Is it possible to compel someone to see things your way? Never. In PR, I often tell clients that there are three audiences: the believers, the undecideds and the naysayers. I tell them to ignore the naysayers because their minds are made up. But what if we’re just approaching them all wrong? What if we make space for another point of view?
Starla J. King is the person who best taught me how to think past myself. We met when she became my writing coach and had just published her first book, “Wide Awake. Every Day.” When I learned her background I was shocked at her inner joy and openness. A lesbian, she grew up in a deeply religious Mennonite home with nine children and no television. I want to read the whole book about her journey, but for now, she’s shared some highlights about how one goes from feeling closed off to wide open. It has deep insights for how we can communicate toward connection. Following is our conversation.
BAM: What was it like to grow up in such a protected environment?
SJK: There’s this saying we have that Mennonites are in the world, but not of the world. We protected ourselves against the bad influences we weren’t supposed to let in. Without a TV, we’d spend Sundays after church reading books, sprawled out like cats all over the living room. The picture that comes to mind is me seeing the newspaper on the table in the kitchen and then going outside to look at wildflowers and build a tiny village by the river. My protected upbringing also had this way of forcing me to see around its confines.
BAM: What happened when you left that world and entered the “real” one?
SJK: Internal conflict. I went to my first non-Mennonite school at George Mason University, a state school, where I realized again that most people were not like me. Boy did my judgment come out. I’d been taught not to let that kind of stuff–those differences–get on you. Yet, it was almost everywhere, so I felt like I had to protect myself. I kept thinking things like, “That’s not like me, that’s not good. That doesn’t follow the rules, that’s not good.” I felt incredibly lonely.
BAM: Can you remember some key moments that began to open you up to people who were different than you?
SJK: In the early 2000s, I was sitting in a Bible church and listening to a sermon about how we still have to love the homosexuals even though what they’re doing is very wrong. It was a moment of just really painful awareness. It was that “aha” when I knew what it felt like when someone who doesn’t know you makes a snap, universal judgment against you. I could almost physically feel my emotional walls go up.
BAM: Most people shut down when that happens.
SJK: I did that for a little bit, but I was so immersed in being a creative soul that I still had some openness. I turned to creativity as a coping mechanism because turning to my people felt more dangerous–it was before I was out. I wrote poems, drew sketches. But part of being creative meant being whoever I was and letting that come through.
BAM: So there was this tension that was relieved and also made more acute through creativity. How did that resolve?
SJK: It got to the point that if I didn’t open up to a real person, I honestly didn’t know if I could survive. So I called the least risky (but still risky) person, my oldest brother, who by the way was a Mennonite pastor. I told him that I was in love with a woman. In that decades-old setting he said, “Listen, I don’t know what’s right or wrong, but I know God loves you and I know I love you.”
This man was supposed to be about right and wrong, and he was willing to say, “I don’t know.” I think about that so often when I come across people who frustrate me, scare me, make me angry, or who I just don’t get. I go back to that moment and think, “what does it feel like to just be listened to instead?” That gave me a foundation to start taking the risk of being open to myself.
BAM: Being open to yourself — is that the first step?
SJK: Absolutely. That gives me chills. If you can’t be open to the being that you spend every second of your life with, how can you know how to truly do it with someone else? Because you’re only able to do what you practice. If you practice the internal dialog of, “yeah I kind of suck,” you’re going to look at someone else and think they kind of suck. But if you tell yourself whatever I am is fine, then you extend that to others and instead, think, “let’s get curious.”
BAM: You ask the best questions of anyone I know and I’ve learned so much about that art from you. Over the years how have you cultivated your curiosity?
SJK: I had help. When I left the corporate world and started my own business, I worked with a life/business coach. One of the things she modeled for me was how to ask those questions, the non-judgmental questions. Because, as you know, you can ask a question that is judgey.
BAM: Yes, leading questions. PR is good at those. What makes up an open question?
SJK: It’s not a yes/no question. It’s asking things like “I wonder how you might…” or “I’m curious about…” And things like “If you could do or be xyz, what would you do or be?” These are ways to open someone else up to get curious about themselves.
BAM: And when we’re curious about ourselves, we can find the courage to be curious about others! So then, how do you listen to the answer to an open question?
SJK: It really is a co-creation. If you’ve got someone in the co-creative conversation–that open Q&A–then you’re building something that’s beyond either of you. It brings in part of the other people involved in those facets of your life too, and also sparks new ideas. I mean, how cool is it that we can come up with new ideas? We take in all of this information and curiosity and think, what if I could do this?
BAM: Meanwhile, most of us are sitting around thinking, “Why can’t I come up with better ideas?”
SJK: Then you have to ask yourself who are you experiencing differently than yourself, what are you taking in that’s different than your regular experience? There is a reason that people often get inspired when they travel. It’s because it’s different.
BAM: That reminds me of a passage from “Wide Awake. Every Day.” about how taking a different route to work can shift your perspective.
SJK: It can be so simple. My wife and I will be walking in the city where we live and every once in a while one of us will laugh and say, “Want to shake it up?” That means we go to the other side of the street. And it really makes a difference because you see different things. That can be the metaphor for being shoulder-to-shoulder with different people. It can be the fodder for asking curious questions.
Because if you’re fascinated, it’s impossible to judge.
Read more about curiosity:
Starla’s second book, “Wide Awake. Every Week.” features 52 authors (including me) about their wide awake moments.