a lot more to be known about not only autism but the whole aspect of conversational comfort.

11:50 AM  

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