I was destroying my relationship with my best friend and co-founder

Until deeper dialogue saved it.

A father and son meet over lunch. The following 30 seconds of dialogue is a window into their complicated relationship:

Matt (son): You know, I think I mentioned to you I left the company I was with. And me and a couple other people started our own firm. It was scary and a big change, but things have settled and we’re doing really well.
Harold (father, talking over him): Maureen is talking to her old friend who works at The Times about getting someone to come up and review the show.”
Matt: A lot of our old clients came with us.
Harold (simultaneously): In recent years, I’ve essentially been ignored by the critics…
Matt (simultaneously): I think we’re a great alternative to some of the bigger firms.
Harold (ignoring him): And I think this might put me back on the map.
Matt: This is our logo.
Harold (nodding): $55 for a steak.

The majority of exchanges in film today are clean and polished. Often, characters are perfectly in tune with not just each other but their motivations. That’s what makes director Noah Baumbach’s ear for conversations so unique. This scene from The Meyerowitz Stories illustrates his ability to capture dialogue as it actually is.

The father and son are talking past each other. They are trying, but failing, to connect on a deeper level.

There’s something familiarly sad about their conversation. We’ve all experienced some aspect of this in our interactions with strangers, friends, even family.

Our perspectives can seem so different that there is no way to create common ground.

In his video essay called What Realistic Film Dialogue Sounds Like, Evan Puschak (Nerdwriter1), contrasts this with how a director like Aaron Sorkin writes dialogue — not as it is, but how “it could be.”

I’ve chosen this 30-second exchange from Sorkin’s screenplay of The Social Network. More than a story about the rise of a company, it is a story about the friendship of Facebook’s co-founders — Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin.

That conversation from their friendship’s early days demonstrates a point where the two co-founders are perfectly in tune. They are able to perfectly communicate each other’s perspectives, and understand each other’s motivations.

Mark: I need a dedicated Linux box running Apache with a mySQL backend. It’s gonna cost a little more money.
Eduardo: How much more?
Mark: Two-hundred more.
Eduardo: Do we need it?
Mark: Gotta handle the traffic.
Eduardo: Do it.
Mark: I already did.

They move through the decision so seamlessly that Mark has already executed the task before they’re even done talking. It’s a small segment of conversation about an incredibly simple decision, but it showcases their friendship and trust. They’re on the same page.

But eventually, Mark and Eduardo fall out, and Sorkin portrays this in their dialogue over time. As the film progresses, they quarrel, argue. They talk over each other, regressing from the level of how dialogue could be to Baumbach’s portrayal of how dialogue plays out in reality.

This film has been on my mind because of its relevance to my life. As their communication devolved, it reminded me more and more of my own conversations with my co-founder, Kevin.

A month ago, I was on the brink of destroying my relationship with my co-founder and best friend of 7 years.

As the film progresses, the connective exchanges that Mark and Eduardo share regress into ones more like the dialogue from The Meyerowitz Stories.

They are filled with miscues, mistiming, and miscommunication. And they stem from a failure to listen.

And I don’t mean just hearing the words that people say. Real listening is about actually absorbing the words behind them.

This is what my conversations with Kevin used to sound like.

Me: We’re moving too slowly. We need to take some time away from school.
Kevin: Things in New Haven are going really well.
Me: But they could be moving faster.
Kevin: I actually like school.
Me: If we don’t move faster, I don’t think we’re going to make it.
Kevin: My family would not be happy if I left.
Me: It seems like we only have one option…
Kevin: Stay in school?
Me: Drop out.

By showing you this closer look into our relationship, I want to point out three types of failure in listening. Progressing past each failure unlocks a deeper level of dialogue:

1) Hearing, but not listening

Our trains of thought are moving on parallel but separate tracks. We are hearing what the other is saying, but not actually responding to the core of each other’s ideas.

We just keep doubling down on making the same points.

2) Listening, but not absorbing

When Kevin told me that things are going well, I said that they could be going faster.

Kevin: Things in New Haven are going really well.
Me: But they could be moving faster.

I wasn’t stopping to absorb his point, but if I did, I would have realized that he was right. Things were going well, well enough that we didn’t need to emphasize rapid growth. We needed to take the time to figure out why things were working.

3) Absorbing, but not growing

The final layer of deeper dialogue isn’t apparent at all in our conversation.

Real listening ends in growth. Both parties should grow to a shared conclusion. Instead, we came to completely opposite conclusions.

Me: It seems like we only have one option…
Kevin: Stay in school?
Me: Drop out.

It’s like we weren’t even talking to each other.

What makes Sorkin’s dialogue so compelling is that his very best exchanges are like music. Conversations become duets where their participants are perfectly in tune.

There can be conflict. But eventually, there is a mutual understanding.

It took until almost the breaking point of our relationship to change how we communicated with each other. It took kicking and screaming. Frustration and anger.

But I think we’ve finally figured out how to have more measured, truthful conversations. Not just about hearing what, but getting to WHY. Understanding each other’s motivations and growing our perspectives as a result.

This is a more recent conversation around the same difficult question. Should we take time off from school?

But this time, it ends in a completely different way:

Me: We need to take time off school because we don’t have enough time.
Kev: I know we could move faster, but I don’t think I can.
Me: Why not?
Kev: It’s really complicated, and it’s not at all about disrespecting the work that you and Eric are doing. It’s about my family.
Me: Oh man. Is everything ok with your family?
Kev: For now, yes. But my dad isn’t in the greatest health. And he’s sacrificed everything for me.
Me: I know, man. I saw him at your high school graduation. He was crying. From joy.
Kev: Yeah, it meant the world to him. And I think seeing me graduate from college would be like that, but even more meaningful.
Me: So that means…
Kev: There’s only one option.
Both of us: We have to stay in school.

The differences are so apparent to me now in hindsight. We acknowledge the validity of each others’ points. We ask each other more questions. We are open and honest.

As a result, we’ve been able to come to an agreement about a crucial company direction.

You can’t see our body language from when we spoke. In our previous conversations, we would always angle our bodies away from each other. But in this exchange, our shoulders have lost their tension, and we are directly facing each other.

First, we listen. Then we stop to absorb. And finally, we grow our own perspectives into mutual understanding.

By listening to others, and keeping an open mind, we can come to appreciate each others’ perspectives. And by doing so, we grow.

We change.

I’m trying to de-stigamtize mental health. Chief Gathering Officer @ gathr, a magical.app

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