How Are You Special?

On the PBS show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, host Fred Rogers regularly looked into the camera and spoke directly to the viewer. “You are special,” he would affirm.

This was a powerful message to the audience of children, who were most likely not used to hearing such a thing from an adult, particularly one on television.

The underlying idea, that each individual is special and important, is also useful for adults. Too often, it is easy to be a cog in a machine at work, or overwhelmed as a spouse or as a parent at home. Sometimes, we need a simple reminder of our own specialness.

Give it some thought. What can you do better than anything else? What sets you apart from those around you? In what ways are you important? How are you special?

Related questions: Why do we care what strangers think of us? Why do we feel the need to belong? What makes you you? How can we build confidence? Why is love important?

What Do You Get Out Of Social Media?

The Internet plays an important role in our everyday lives. We use it for work, for pleasure, for communication, and for collaboration. Dominating the Internet are social media giants that facilitate building online communities, like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you are reading these words, chances are pretty good that you use at least one such website or app.

A lot of research goes in to designing the various social media platforms to encourage their use. As a result, we spend hours and hours scrolling though shared posts, tweets, pictures, and videos.

The negative aspects of these platforms can vary from obvious to obscure. Time spent using them is time not spent doing other things, which in theory could be more productive: reading, interacting directly with friends and neighbors, taking classes, engaging in a hobby. Interaction with short bits of information fractures our attention span and makes it harder to concentrate. Leaked personal information has been used to manipulate individuals without their knowledge or consent.

Social media can contribute positively as well. We use it to get a job, make romantic connections, keep up with friends or family that live far away, and to build communities that share specialized interests.

Evaluating these pros and cons is important for everyone to do. What are some of the other advantages and drawbacks of social media? Do the pros outweigh the cons?

It is easy to see why social media companies exist. People love to interact with each other, and the digital world is another place for that interaction. A successful social media app or platform can be very popular, lucrative, and influential. The companies want your attention, and once they have it they can use that collective attention for their own goals or purposes, like selling goods and services.

But what benefits do individuals get from using them? What do you get out of social media?

Related questions: How does your vocabulary influence how you think? Why do we feel the need to belong? How do you know who to trust? What makes a community? What is social media?

How Do You Think Others See You?

When I turned 30, I asked my friends to provide a one word description of my best feature or my most prominent characteristic. I was curious about what they appreciated about my personality and the way I acted. While I considered myself fairly self-aware, I wanted to know if my friends saw me the same way I saw myself.

Before I started to get responses, I expected that the answers would fall into two or three broad categories. In my own mind, I was smart, I was funny, and I was friendly.

Once the answers started to roll in, however, I was surprised. In all, I asked maybe 30 people, and I got 30 different answers. While I didn’t expect that every response would be different, the thing that really astonished me was the wide variety of answers. Loyalty, eyes, conversation, creativity, honesty, goofiness. They did not easily fit into the categories I envisioned.

Different people value different things. It took me 30 years to learn this lesson, but it was a major step in expanding my empathy skills. Now I regularly try to view how other people might see the world, including how I fit into it.

I also learned something else from this exercise: every relationship I have is unique. While I might be a constant to my relationships, each person I interact with brings their own personality, their own experiences, their own vantage point to our mutual association.

Which brings me to this week’s question: How do you think others see you? How would you like them to see you? What can you do to change how others see you? Are you externally self-aware?

Related questions: What are our responsibilities to others? What do we have in common? What makes you you? How do you judge yourself?

How Can We Become Better Listeners?

Listening to others is hard. If someone else says something you don’t agree with, the overwhelming impulse is not to listen, but to explain why you disagree.

But that impulse is not always correct. Often, you have to hear why someone believes something before you can try and change their mind. And that means it is important to listen to what they have to say, no matter how wrong-headed or incorrect you might think they are.

As a society, we are currently divided into two (or more) isolated camps. I often hear that we don’t talk to each other, but I think the problem is really that we don’t listen to each other.

Beyond our political or social climate, studies in management show that to make an effective team, the members of that team need to feel that they are heard. To get team investment in a particular strategy or course of action, all team members need to feel they have a stake in setting that course.

Even when arguing with a spouse or a romantic partner, it’s possible to hear the words, but to miss the underlying message that is causing the disagreement.

In each of these cases, listening to others is important. And yet it is a difficult skill to learn, to really listen to what others have to say. It seems like it should be easy to do — after all, we all know how much we want to be heard ourselves, so why do we find it so hard to allow others to feel like they are heard?

I think that maybe it is because we feel no one listens to us that makes us bad listeners. If I feel that the person I am talking to isn’t listening to me, then my effort is on making them hear me, not on hearing them.

So how can we break this cycle? How can we listen to someone else, and let them know that what they have to say is heard, so that they in turn can be willing to hear what we have to say? What are the tools that allow us to do that? How can we sort through the extraneous information, like insults or unnecessary detail, to really hear what is at the core of another’s message?

How can we become better listeners?

Related questions: What are our responsibilities to others? What is necessary to change your mind? What do we have in common? How can we encourage debate?