Subtleties (again)

Posted by Doc
Jan 07 2010

While working out this morning, I got to watching other folks at the gym. It’s a fascinating exercise (watching, that is), as there are all sorts of variations on form and the exercises people do.

Here’s the thing…

Let’s consider biceps curls. It’s a simple enough exercise that lots of people do. Whether with a barbell or dumbbells, the form should be pretty much the same. And yet…

Watching one woman, she pulls her elbows back just before she lifts the barbell to her chest. Watching another fellow, he hunches up his shoulders just before lifting. Another person leans back a bit.

The thing about these subtle movements is that they change the exercise. Changing the exercise changes the value that you get from the exercise.

Obviously, most of these people are either unaware of what they’re doing – those subtle movements – or are unaware of how those movements change the exercise.

So let’s consider someone who, as they are saying something to me, tilts their head to the side. I don’t know about you, but that body language usually means “questioning” to me.

How about someone who doesn’t look me in the eye? Or someone who says things like “really” or “I mean it” or “honestly” a lot. Like Simon Cowell on American Idol who frequently says “If I’m being honest…” What? You’re not being honest the rest of the time?

There is so much communicated in those subtleties.

As I said this summer, each of us is responsible for considering what we say and what we do and how it affects or is interpreted by others. Each of us must be conscious of how we change the value of what we say or do by the little things, like pulling back our elbows before the lift.

I was having a conversation with my friend Sunni Brown the other day, and the topic of subtleties came up. I made the contention that mastery of any skill is made through the subtleties.

As I reflect on that, I’m reminded of something my former karate instructor, Jim Mather, used to say… “I can teach a chimpanzee to do kata [forms], but I can’t teach one to do them well!” Having taught many karate students myself, I became aware fairly early on that mastery of the large movements was easy, but mastery of the subtleties was not.

When I was taking a Chinese calligraphy class, I realized that I needed to watch the teacher’s fingers, where they held the brush, at least as much as I needed to watch the brush itself and the strokes she was making. At one point, I realized that she was unaware of many subtle movements she made as she wrote, and that those subtle movements made all the difference between average and masterful. And she did them largely unconsciously. As a result, she wasn’t actively teaching us those things – it was up to us, as her students, to be perceptive enough to learn those things.

The thing is, you can’t expect people in conversation, meetings, training, or life in general to be adept or perceptive enough to discover what you want them to discover – it’s up to you to make it clear to them. You can’t think or say “they should have known what I meant!” because that abrogates your responsibility to communicate effectively, and pushes that responsibility to the other person.

Be subtle by intent. Be clear and obvious the rest of the time.

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