Tag Archives: Listening

Just Listen

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Here in the Kansas City area, we have had one of the strangest Winters that I have ever experienced. About every four or five days for the last couple months, the temperature has shifted by at least 30 °F. It will go from being barely 20 °F with blustering winds and snow, to 65 °F and sunny, back to 10 °F with sleet and ice, all in a single week. Even for a born and raised Midwestern boy like myself, who is used to the frequent meteorological fluctuations of the “plains states,” this has been a little tough to handle. When you never know what the weather will be even 48 hours from now, it can be a little hard to plan various activities and such. As inconvenient as this has been for everyone in the area though, for those of us with certain types of chronic pain and disabilities it has been much more difficult to deal with. This increased hardship is a result of the fact that every one of these large shifts in temperature comes with an equally large change in the barometric pressure, which can cause increased discomfort in some types of pain (anyone with severe arthritis knows what I am talking about). In trying to cope with my elevated pain every few days, I have been reminded of how quickly my body can go from completely healthy and fine all the way to agonizing pain and illness, as well as how you can easily avoid this potentially life threatening problem.

Scott Drotar Changing Weather
The frequently changing weather in the Kansas City area lately has made my chronic pain much worse.

As the weather has been fluctuating so often recently, I have gotten many opportunities lately to examine the sensations that my body goes through as the shifting barometric pressure amplifies my chronic pain. You would think that this would be a gradual process, and as the new weather front moves in my discomfort would slowly grow in magnitude, but this is not the case. There is nothing gradual about it. Instead, it is like a switch gets flipped in my body once the atmospheric pressure changes a certain amount, and this switch instantly causes my pain to increase substantially. I will be sitting, writing on my tablet or even just lying back in my wheelchair watching television, and in the blink of an eye I will go from feeling my normal level of aches and pangs, to being in agony in all of my joints. My hips feel like they are filled with sandpaper that grinds on my bones with every movement, and my shoulder feels like it is covered in broken glass that cuts into my flesh with every breath. I will get this instantaneous increase in my pain, and I will look at my nurse and say, “The front has moved in hasn’t it?” They will go outside or get online to check, and without fail, every time the new weather front will have just passed over us. As excruciating and difficult as this is to deal with and as much as I would love to be rid of my internal, weather forecasting system, it has had the one bright spot of reminding me of the important life lesson of how critical it is to listen to your body.

As I touched on in a different way in the latest post in my Roll Models series, “A Recipe For Success,” it is extremely important to be aware of what your body is trying to tell you. Your body has evolved to be able to monitor and communicate to you what it is feeling and what it needs in order to stay in a healthy, working condition. We so often turn to the internet, books, and doctors to make decisions about what to eat, how to exercise, and how to determine our health, and while I am all for being well educated and learning as much as possible before making a decision, more often than not we can make a good, well informed decision simply by taking the time to pay attention to what our bodies are telling us. Are you tired all the time? This is your body’s way of telling you to get more rest. Gaining weight? Your body is telling you that you are getting more than enough energy from your diet, and you could eat less. Shoulder hurting? Maybe you should take it easy on the racquet ball court for a couple weeks. Your body will tell you pretty much everything you need to know about your health, if you are just willing to listen. Even though the examples above may seem a bit mundane and not all that critical to your overall health and well-being, there are also times when your body tries to prevent you from serious harm, and you can avoid a lot of pain and suffering by merely being aware of these signals. There are even situations where your very life could be in jeopardy if you do not pay attention to your body, which is something I know all too well.

As I wrote about in my most viewed article and most popular Roll Models talk, “I Can’t!” when I was 15 years old I nearly lost my life. I had three different types of pneumonia at once, both of my lungs collapsed in the span of a few hours, and there was a period of time when it was not clear whether or not my body would be able to fight off the infection and recover. Thankfully, not only did I pull through this near death experience, but I also

Scott Drotar Just Listen
If I had listened to my body and skipped the marching band competition, I could have avoided a lot of pain and suffering.

learned many important life lessons through this process. One of these critical pearls of wisdom was how vital it is to listen to your own body. Two days before I went to the emergency room and ended up being diagnosed with pneumonia and such, I woke up not feeling well. Even though I did not feel good at all having chills, body aches, and a ton of chest congestion, the regional marching band competition that I had spent weeks preparing for was that afternoon, and I did not want to miss it. So I did what any teenager who thinks they are invincible would do, completely ignored what my body was telling me and went to the all day band competition. I spent the afternoon sweating in the hot sun in my black, polyester band uniform, and then spent the evening freezing in a cold drizzle after the sun went down. When I woke up the next morning, surprise, surprise, I felt like death. I could barely breathe, ached all over, had a fever over 103 °F (my father actually thought the thermometer was broken because my fever was so high), and within 12 hours would be fighting for my life. All of this suffering and hardship could have been avoided too, if I had simply been willing to listen to my body.

While I hope that you will never be put in a situation where listening to your body is a matter of life and death, I do hope that you will think about my story and keep it with you as a reminder to pay attention to your body’s signals. Just like I could have avoided nearly dieing and everything that my family and I had to suffer through as a result, you can save yourself a lot of effort and discomfort by simply taking the time to listen to your own body. If you really give this a try, you will quickly see that your body is truly an amazing machine and will tell you everything you need to know to maintain your health and well-being. After a week or two of focusing on how you are feeling and what your body is communicating to you, this process will become second nature, and you will find that without even thinking about it that you will be more aware of your well-being and in tune with your body. Just take a few moments throughout your day, shut up, and listen to what your body is saying, because no one knows what you need better than you. Not only will you avoid nearly killing yourself by attending a marching band competition, but you will also feel healthier. This newfound improvement in your well-being will allow you to put more of yourself into your life and relationships, which will bring more happiness and success to your life.

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A Humbling Revelation

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As you are well aware by now, I am a huge nerd and have an insatiable thirst for knowledge. I am constantly reading a book on some new topic that interests me or teaching myself some skill that I have always wanted to learn. Between my never-ending quest for enlightenment and spending eight years of my life in college and graduate school, I have accumulated a plethora of facts, skills, and expertise in a variety of areas, and I am learning more every day. Despite my wealth of knowledge (most of it being useless sports and movie trivia), an IQ north of 130, and multiple college degrees from top universities, I had a conversation the other day that reminded me of how dumb I really am. Maybe dumb is too strong a word, but I did have a humbling revelation about how little I actually know about life. This epiphany as to my own ignorance helped me realize some important things about my place in the world and reminded me of some valuable lessons that are vital to living a fulfilling life.

Scott Drotar A Humbling Revelation
Graduating from a prestigious university does not necessarily mean that you know more about life than a high school dropout.

One of the best parts about having a team of nurses with you at all times is that you get to meet people from all walks of life. I have had nurses of all different ages and from more than seven different countries over the years, and it has been quite educational to get to listen to all of their stories. The other day I was talking to one of my nurses, who was born and raised in Kenya, about her weekend plans, and she mentioned that her and her husband were helping with a wedding. After talking with her about this a little more, I came to find out that what we think of as a wedding in the United States is very different from the way they do things in Kenya. It would take me a long time to go through it all here, and I doubt I would get it all right anyway, but a Kenyan wedding ceremony is quite a thing to see. They have an entire set of rituals that they “act out” in a way to remain in touch with their cultural customs in our modern world. There is a fake kidnapping, family rivalry, and a lot of other important, yet exciting, practices that they adapted to modern times to tie the knot. It was extremely interesting to get to listen to my nurse tell me about her culture, and as I was thinking about everything she had told me later that day, I had an enlightening insight into the world and my place in it.

After learning about how the Kenyan culture celebrates a wedding, I realized how much I do not know about the world. This is the first time that I can remember looking at knowledge and intelligence in terms of how much I do not know instead of how much I do know. Even with a topic as basic and important to any culture as a wedding, I know very little beyond my own limited experience. In the grand scheme of things, I really know next to nothing about weddings when you look at how much knowledge is actually out there to take in. I also realized quite quickly that if I know so little about a concept as common as a wedding, then I surely know even less about other more advanced or complex subjects. For someone who has been told his entire life how smart he is and has devoted a lot of time and energy to obtaining knowledge, this realization was quite humbling to say the least. I finally gained the perspective to see how much is out there to learn, and how little I actually know in comparison. While this was a bit off putting and discouraging at first, I soon realized that I should not see this as something to be discouraged by, but as a golden opportunity.

Now that I have come to terms with how little I know about even basic topics, there is so much more information out in the world for me to obtain. While it is a bit overwhelming to think about how much you have to learn, and it did make me feel a little like a fly on an elephant’s ass to think about what I know compared to how much knowledge is out there, for a nerd like me recognizing that there is a seemingly infinite amount of information out in the world waiting for me was very exciting. Not only that, but since everyone has their own unique, distinct background, I realized that there is not a person on this planet that does not have something to teach you about life, if you are willing to listen. So frequently we are only willing to listen to or learn from academic types with numerous degrees and titles, and these brilliant individuals do have a lot to teach you, but that does not mean that other, less formally educated, people have nothing to share with you too. My grandfather has taught me so much more about life than probably any of my teachers, and he never finished high school. Whether someone is a Fulbright scholar giving a prestigious talk or a high school dropout sitting next to you on the bus, they both have a story to tell and something to teach you. If you want to truly learn about life and how to be happy and successful, all you have to do is take the time to listen to anyone who is willing to share their story, no matter who they are.

Scott Drotar Socrates
Even Socrates was aware of how little any one person can know about life and the world.

One of the greatest thinkers of all time, Socrates (pronounced, “so crates”), once wrote, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” While I am not sure it is the “only true wisdom,” I do think that realizing both how much there is out in the world to learn, as well as how little you know in comparison, is an important aspect of leading a successful, happy life. If you look at this humbling situation as an opportunity to learn and grow as a person, there is so much for you to gain. Like any other topic, and even the lessons in this blog, by learning from others about their lives, you can obtain valuable lessons that you can apply to your own. Take a moment to stop and think about the immense amount of knowledge there is to be learned, and then take advantage of this realization to improve your life. Remember that everyone has a story to share and a lesson to pass on, if you are only willing to sit there, shut up, and listen.

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As you are well aware by now if you have been following my blog, I am a proud and self-proclaimed uber-geek. Just in case you are not fully convinced of my epic level of geekdom by my love for chess, mathematics, and computers though, today’s admission should seal the deal. Up until just a few years ago when I grew out of it, I was a big gamer, specifically games from the Dungeons and Dragons universe. I would sit around for hours on end trying to build the perfect dwarven warrior or gnome mage with a bunch of other uber-geeks, and then go slay dragons and hunt for treasure. Even though this solidifies my title of uber-geek beyond a shadow of a doubt, these long days journeying through dark castles and far away lands also illustrated an important distinction that has been useful throughout my life. Since you are far to cool and hip to spend hundreds of hours in search of some “Gauntlets of Ogre Giant Strength +3,” I am going to share this valuable information with you today. This critical disparity is the difference between wisdom and intelligence.

Scott Drotar Dungeons and Dragons
Dungeons and Dragons not only solidified my uber-geek title, but it also helped me recognize the difference between wisdom and intelligence.

In the Dungeons and Dragons universe when you create your character you give them varying amounts of certain attributes, like strength, dexterity, wisdom, and intelligence, that would best suit the type of character you want to play. For example, if you want to be a bruitish fighter, you would want more strength and dexterity, but if you were going to play a sorcerer you would want to load up on wisdom and intelligence (it is way more complicated than that, but that is the basics). In addition to spending a slew of hours thinking about the distinction between wisdom and intelligence within the Dungeons and Dragons world, these years of making countless characters also caused me to think about this important difference in the real world as well. After letting these two concepts percolate and bounce around my brain for a long, long time, I was able to come up with definitions for each term that effectively explain their differences and the role they play in your life. Intelligence, and we are talking about traditional intelligence as would be tested by an IQ test, is a measure of your ability to identify patterns, solve novel problems, and retain new information. It is what we look to develop and implement in academics and performing daily tasks. Wisdom, on the other hand, has little to do with academics, as it is more abstract. Wisdom is the knowledge of what constitutes a good life and living the “right” way.

A great example of this differentiation from my own life is my relationship with my first night nurse, Mark. Mark and I came from totally different worlds. Mark was 30 something, African-American, and a devout Christian with a wife and kids. I was 15 years old, physically disabled, and thought I knew everything about everything with no responsibilities. Despite being complete opposites and coming from totally different backgrounds, Mark and I quickly became good friends. We really enjoyed the hour or two every night when we would do my night time care, laugh at David Letterman, and talk about our days. In addition to having a great time together, we also taught each other a lot. While on paper you would think that I would have done most of the teaching, since I had an IQ north of 130, got over 1450 (out of 1600) on my SATs, and scored in the top 0.5% on other standardized tests, but you would be wrong. I may have passed on some trivial facts about dinosaurs or the environment to him, but even thousands of facts like these would pale in comparison to the things that Mark taught me. Even though I may have been more intelligent, Mark was much wiser than I could ever be (although I am trying), and he was kind enough to share his wealth of knowledge about life and happiness with me.

Mark taught me a lot of lessons about life and happiness (many of which I have since passed on to you), and he did this without ever lecturing or preaching to me once. Mark, being the clever sage that he was, shared all of these pearls of wisdom with me by modeling them for me for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, every week for over 5 years

Scott Drotar Wisdom
This is the mouthy, self-centered, know-it-all version of me (aka teenager) that Mark put up with for nearly 6 years, and shared his wisdom with.

(roughly 100,000 hours). He taught me things like the importance of having patience. Not only did he put up with me and my endless babbling for years (a Herculean feat of patience for sure), but he also showed patience in his personal life. I remember when he was having new house built and there were issues with the realtor and the contractors that pushed back the move-in date for his family over a year, and despite the fact that they could not wait to move, he never got discouraged or overly upset. He merely said that when the time was right, he would have his dream house. Mark also showed me the importance of continuing to challenge and better yourself, no matter what age you are or how much is going on, in order to have a fulfilling life. He was always reading something new and interesting, and in the time I knew him he became an expert on home theater systems (and built one in his home) and studied on his own about real estate and became a licensed realtor. The most important life lesson that Mark shared with me though was how important it is to be in touch with your spirituality. We are all aware that the topic of spirituality is touchy at best, yet he was able to illustrate for me how critical your faith is to your happiness, regardless of your specific beliefs. In all of the numerous discussions Mark and I had on this subject (and a few got intense), he always respected my opinions and explained his own. His understanding, gentle demeanor coupled with his strong faith and knowledge of his beliefs, showed me how to practice my faith, whatever that may be, in a way that enriches my life and brings me happiness.

While I have not seen Mark in several years, and we only communicate on Facebook or by email a few times a year, I will never forget how much he taught me or how much he impacted my life. By passing on his wisdom to me, he gave me many of the tools I have developed and used to create the happy, successful life that I have now. This wisdom he shared is so much more valuable to me than any of the lessons I have learned in any classroom, where I was supposedly being made more intelligent. I am not saying that academic learning is not important (I am a huge nerd), but it is essential to remember that a lot of the most important lessons you acquire are learned outside the lecture hall from people without multiple degrees (sometimes in a dungeon with a half-orc barbarian). Make sure you are not so busy learning all of the things that society says is relevant that you miss out on the lessons that are really important. Also remember that everyone has something to teach you, if you are open to it and willing to actually listen. Most importantly though, recognize the difference between wisdom and intelligence and try to find the right balance for your life. By maintaining the right harmony between these two concepts, you will have all the tools you need to lead a happy, successful, and fulfilling life.

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Scott Drotar Aretha Franklin
Aretha had it right when she sang that all we need is a little respect.

As a lifelong academic and someone who relishes logic and rhetoric, I am one of those people who loves a “friendly” debate. It doesn’t matter what the topic is (I have no shortage of opinions), I just enjoy the back and forth, premise-conclusion style dialogue of a heated discussion. Not to mention the fact that it is by discussing controversial issues  that we learn more about them and grow as individuals. I won’t lie though, the thing that I like the most are the powerful emotions that rise up inside me as these conversations really get going. That fire in your belly that swells up as you defend your position is something I enjoy immensely. As much as I love the passion and conviction that erupts within me during these civil arguments however, and as much as I want to “win” this oratorical fight to the death, there is one line I will never cross during these debates. I will not lose respect for the other sides opinion.

Having respect for others is probably the most important aspect of creating healthy interactions between people. We all want to feel that our bodies, thoughts, and opinions are respected, and we all feel violated on a very personal level when they are not. It is not important to us that other individuals necessarily agree with what we feel, think, and do, just so long as they respect our behavior and decisions. It is all about feeling in control, and being free to form our own thoughts is probably the most coveted type of control we have. As long as we feel as though we are respected enough to have whatever opinions we choose and maintain this mental autonomy, other people can argue with us as much as they please. In a nutshell, respect is the difference between attacking an argument and attacking a person. We are fine with others disagreeing with and arguing against our opinions (in fact weird people like me actually like it), so long as they are actually targeting the merits of our arguments, not us or our right to have them. We are even fine if they argue well enough to change our opinions and teach us something, so long as they respected us while doing it.

One example of this phenomenon from my own life that I have written about before is the way my relationship with my mother suffered when I decided to move to Kansas. I knew before I told her that she would not be too crazy about this idea, so I was ready for some resistance, but I figured she would remember that this was my decision to make and see reason. I thought that she eventually would come to terms with the fact that this is my life, that this is what I had worked the last four years to achieve, and that she had been preparing me my entire life to live on my own, so it was time to try. Her reaction to this information was much stronger than I had anticipated though, and as her emotions took over more and more she went from politely disagreeing with, to aggressively attacking, my decision to move out West. While I had prepared for her knee-jerk reaction and motherly anxiety after hearing my news, I had not prepared for the disrespect I felt by the way she responded to me. Since I was not ready for this verbal assault on my choice, I felt violated, put down, and like I was losing control over my life, and this caused me to become defensive and attack back. As a result of the disrespect I felt from this single, 10 minute argument, my mother and I spent the last few months of our time together barely speaking. This could have been avoided however, even though we were polar opposites on this decision (and still are to some degree), if we had merely maintained respect for the other’s feelings.

Scott Drotar Respect
My mother and I may not always see eye to eye, but we do try to always respect each others thoughts and feelings.

Whether you are pro-choice, own 30 assault rifles, want to build a “Great Wall of America” between the United States and Canada, or think aliens are going to beam down this Thursday to probe non-believers, you are free as a U.S.citizen to have whatever opinions you choose. You are free to have any crazy beliefs and feelings you want, with one condition. You can have your opinions so long as you do not infringe on the rights of others to have the same freedom. This most primal, deep seated right, that is at the core of our nation’s laws, is based upon the idea of respect. Our founding fathers realized how important this basic, human liberty is that they based our entire nation on it. If it was good enough for the father’s of our country, why is it then, that we now live in a society that is infested with disrespect everywhere you turn? We can debate that controversial quandary later (get it?), but whatever the reason, it is apparent that we as a society need a reminder of the critical role that respect plays in our lives. I hope that you will take some time today to think about whether you are respecting the people in your life as much as you should. I would imagine that everyone, myself included, will come up with at least one individual who they are not giving enough respect, and we should all make a conscious effort to change our ways, and if necessary, apologize for the disrespect we showed them in the past. This will go a long way in forging stronger relationships with the people in your life, as well as make our country as a whole a much better place.

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Suffering in Silence

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Scott Drotar Robin Williams
The tragic loss of Robin Williams brings to light the idea that just because someone seems happy on the surface, does not mean they are not in pain.

Like a lot of people, the recent suicide of Robin Williams came as quite a shock to me. You never expect someone to take their own life, but with someone like Williams who always seemed so happy and full of life, a tragedy like this is even harder to wrap your head around. This tragic loss brings to light the unfortunate truth that just because you cannot see someone’s pain – be it physical, mental, or emotional – does not mean they are not hurting. So many people, and I used to be one of them, hide their pain and suffer in silence. The fact that they don’t show how much they hurt does not make their agony any less real though, nor does it make the potential effects of their misery any less serious. In fact, the fact that they feel they must shoulder this burden alone can make this type of pain even more dangerous, which is something I unfortunately got to experience firsthand during my first few months living in Kansas.

After graduating from Notre Dame in May of 2009, I packed up my belongings and hit the road to move to Lawrence, Kansas, where I would be going to graduate school in the Fall. This meant starting a whole new life, as other than my brother who was living with me and also attending the University of Kansas, I knew no one within 600 miles. It was a lot of work getting my life organized, and it definitely was not the smoothest of transitions at times, but after a couple months or so I had pretty much gotten settled in to my new environment. I was doing well and enjoying my classes. The research I was doing with my advisor was going well, and it was something I was really interested in. I had met some cool, fun people and was starting to build a new social life. Everything was going better than I could have ever hoped, and life was good. At least, that is what it looked like on the surface and to everyone who knew me. In reality I was actually severely depressed and in a very dangerous place mentally and emotionally.

For anyone, moving away from everyone and everything you have ever known is a lot to deal with. The stress of finding an apartment, making new friends, starting a new job, and the countless other things you have to do is enough to knock anyone off their game. On top of all of these mental stressors that come with starting a life in a new place, I also had to set up all new doctors and nurses to keep me healthy and help me live my life. All of this mental pressure was just too much for me to handle, and my inability to deal with everything as well as I thought I should embarrassed me, so I kept it all to myself. I didn’t want to burden those around me with my mental issues, since I already needed so much help with everything physically. By bottling up my feelings however, they just grew stronger and more difficult to deal with, and they built up to the point that I was miserable all of the time. After several weeks of feeling this way, it was just too much to cope with and things started to bubble over.

My first apartment in Lawrence was actually on the University of Kansas campus, which meant that when the weather was nice I could walk to class. One morning I was going on the quarter mile journey to my first class of the day, and as I was making my way down the sidewalk I saw one of the campus shuttle buses heading towards me up the road in the opposite direction. This is nothing special in itself since there are tons of these shuttles for the students, but what was special was what went through my head as I watched the bus get closer and closer. I found myself thinking, “If I time it just right, I can drive my wheelchair off the curb, tip it over in front of the bus, and the driver won’t have time to stop before hitting me.” I was so depressed that I was actually planning ways to end my life, and once you get to the point that you are thinking about suicide, it is not long before you actually do it.

Scott Drotar Suffering in Silence
I’m so lucky to have a brother who loves me enough that he made me get help when I needed it most.

Thankfully, my suicidal thoughts scared me enough that I told my brother what had happened when I got home that evening. The maturity and caring with which he listened to me that night is something I will always remember. He loved me enough to make me get help. He looked at me and gently, yet forcefully, said, “Scott, whether you go in voluntarily or I push your wheelchair there myself, you are going to campus psychological services in the morning.” This was the last thing I wanted to do, as at this point in my life I thought counseling was a racket for the weak minded, but I knew I needed to do something, so I went. It took over a year of both private and group therapy, but I was eventually able to work through all of my issues, many of which I was not even aware of initially. I also never had another suicidal thought after that first session with my therapist. If not for my brother making me get help, and the amazing efforts of my counselors, there is a strong possibility that I would have ended my life, and this is something I will be forever grateful for.

Scott Drotar Duck
People are like ducks — calm on the surface, but going a mile a minute underneath.

This scary, unpleasant time in my life taught me a lot of valuable lessons, but one of the most important things I learned is that you never really know how someone is feeling. People are like ducks. On the surface we can appear to be serene and graceful, but under the surface we are going a mile a minute just to stay afloat. It is so important that you pay attention to your loved ones and look for signs that they may be suffering in silence. Even more importantly, it is critical to remember that your pain is nothing to be ashamed of, and that there are people in your life who care about you and will get you help. Take it from someone who who has learned to live in constant, chronic pain, your loved ones would much rather be there to comfort you through your anguish, than think everything is alright and end up losing you. If you or someone you know is hurting, please talk to someone and get help, because no one should suffer alone, and everyone deserves to be happy.

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Speak Their Language

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In order to be successful as a professional speaker and inspire your audience, you have to be able to speak the language of your listeners. I am not talking about the actual language they speak, although that too is important, but instead about the way your audience thinks and processes information. In order to get them to respond to your message, you have to act as a Rosetta Stone and translate the information you want to pass on from your way of thinking into a language your audience can understand. While this is crucial to being an effective speaker, it is equally as important in your everyday life. Every day you have conversations where you either want to teach or get someone to do something. In order to get them to respond favorably, you need to be able to speak their language. By being an effective translator of information, you can teach someone almost anything. I first realized how important this can be thanks to a random turn of events back during my junior year of high school.

Scott Drotar Rosetta Stone
You need to become a living Rosetta Stone and learn to speak other’s language in order to be a good communicator.

One evening when I was 17, while I was doing my homework my mom told me that I had a phone call. When I picked up the phone, I was greeted by a pleasant, happy woman named Joan. Over the next few minutes of conversation I learned that Joan was a retired art teacher and painter that had just moved to the area. She had read a recent newspaper article about my life and found me very inspirational. She wanted to offer to teach me to paint, at my home free of charge, if I was interested. She would supply all of the paint, brushes, and other supplies, and all I would have to do is show up. I am all for trying new things, and it is hard to pass up free, private art lessons from a professional art instructor, so I told her I would love to give it a try. She was very excited that I was interested, and we set up a time later that week to have our first lesson.

Now, what I had declined to tell Joan, and something she quickly found out once we got started, was that I don’t have a creative bone in my body. When it comes to logic, patterns, or numbers I am like Rain Man, but ask me to create a new picturesque scene or hum a new melody, and I am, like my dad would say, “as useful as tits on a boar.” This was readily apparent once Joan tried to teach me about color and such at our first lesson. She was very patient with me, but I am sure she had not expected my level of artistic ineptitude. Even though I was a little discouraged by my lack of creativity after our initial meeting, I had enjoyed painting. It had been very relaxing and was a nice contrast to the mental rigors of school. So I decided that I was going to give it another try next week before I gave up.

Scott Drotar Paint
Joan taught me to paint by putting things in a language I could understand, and in doing so opened up a whole, new world to me.

At our next lesson the following week, Joan took a different approach with me. She already knew that I was a math and science guy, and she told me that her husband, who is also a gifted painter, was the same way. She also shared with me that even though they both are talented artists, they go about painting in totally different ways. Joan was a more traditional artist that is “right brained” and paints by feeling and creativity, while her husband is “left brained” and paints using geometry, patterns, and formulas. She said that I needed to stop trying to be something I am not, and instead apply the talents and skills I do have to this new situation. Joan showed me how to measure the amount of each paint I use to mix new colors to create formulas for every tint and hue, how to use patterns to recreate a scene on canvas, and how to use spacial relationships to maintain a consistent perspective. Once I started thinking about painting in this way, I not only enjoyed it even more than I had before, but I found that I was actually pretty good at it. Over the next 18 months until I left for college, I worked with Joan once a week and painted about a dozen different pieces, all of which hang in the homes of my parents or I.

As amazing as Joan is as an artist, she is even more gifted as a teacher. She knew the importance of putting information into a language that your student can understand, and then took the time to get to know me and my way of thinking. She didn’t try to mold me into some new, uber-creative “artiste,” but instead molded the situation to fit my abilities. She translated what to her is an act of creativity and emotion, into an exercise in logic and numbers that I could understand, and in doing so opened up a whole new world to me that I am extremely grateful for. She introduced me to the joyful, cathartic experience of painting, which was so beneficial to me in maintaining my sanity during this chaotic time in my life filled with SATs, ACTs, and college applications. Even more importantly though, Joan showed me how you can teach someone anything, even a creatively challenged man to paint, if you can translate the information into a language they can relate to. This life lesson has been an invaluable tool on numerous occasions, ever since I first learned it that evening at my kitchen table.

Scott Drotar Translate
Through learning to paint, I was shown how important it can be to translate information into a different way of thinking.

Whether I am explaining to a new nurse how I want something done or trying to inspire an audience to live happier, more fulfilling lives, I always try to remember to be sure to speak the language of whoever I am speaking to. This ability to translate information from your way of thinking to that of whoever you are speaking with is one of the most important aspects of being an effective communicator. What “language” do you speak? Take some time today to really think about how you process information, what your internal dialogue is like, and what types of things make sense to you without much effort. Once you know your own way of thinking, you will be halfway to your goal of being a better communicator. Anytime you are communicating with someone try to be aware of how they see things, and speak their language. If you put in the time to develop this skill, and turn yourself into a living, breathing Rosetta Stone, you will improve your relationships, be more successful, and bring more happiness to your life and the lives of others.

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Book Review: “Start With No” by Jim Camp

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Scott Drotar Start With NoIt’s Thursday again, and you all know what that means…”Scott Drotar Literary Review” time! This week I am discussing a book I just finished. I picked it up after finishing Fisher and Ury’s trilogy on negotiation started by “Getting To Yes” (which I reviewed in a previous week). This week’s book is by Jim Camp, the negotiation guru of the day, “Start With No” .

“Start With No” is presented as a book written to show you all of the problems with the win-win, principled negotiating strategies in “Getting To Yes” and offers a new method of negotiation, the Camp System, as an improvement. After reading the book however, it is not so much a criticism of Ury’s win-win system (although Camp definitely takes his jabs), but rather an augmentation of it. I like to think of the Camp System as “win-win on steroids,” because it takes the ideas of principled negotiating and applies them from a more aggressive viewpoint that amplifies their power. Many of the rules he puts forth are also integral parts of win-win negotiating when you objectively break it all down. Regardless of your thoughts on which method is better, the information found in this tome of knowledge is all relevant and useful. It comes at the subject of negotiation from such a primal, aggressive place that makes the information interesting and easy to remember.

The author’s writing style is very informal, yet straightforward, which I really enjoyed and found refreshing within this subject matter. He uses numerous real world examples throughout the book that do a good job of illustrating the key concepts. I will say that it is very much written for a business audience, so some people may find that limiting. However, I am not a businessman, and I enjoyed it immensely. I don’t really have a strong negative to this one, which is why it is receiving a 5 out of 5 on the Roll Models Review Scale.

Roll Models 5 Chair Rating

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Mental Optometrist

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Scott Drotar Mental OptometristOne of the largest obstacles in communication, relationships, and creating empathy is perspective. This issue emerges from how our brains see the world and remember events. We all think we see things clearly, but in reality, all of us are wrong in that respect. All of us view things from our own unique set of experiences and beliefs, which in turn skews the way we see the world around us. This gets even more confusing when we try to communicate our “reality” to others, since now we are comparing two different “realities” both of which are different from the actual “reality”.

To help teach people to avoid this bias in perspective in my Roll Models workshops, I tell people to become a “mental optometrist”. Most of us are familiar with the process of going to the optometrist, looking through various sets of lenses, having the doctor say “is it clearer now, or now?” until the clearest picture is found. The doctor then gives us our prescription and off we go. We can apply this same practice to how we listen and communicate. When trying to empathically listen to someone, we need to take off our “mental lens” and put on theirs. By looking through the “lens” of their experiences, we can more clearly understand the thoughts and feelings behind what they are trying to communicate to us. Although at first the picture may be fuzzy, the more you do it, the clearer it will get, and the better your communication and relationship will be.

Scott Drotar 1I had to teach myself how to do this almost as soon as I learned how to talk. My experience, due to living life disabled and in a wheelchair, is quite different from most people in my life. This difference in experiences has made my perspective of the world unique from that of a “normal” person’s. When I was younger, I would get frustrated that I couldn’t explain things in a way that people could understand. Once I learned to look at things a little differently, more from their point of view, I found that communication became much easier.

Despite the difficulties that our various perspectives can create in effective communication, I see these differences as a blessing. Our own unique perspective is what makes up a huge part of who we are. If we all saw life through the same “lens,” people and life would be a lot less exciting. My “reality,” although it hasn’t always been easy, has taught me so much about life and molded me into the man I am today. It is also what has given me the knowledge and ability to help all of you through my Roll Models program, and I would not trade that for anything.

The next time you are having a real conversation with someone, give this a try. Stop looking at the situation through your “lens” and try on theirs for a while. It takes some practice and lots of patience, but you will be amazed at how much this can change the way we see things and how much easier communication becomes. As always, if you try this, leave me a comment to let me know how it goes.

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Hear Their Feelings

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Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.”  –Andre Gide

Listening is one of the most difficult skills to master and is also one that we receive almost no formal training in, a dangerous combination. Most disagreements could be resolved, or even completely avoided, if all of us took the time and effort to really listen to each other. Today I am not going to focus on how to listen (although I do offer talks, workshops, and coaching on the topic through my Roll Models program), and instead I am going to focus on what listening can create between people when done correctly, a stronger, more trusting conversational environment.

Due to my disability, I have a team of nurses that care for me. One of them is always by my side to help me with whatever I need (if you have seen me speak or attended my Roll Models workshops, they were “my lovely assistant”). These amazing individuals wear many hats throughout the day from nurse, to chef, to chauffeur, to mechanic, and they constantly go above and beyond to make my life better. Over time, they become more like family than nurses, and like most families, we share our lives with one another. It is through this process that I got lots of practice doing empathic listening. By developing this skill I built a social environment of complete trust and empathy. As a result, I have had nurses divulge events from their lives that most people would only tell their priest in the confessional. And I hope, that in giving them the feeling of safety, respect, and empathy, that they felt better after our conversations.

As a result of the conversational environment of respect we created, I said to a nurse one day after she had shared something very upsetting from her past, “I am so honored that you feel safe talking to me, but I’m not sure I’ll ever understand why.” Her response was so simple yet insightful, “When I talk to you, you hear my feelings, not just my words.” The mere fact that I listened to her without my perspective, judgment, or any plan to respond, but instead with the goal of understanding what was behind her words, was all that was needed. She didn’t need me to try to “fix it”, or even to respond at all. No, all she wanted was to actually be heard without judgment or putting my spin on it.

All to often we listen to each other and we are either thinking of what to say next, focusing on how we feel about what they are saying, or thinking about something else entirely. These types of listening often cause the real message that is being conveyed by the speaker to be misinterpreted or lost entirely, which leads to disagreements, misunderstandings, and distrust. Only by taking the time and effort to emphatically listen, without judgment, and seeing things from their perspective can we accurately receive their message. And by doing so, create a stronger relationship and conversational environment.

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