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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Sokolowski

Question Authority: “I wonder if that’s true.”

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Is suspension of belief the same as active doubt?

Strangers, colleagues, friends and family are adept at sounding like they know what they are talking about. It’s a piece of the human condition in our U.S. of A. to come across with confidence (even better—hubris—if you can manage it). Use a certain tone of voice, jam words together quickly, toss in a few technical terms, keep your head steady and hold someone’s gaze, and—presto!—you’re an expert.

And your word matters.


Back in college studying philosophy I might have been an irritating presence with friends because the most common, most innocuous comments could elicit questions. Over time I learned to hold those questions to myself and mull things over in a less public way. But whenever I find myself in the presence of people who wrap themselves with authority, those questions pop out.

I’m attracted to Robert Sokolowski’s take on phenomenology. In particular, this notion of bracketing our natural thoughts and suspending a belief to ask about it and examine the pieces and parts and moments and manifolds of that belief. It’s a great thing to do in conversation, and many generous-minded thinkers and experts will walk that direction with me. But those intent on cloaking themselves with authority—those using bits of knowledge as rhetorical tools to one-up their conversation partners—see ordinary questions that come from bracketing as weapons of aggression.

And in truth, sometimes they are. To respond to the expert with “I wonder if that is true” is to question authority, to question context, to question orthodoxy. It also brings common relationships into question. Can we be friends if you question this basic statement?

And yet the most marvelous thoughts follow those ordinary questions. Thoughts that propel forward with much deeper motivation and insight.

Friends who allow you to ask very basic questions are a gift to be cherished.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

How To Rip The Top Off Your Club

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Work or church or bowling: It’s easy to mistake why we’re here

First a quiz:

  1. My company exists to give me a job. True or False?
  2. My church exists so I can feel better about myself once a week. True or False?
  3. I’m part of a bowling league so I can practice bowling and maybe get better. True or False?

Lately I find myself using “club” to describe those organizations that have turned so inward they have forgotten their purpose. Sometimes clients forget they got into the business to help customers live better lives. Sometimes they spend their days fixated on managing up. Sometimes pastors think all these people show up to take direction, fill the offering plates and carry out the pastoral vision. Sometimes parishioners show up thinking this hour will medicate me—I’ll be inoculated from the mundane horror of daily life for about a week.


Of course, none of this we say out loud. We also try not to say these things to ourselves. But our attitude gives us away.

When I teach college writing classes and we talk about finding jobs, we spend a lot of time talking about how work is thing we do together for others. Work is not a thing set up for the sole purpose of getting money. If you think the former (work is about helping others) you’ll have an enduring, meaning-making attitude that will help you accomplish stuff in the real world. If you think the latter (work is for me to get money/fame/prestige), you will never be satisfied. Might as well trade derivatives on Wall Street.

It is true that we each stand at the center of our world. Philosopher Robert Sokolowski calls that stance our “transcendent ego.” And that’s just how we experience all there is to experience in the world. But it takes a maturing person to step away from the giddy, teen-age fiction that all of everything revolves around me for real.

Is it time to call your club back to the central purpose—the purpose that people signed up for in the beginning—making a difference in the world? If it is, you’ll likely have uncomfortable conversations with your friends in the club. You may even cause current programs to jump the tracks. But that’s ok: that’s what happens when we refocus on the bigger purposes of why we are here.

That is a work that helps all of us in the club.



Image credit: Kirk Livingston


Here’s a note to excuse my absence

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I’m sorta here and please carry on without me

It’s Monday so I’m sitting in my work chair.

But honestly, I’m sorta still sketching tombstones in the peaceful, cool graveyard. And I’m sorta still walking Dayton’s bluff above the Mississippi thinking how little control we exert over this force of nature overflowing the boundaries we set.


I’m sorta still at the party commemorating an 83-year-old’s deeply human connections and I’m sorta still cycling through Northeast Minneapolis marveling at the fancy systemic alternative to internal combustion. I’m sorta still reclining in an armchair sorting through Robert Sokolowski’s argument for how little time we’ve spent exploring the notion of absence.

So—yes—I’m here.

Just put your post-it reminder on my forehead. And when I return I’ll send you that copy you wanted yesterday.

Or was it tomorrow?



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

The Lost Art of Getting Back

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Returning phone calls is so 2008

A recent post from Big Picture Leadership reminded me how mystified I am that so few people actually return calls or emails. Twice in the past two weeks I’ve had conversations about this phenomenon. And these conversations were with people in positions of power, which makes the phenomenon all the more difficult to figure.

I get that everyone is busy. I get that we often we think we know why the person called or emailed, and that their issue is not our issue. Or perhaps the answer is “No” but we don’t want to say it aloud. But I think not-getting-back is deeper than just busy. I think it actually says something troublesome about people, perceptions and power relationships. I am guilty too—on all three counts.

These days the medical device industry regularly purges employees for one reason or another—just like every other industry with human capital. What once was a stable position in a stable company is now neither. A person in a stable position in a stable company has a certain perception of power that tracks with their budget and mandate. That perception of power vanishes the instant the person is called into the corner office to be downsized. I know this because I see these people working LinkedIn like crazy.

I have some older people in my life these days and I’ve been listening to what they say about the sense of being marginalized and invisible. George Tannenbaum’s recent reflection on Work. And death is apropos and could also have included what happens as people slowly fade into their age, which is to say, into the woodwork.

Over the last few months I’ve also had opportunity to email three philosopher/authors who works I love reading (Drs. Sean Hand, Robert Sokolowski and Michael Purcell). I had obscure obscure questions or comments about something they had written, and would they comment further? I was amazed—indeed, it was remarkable—that all three gave very generous responses and even provided extra source material.

These philosopher’s responses remind me that I want to be the kind of person who doesn’t take power distance, assumptions about what my friend will say or mere busyness as a reason to not acknowledge someone’s humanity.


Image credit: terra99 via 2headedsnake

Written by kirkistan

November 14, 2012 at 10:21 am

Being Present is Hard Work

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Just Don’t be Boring

I know this from teaching college students. Some students are right there with you (I love these people!). I see others fade into and out of our discussion while some simply park their carcass in a chair as their mind plays on a sandy beach in South America. I don’t blame them. Helping any audience be present is a challenge for every communicator. It’s a challenge I try to take seriously in teaching, writing and face-to-face conversation. A creative director I worked with would always say, “just don’t be boring.” He was right. No speaker or conversation partner has a right to squander someone else’s attention.

I know being present is hard from my own experience as well. Paying attention to someone requires a lot of energy. Maybe introversion/extroversion has something to do with it. Maybe not: extroverts have an especially hard time listening because they really, really want to interrupt and say their spiel.

Over the weekend I talked with a physician who works really hard at being present with each patient. Her day is spent in 15-30 minutes intervals of intense listening followed by repeating what she heard, followed by diagnosis mixed with more listening and more response. It’s easy to see why it takes all her energy.

Rereading Robert Sokolwski’s Introduction to Phenomenology, I ran across this quote:

All experience involves a blend of presence and absence, and in some cases drawing our attention to this mix can be philosophically illuminating. (18)

The physician worked hard at being present with her patients precisely because the words uttered by patient after patient were only one piece of the puzzle. She was also analyzing what wasn’t being said, what the patient was trying not to say, as well as analyzing physical appearance and the way the patient holds him or herself. Same stuff we all pay attention to, but the physician needs to draw concrete conclusions or at least educated guesses that could lead to a course of action.

Being present is a gift we give to each other.


Image credit: Paul C. Burns via thisisn’thappiness

Written by kirkistan

August 13, 2012 at 9:52 am

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