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I Got Skills: And Some Wine

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If you could choose to be a master of any skill in the world, which skill would you pick? Good question, right? I’m still in a bit of a writing funk, having fallen into a vast vortex of nothingness, so I thought I would check out the Daily Prompt from WordPress. I like their question, so — what’s my answer?

I wonder if it’s cheating to pick a skill that people tell me I’ve already got.

Maybe this is supposed to be something to which I aspire. If it is an aspiration, then I’d like to be a brilliant creative writer: My words and I would become one, and my prose and poetry would conjure up vivid images and intense emotions and move my readers from laughter to tears in a matter of moments — and I would never, ever, fall into a vast vortex of nothingness.

Woman Writing Letter by Gerard ter Borch. Public Domain, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Woman Writing Letter by Gerard ter Borch. Public Domain, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

But meanwhile, back in reality, I will choose a skill that I’ve been told I already possess to some degree. Some call it a “welcoming spirit,” some tell me I’m “easy to talk to,” and some say I make them “feel at home.” Others say I make them laugh a lot. Or it could just be the wine.

Anyway, that’s the skill I want — to make people feel comfortable. Not a big deal, but it makes me happy to be relaxed and open with people, and that’s easier if they feel comfortable with me.

Dysfunctional Roots and Shoots

I developed this skill as a way of coping while growing up in an alcoholic home — if I could get people laughing, lighten the mood, relax the tension, then I might prevent the nightly dinner table dramas and arguments. The stakes were high, because if laughter failed, I would have to break the tension by spilling my milk, and then I’d get yelled at. 

As a child, this coping mechanism served me well, although as an adult it morphed into a desperate need to be loved and resulted in some pretty dysfunctional behaviors. But I’ve worked hard to rid myself of emotional baggage, and now I couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of me (yeah, right).

C’mon, Smile

I’ve also used the skill in a professional capacity. Having an easy-going, accessible personality came in handy when I was an environmental lobbyist on Capitol Hill. One of my secret personal goals was to get a staffer or member of Congress to laugh in the first five minutes of our meeting. Even if they were super-conservative, right-wing folks that I simply needed to cross off my list and from whom I had no chance of getting an environmental vote, I still wanted them to listen to my pitch. Putting them at ease was essential.

I’d probably make a good salesperson, except oh my God, talk about a vast vortex of nothingness.

Wanna Be Friends?

The skill I’m after is not the lobbyist’s insincere, slightly manipulative, chumminess. What I want to master is friendliness. Like comfy slippers or a purring cat, I just want to be a good friend. And I’ll bring the wine.

So – if you could choose a skill, what would it be?

Native American Wisdom

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When I was an environmental lobbyist, much of my work involved social justice activities like equipping and empowering low income communities and people of color to protect their families from pollution and irresponsible development.

As the Sierra Club’s Public Lands Director, I often traveled to the western United States to work with Native Americans who wanted to protect their land and water. Whether it was a proposed ski slope on a sacred mountain, water diverted from tribal lands for urban use, or lakes poisoned by uranium mines, there were plenty of challenges.

One of my first trips to tribal lands involved presenting a training on Persuasion Techniques to help the Navajo people influence administrative decision-making that affected their communities. I brought organizational charts and factsheets and how-to tips and talking points.

I knew what to do and all I had to do was teach them, right?

Well, halfway through the first day, my colleagues and I feared we weren’t getting anywhere. We had a schedule and an agenda to get through. We had goals to meet for our funders. But it turns out that the Navajo people run on a somewhat different timetable than do A-type D.C. lobbyists.

Our first clue that we weren’t in the nation’s capitol anymore was when the Navajo opening prayer lasted twenty minutes . . . we had scheduled two. We moved from prayer into introductions, which took forty-five minutes instead of the ten we had scheduled because each person talked about the land they were from and about their ancestors. Every commonality that was discovered necessitated a leisurely comparing of notes, “Do you know Grandfather So and So?” and “To the west of the river or to the east?”

Our training was in trouble and I didn’t have a clue how to proceed. I wanted to be respectful, but I wasn’t sure they even understood the concept of affecting decisions, let alone lobbying. “You know, like when you’re trying to persuade your parents to let you do something?” I suggested, which always connected with our mostly white student groups.

Blank stares.

Finally, a local Sierra Club guy who frequently worked with the Navajos asked the group, “What is the Navajo word for persuasion?”

Mumbled conversations and shaking of heads.

Then a young man spoke up. “We have no such word in Diné Bizaad (the Navajo language). We do not do that. We just ask our elders what is best. We would never argue with them or try to change their minds.”

In all my wisdom, I had designed a training around a concept that did not even exist in their culture. I looked at the local activist who had asked the insightful question and he started to laugh and then I laughed and pretty soon we were all hugging and laughing.

“Respect! What a beautiful thing!” I said. “So different from the way I grew up.”

Two elders sat at the side of the room. When the mirth died down, everyone looked at them. One of the men nodded and said, “This persuasion must be a job for our young people. It is new to learn and they must lead us.”

Humility is not a word often associated with lobbyists – or environmentalists, if I may poke fun at my fellow green-hearts. I got a massive dose of it that day as I watched the wisdom of the ages continue to guide this ancient people through the complexities of the modern day.

navajo

This post is in response to the Weekly Writing Challenge called Student, Teacher: Sometimes teachers learn the most from their students. Have you ever had the tables turned on you when you thought you were teaching, but underwent the largest change yourself?

 

 

 

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