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Tommaso Pavone: The power of the lifechat

BY TOMMASO PAVONE

Published July 23, 2010

One day last September, I found myself in my supervisor’s office for my first one-on-one meeting. You might refer to this as a performance review, a career development discussion, an employee appraisal or any number of politically correct but otherwise terrifying nomenclatures. But this was no ordinary job, and my supervisor was no ordinary boss.

He smiled and said, “Tom, tell me about your life.”

I was a first-year resident advisor in Stockwell Hall, and before me sat Jeff Kenney, then my Hall Director and supervisor. I cannot remember what I answered specifically, but I am sure it took a few seconds to blurt out anything that moved beyond the superficial “my life is good.” Welcome to the “lifechat,” Kenney-style.

A lifechat is, like most good ideas, a simple one: a dialogue about your life. All that’s required is attention, curiosity and honesty. A lifechat is organic, meaning that there’s no pre-determined pathway or end goal for the dialogue. It’s not a tool to extract information and it cannot be forced. It’s not a debate, nor is it a discussion — it’s a friendly, open dialogue spurred by the topics that are most salient to the participants at the time. In an ideal world, a lifechat does not have time constraints, but I’ve had plenty of memorable lifechats in under an hour. And, most of all, a lifechat is personal, not academic.

It turns out that I wasn’t used to someone asking me to talk about what was on my mind in an open-ended and organic way. True, every day we are greeted with the occasional “how are you,” but never are we expected to retort with more than a monosyllabic word. As George Carlin once mused, if you chose to reply with the slightly more complicated “I’m not unwell, thank you,” it’s unlikely to go over positively. Long story short, in the busy, stop-and-go sprint that is our daily routine, we often pass on asking each other how we’re doing. And if the question is asked, it’s likely a polite automatism rather than a legitimate inquiry.

Once I recognized that Jeff hadn’t set any parameters regarding what I should discuss, I experienced the relief in being able to talk about anything you feel like. It was like taking the lid off of a pressure-cooker. And as I digressed, vented and philosophized, Jeff listened patiently — attentive but not overwhelmingly so, nodding his head — smiling occasionally, responding when necessary. And, just like that, an hour or two had passed by.

I exported the lifechat model outside of my one-on-ones with Jeff and realized that almost everyone wants to talk about their life — they just rarely have the opportunity to do so. And because the prompt “tell me about your life” is so open-ended and lacking in agenda, I found that people were much more passionate and honest in their responses. Needless to say, the lifechat has allowed me to strengthen my relationships with so many of my friends and fellow Wolverines, and I was captivated by how inspiring their stories were.

Today, dozens of my friends have added “lifechat” to their vocabulary, for as students of the University we are all subjected to stresses and stimuli and could all use a friendly dialogue once in a while. I therefore urge you to consider lifechatting more often — or to try it for the first time. You might be amazed, as I have been, by how such a simple and often overlooked act can build friendships and a sense of community.

On Wednesday I had the pleasure of grabbing dinner with Jeff, who was back in town for a brief visit after having moved to South Carolina several months ago to work and study at Clemson University. It was only a matter of time before Jeff uttered the words “tell me about your life,” and before I reciprocated accordingly. Before I knew it, two hours had breezed by, and it was time to say our goodbyes.

And that may very well be the only shortfall of the lifechat: at some point, it’s got to end.

Tommaso Pavone can be reached at tpavone@umich.edu.


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