‘Difficult Conversations Can Deepen Bonds’ by Harry Chang – September 2020

Harry Chang


Harry is currently a Realtor with Compass in Palo Alto, California, and loves what he does, especially since he works with his best friend, Charlene – who also happens to be his spouse and life partner. Prior to real estate, Harry had a fruitful career in finance, consulting, private equity investments, and corporate management. He left his last role as an Executive Vice President of Li & Fung in 2015, because he had promised Charlene he would leave his globe-trotting job when his younger child left for college, and he kept his promise.

Harry has been in the Bay Area since 1988, when he transplanted from New York to attend Stanford Business School. The sunny climate, the great outdoors, and the diversity of people and cultures served as strong draws to keep him here, and he hasn’t looked back since. In addition to work, Harry volunteers his time with various organizations, including serving as Chair of the San Francisco Lodge of FF Fraternity, the oldest Chinese fraternity in the US, and interviewing for Yale College and Phillips Academy. Harry is a former Director of Yale’s alumni interviewers for the Peninsula region and was a founding Board member of the Association of Asian American Yale Alumni.

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Most of us have more than a few good friends. We enjoy each other’s company, having nice meals together, playing games, and oftentimes having thoughtful discussions. Sometimes we help a friend through a difficult time – parenting problems, issues with a spouse, or an illness. During these rough patches, friendships can grow deeper as we offer comfort, love, and support to our friends in need. There are other times when our relationships may hit some turbulence and we avoid talking about the cause of the rough air. My proposition in this posting to Billy’s friendship website is that rather than avoiding the bumps, making the choice of engaging in difficult conversations can deepen the bonds of a friendship or other relationship that may be meaningful to you.

I would like to share two personal examples:

A long time ago when I was a second-year business school student, I was in a class that included a time-consuming group project, and everyone in the group received the same grade on the project regardless of individual effort. One of my very good friends was a member of this project group and he usually came unprepared to our meetings and hardly did any work. One of my core values is to be fair and considerate to others, so I felt strongly that my friend was being extremely inconsiderate of his fellow group members. This feeling steamed inside me throughout the quarter, yet I didn’t do anything about it. Finally, at one of our evening meetings, I called out my friend for his lack of preparation. I tried to talk in an objective manner and voiced my feelings, rather than attack my friend, but it still was a very strained discussion. To my friend’s credit, he pulled me aside after the meeting to talk further and we ended up talking for a few hours until well after midnight. It was definitely not an easy discussion – we were NOT shooting the breeze – but we ended our talk with a tight hug and not only did we remain friends, our friendship got stronger as a result of this difficult conversation.

My second story is both work-related and personal. My boss (who also was and is a good friend) and I had to endure a very challenging stretch at work, commuting weekly from the Bay Area to New York for a few months, as we were trying to save a company from bankruptcy. During this time, we were eating breakfast, lunch and dinner in the office, oftentimes returning to our apartment in the early morning hours. Adrenaline was high, as was stress, and morale was very low. Towards the end of this difficult assignment, I wasn’t feeling great about my relationship with my boss, because he wasn’t communicating like he normally did, he was curt during our discussions, and he just seemed angry with me. Under the circumstances, I didn’t blame him at all, but because the tension between us was bothering me, I finally broached the topic over a late dinner. I tiptoed into the discussion, because this was definitely a sensitive situation, but I was clear in my intention and I voiced how I felt. My boss didn’t hold back and laid out exactly why he was upset with me; the tension between us was definitely real, not imagined. For what seemed like a long time, we talked about our respective feelings and our own perspective on the situation. At first, the tension was as thick as the spicy curry sitting on the table, but in the end the air was clearer and the haze had lifted. We understood each other and we respected each other’s perspective. Instead of letting this tension simmer and fester, and hurt our relationship, we talked through this difficult and sensitive issue. The result was a stronger, not weaker, bond.

I’ve had a few other tough discussions, not just the ones above. I like to share a few lessons learned from my experiences with difficult conversations:

Confront difficult situations, don’t avoid them. For many of us, the easy thing to do is nothing, but avoidance doesn’t resolve differences and, more often than not, simply makes the situation worse. Whatever bad feelings there are will fester and, without meaningful dialogue, both parties just think the worse of the other. Inaction causes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because our negative thoughts fill the communications vacuum.

Difficult conversations don’t need to be confrontational. Take your emotions out of the equation and conversation, understand the other person may have a different perspective, and respect that other perspective. A lot of times when we go into these tough discussions, we go into attack mode, thinking we’re right and the other person is wrong. This mindset will just make matters worse, so don’t do it.

It’s okay to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Share your thoughts, your perspective and, especially, your feelings. Instead of labeling or judging the other person’s actions, talk about the impact of those actions on you. There’s no right and wrong, or good and bad, about how you feel, but when you say something like, “What you did yesterday was bad,” you immediately put the other person on the defensive.

Focus on a mutual understanding of the issue, and move the conversation towards a resolution that meets both persons’ needs. Remember that your goal isn’t to simply “get the issue off your chest,” but to work together with the other party to reach a meaningful (it doesn’t necessarily have to be amicable) resolution.

From my personal experience, when I’ve engaged in difficult conversations with friends, our bonds got stronger and the relationships became more meaningful. On the work front, difficult conversations have resulted in mutual respect and understanding, and a tighter team mentality. So when you’re confronted with a tough situation, think twice before you turn your back on it. Dealing with controversy and sensitive situations proactively and with purpose will strengthen your relationships, both personally and work-wise.

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“Friendship, Empathy & Vision” by Richard M. Liu -Sept. 2020

Richard Liu with wife, Betty Wei
and daughters Katherine & Phebe

Richard M Liu is an American and resident Hong Kong:

  • A graduate of Browne & Nichols Country Day School, Cambridge, and Harvard College, 1952;
  • Married to Betty Wei, a graduate of Chapin School, Bryn Mawr College, 1953, NYU, and  HKU, PhD; a columnist, research historian, and authors of 4 books;
  • Two daughters; and four granddaughters;
  • A practitioner of banking and finance for more than five decades (now retired); involving eleven sovereign economies in North & South America, the Arabian Gulf, and Asia.

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Foreword:

When asked by my best friend to write on this subject, I wanted to do it out of friendship. And I think I know, out of a sense of empathy, his reason for the request. This is what friendship and empathy are all about.

I had no idea, however, until I started to write, just how difficult it is to make sense of these words. It has taken several weeks of introspection, researching, learning, and reminiscing before I feel comfortable enough to tackle this subject.

What Is Friendship?

What is it? How does it come about between two people? Is it our DNA? That endows us humans with a brain to think; a heart to feel; an ability to verbalize our thoughts and emotions; and the instinct to want to be connected with others of our kind? I would like to think so.

Given this instinct and the ability to communicate, is it not natural that one would want a relationship with others one likes? Some relationship will wither due to indifference. However, some will grow from mutual likeness and interaction into friendship, and from friendship into love.

Friendship gives two people unknowing opportunities to learn from each other and the desire to want to help the other in many different ways. The sense of loneliness in the current lockdown we are experiencing — now that we are compelled to observe self-isolation at home and social distancing and mask wearing outside — makes me realize just how much we need friends. Is this the power of friendship?

It takes a mutual sense of empathy, nevertheless, to make us aware whom we miss. So it is empathy between two people, which sustains a friendship.  

What Is Empathy?

This is the innate ability in human beings to understand another person one cares about and wants to share the feelings of that person. Empathy can be described as cognitive, emotional, and/or compassionate. I have observed as a lover of music that musicians and lovers of music seem to share a stronger sense of empathy. Although not everyone has empathy and it does not necessarily follow that a person would possess all three types of empathy. Can it be learned? I would like to think so.

Cognitive empathy is the ability to put oneself in the place of another person, to see and feel what that person sees and feels. This is a skill some has; and it can be seen in those who succeed in sales and in negotiation. However, there is a dark side to this personality as well. According to professionals in psychiatry, narcissistic, sociopath, or the bad aspects of Machiavellianism would be examples. Such a person can be talented but devoid of sympathy for the suffering of others.

Emotional empathy exists when one feels physically for another person [as if emotion is contagious] and wants to be attached to that person. A strong sense of emotional empathy is what leads to and binds a friendship.

Compassionate empathy exists when one understands the predicament of another, feels for that person, and wanting to lend a helping hand.

What Is Vision?

Subjective and futuristic, it is influenced by the experience of a person. For this reason, I propose to write about my own life experience as an example before writing on the subject of vision.

Life Experiences:

1930 was the year of my birth. The tumultuous events in that decade and the one that follows — the Great Depression in America, which started in 1929; the Second Sino-Japanese War in Asia (1937-1945); the Rise of Nazism in Germany that led to World War II (1939-1945); and Japan’s attack and occupation of Hong Kong (1941-1945) – had huge impacts on the formative years of my life; and, I think, shaped the person that I have become. 

Now that I have reached my 90th year on earth, and having crossed the threshold of wisdom as well, I should know at least the difference between a wise guy and a wise man. I would recognize a wise guy by his behavior, which is inevitably “me first”, but a wise man I am doubtful.

My own life began in comfort with no want only to become one of deprivation and hardship. I emerge from those experience possessing courage, a will, and a determination to survive, and probably with the strengths to walk a straight and righteous path, literally and figuratively. Some may consider that stubborn or arrogant, but I also learned humility, kindness and forgiveness that were taught to me.

 Born to Cantonese parents in Shanghai and as a 3rd generation American of Chinese descent was unusual in itself. The circumstances — on reaching the end of my first month of life — when I was taken by my parents, together with a brother two years my senior, on a P&O ship to Hong Kong (so I am told); to stay over at the Peninsula Hotel before being carried in my mother’s arm, who walked across the street in front of the hotel to board a coal-burning, steam locomotive train to home, which was Canton (renamed Guangzhou since then) was not an ordinary event either. 

The family would take us children and our amahs to spend a few weeks in the summer at the Repulse Bay Hotel (to get away from the heat and humidity of Guangzhou). Then the family relocated to Hong Kong, on account of civil disturbance in Guangzhou, which was the beginning of the Communist movement. We were living in Stanley and attending St. Stephen’s Grammar School until I was 11.

As Dux of our respective class, my brother and I were treated to two movies of our choice. There were only two movie theatres then — the King’s and the Queen’s theatres, on opposite side of Queen’s Road Central; one showing in Technicolor Northwest Passage starring Spencer Tracy and Gig Young, the other also in Technicolor, Northwest Mounted Police starring Garry Cooper. In between the movies, we had supper of pork chop, “jit gua” (a melon) and rice at Jimmy’s Kitchen. We took the bus (instead of being driven in the family car, Sunday being the day-off for the driver; and car-owner did not drive in those days). We woke up the next morning to Japan’s invasion of Hong Kong, (Japan did not declare war on Great Britain at all). That was Christmas Day 194l.

By then I had learned humility and kindness from “Leung Lo Si”; and forgiveness from Mrs. Martin, whose husband was Headmaster of St. Stephen’s. In my recollection, Leung Lo Si ordered me one day as the class was ending to “sit on the wall”, a punishment for misbehaving. Tears of outrage were rolling down my cheeks. After the class room was empty out, she said to me in Cantonese to the effect that “you are not being punished; but I hope this experience will help you to remember what it feels like to be punished and that not everyone learns as fast as you. Learn humility and kindness and help others less able than you.”

In the Japan-occupied-Colony, everyone was subject to body search, which can be described as a lascivious and intentionally-insulting act. Like everyone else, I endured

In silence while I think of Mrs. Martin and Leung Lo Si.

30 years later, when I returned to Hong Kong, in 1972, I re-revisited my old school and stumbled across the grave of Mrs. Martin on a mount in school grounds. I went back to the village and returned with flowers. I placed the flowers beneath the cross that marked her grave and said a prayer in homage to a kind lady, who learned Cantonese so that she could teach us. That was a poignant moment for me to feel good about myself as an adult and an intellectually-committed follower of Christ.

Forgiveness was etched in my mind. When I had high tea in the afternoon, especially at the Peninsular Hotel, I would think of her for teaching me good manners, including how to hold the saucer so that the tea cup would not rattle. Good manners meant standing up in the classroom when the teacher came in and went out of the classroom. It also meant to defer to the lady to enter a room first; to walk on the curb side of a street when escorting a lady; and to greet a lady standing up.

Back to Japanese-occupied Hong Kong: foreigners were interned but Chinese were encouraged to leave (on account of food and water shortages). My parents took the four of us to interior free China together with two very young nieces (who were left in the care of my parents when their mother did not survive surgery and their father was in America). For the next few years, life was a hardship; but for my brother and me, an adventure. We learned skills that we would not have otherwise. 

The ocean voyage on a flat bottom boat from Hong Kong to the French possession [which was subsequently renamed “Zhan Jiang”], the ship that departed Hong Kong in late afternoon had to lay over at Macau the next morning for fuel. Four of us — Dad, a friend of his, my brother and I — went ashore in  drizzling rain to purchase three boxes of “Char Siu Bao”. My brother and I were each holding a box underneath our poncho, when the box held by Dad, who was talking with his friend about the calligraphy on that box, when a man came from nowhere to grab it. Dad reacted quick enough to have tripped him up; but the man was already eating the paper box and the Bao inside lying on the wet ground. Other onlookers would grab a Bao that was spilled on the ground and ran. This scary scene of hunger was etched into my mind ever since. And I was to experience it later when we had to survive on one meal a day of rice and salted black beans.

 At Zhan Jiang, coolies were hired to carry our belongings and the sedans for us to sit. My brother and I ended up sharing one chair and taking turn to sit or walk. But both of us opted to walk and learn quickly enough the meaning of false pride. Today, I walk with a cane to keep my balance, and thought of that experience whenever my legs sent out the same aching signals. To this day, I wonder whether it was a case of feeling pity, on seeing the red and swollen shoulders of the coolies, or feeling the unfairness of it all.

On reaching the destination, we would ride on the back of a truck to Liuzhou, which was to be our home for the next two and half years.

Those trucks ran on kerosene. Riding a truck on unpaved dirt road with deep pot holes was an Experience, which I would not want to repeat. When the truck reached the foot of a hill, two “driver assistants”, who sat on either side of the driver, would get out of the cabin to crank up the air intake into the two charcoal burners, mounted on both sides of the vehicle. The truck would lurch forward a few feet. The helpers would put two triangular blocks of wood behind the rear wheels of the under-powered and over-laden truck to keep it from rolling backward; then start the cranking processing all over again. When the truck managed to reach the top of the hill, it would careen down the dirt road, which had no guard rail; as the driver would not use the brakes at all! We would see on the way down in the valley below over-turned trucks. We were told the reason: the kerosene left over at the end of a journey would be sold and the drivers would the cash for themselves. In retrospect, I think God was really looking after us.

Life in Liuzhou was comfortable: although we were living in a house built with inter-woven slats of bamboo with wet mud slapped on them as walls and dried grass as roof, we were going back to a co-educational school again (founded by Cantonese refugees just like us out of expediency). I recall there were friends (of the family) whose fathers were Flying Tiger Pilots, and whose families happened to be there at the same time — the Ou-Yeung brothers and the Ding brother/sister, similar in age to my brother and me.  Told to look after them, we would join in fist fights to defend them when the locals were out to beat up the “foreigners”. After a few days of coming home in torn clothes, Mom asked if she shouldn’t intervene. We would say no because we were gaining in numbers and winning! I think that was when we really found our sense of fair play. We taught the two boys swimming; and felt good to have them as friends, when they managed to swim back to shore from the capsized ferry in mid-river during a flood.

We experienced fear in our air shelter at home, on seeing a “bomb” dropping virtually on top of us. It splashed gasoline all over us. It turned out the “bomb” was the spare fuel tank of a Flying Tiger. Apparently the P-40 fighter plane needed the spare tank of fuel to fly from Chungking, the war-time capital of China, to engage the Japanese zero invaders in aerial combat. The plane would jettison the spare tank before a dog fight. Many planes would not have sufficient fuel to make it back to Chungking afterwards.

Dad had made known the fact and posted money for anyone who brought to him a downed Flying Tiger Pilot; doubling the money for the wounded; and four times the amount for a stretcher case. When a pilot was fit enough to travel, Dad would pay for a guide and two soldiers to escort him through Japanese occupied line to free China to the west of us. Unbeknown to me then, Dad would ask the Pilot to take the same consecutively numbered hand written message to the Vice Consul of the American Consulate at Kunming, who was also his friend and a fellow returnee from studying in America. Back came the message some how informing Dad to find his way from where we were to “Gwai-Yeung”, the capital city “Gwai-chou Province”, and to ask any US military installation to contact the US Consulate at Kunming, a car could be dispatched to fetch us. So destination “Gwaiyeung” it was, by asking for and following verbal directions without a map! To fund the next leg of that journey, we would sell off our belongings to raise cash. I remember how gleeful I was when my favorite things fetched more money than I expected. I no longer have any more sense of possessiveness ever since. I also learned the value of fiat money on arriving Kunming, when a small tangerine would cost four square blocks of money, tied together with strings! 

US passports were re-issued for the six of us as a family [having left the very young two nieces who were not US citizens in the care of Mom’s sister and her family at Kweilin at the time] in order to fly out of China, over the hump, to Calcutta, India; where we stayed at China Inn as guests of Uncle W.J. Wen, (Dad’s close friend and a fellow Mason), who happened to be the General Manager of the Bank of Communication; waiting there for the approximate scheduled arrival of the Swedish Ship, before taking the train, traversing the sub-content, that pulled along side the Port of Bombay (since renamed Mumbai) for us and other passengers, as it transpired, to board the Swedish Ship S.S. Gripsholms on a voyage of uncertain outcome in war time — from the Indian Ocean to and through the Suez Canal into the Atlantic Ocean, infested then with German submarines, to be able to sail past the Statute of Liberty with all passengers on deck to watch in silence and in awe, as the voyage of altogether 35 days came to an end.

It was at Boston (where Uncle Jim and Uncle John were owners/operators of Chinese restaurants at the time) that my arduous process began to learn English and to be, in Dad’s words, “a first-class American.”

The experience of having survived war-torn China made me feel very mature in comparison to my American peers at Browne and Nichols country day school, even though I could not speak, read and writes a word of English then. I was puzzled and confused by classmates who would call me Dick one day, Charlie next, then Fu Man Chu yet on another day, until I learned that there were movies about Charlie Chan the Chinese Detective and Fu Man Chu, the wise man; and that my American classmates loved to jest. I started to kid back only to learn about the “F word” from a classmate, who punched me hard on my shoulder (when we were waiting for the train in the subway) and whispered in my ear “not so loud in public, Charlie, that is a bad word”. (My school has since merged with Buckingham, a girl school, to become Buckingham, Brown & Nichols, or BB&N, the leading secondary day school in Metropolitan Boston).

Three years later, I was admitted to Harvard with due credit to my Mom and my English teacher. Mom accompanied me to the interview, and said to the interviewer, in perfect English, to the effect that “my boy is a good son, who went through hard times in war-torn China; kind, considerate, and a good Christian who never broke any rule; I shall feel safe knowing that he is in your good hands, to bring our younger children back to Hong Kong to rejoin my husband.” And the reference letter of Mr. William B. Thomas read in part — “selfdom, if ever, does he make the same mistake twice”. So I spent the next self-discovery four years and graduated as a member of the Class of 1952; just in time to be drafted into the Army that September for two years of military service in South Korea.   

The military is the most effective leveling process of men, whether well-to-do or under-privileged, the learned or the under-educated, into a common denominator – soldiers serving a higher purpose than just ourselves. When I realized my black brothers-in-arms did not know why they were drafted into the army or that there was a war in Korea, everyone learned to take apart and assemble a M1 Garand rifle in the dark and within the prescribed time. I earned the title of “Professor” and the incredulity of the training sergeant. I also learned a lesson on leadership, but more importantly, a love and respect for fellow men.

I found my value system, which was grounded in my up-brining, articulated at prep school, strengthened at college, and given full expression in military services is what equipped me very well in my journey through life.

Value System:

Our recorded history is a continuum of examples of how human beings learned from each other and helped each others that led to the discoveries that give us today a cumulative body of knowledge: starting with things physical from the discovery of Iron as far back as 2,500 BC (when a dagger was found among the artifacts that gave us the clue) to the discovery of paper and paper-making in 100 BC; gun powder in the 9th century; the locomotive and train in 1802; the Bessemer process in 1856, which refined pig iron into steel, and which made mass production feasible; electricity in 1879; the power plant in 1882; the automobile in 1885; to telephone, computer and internet of today.

I have seen fortune made and gone with the wind, so to speak. Such was the case with Dad, a builder who did not stop; who accepted failure [through no fault of his] without rancor, resentment or bitterness, and remained kind and optimistic with abiding faith in his progeny and in the future. He showed me that money is no guarantee for life. It is an individual’s resilience to respond to and accept changes that matters.

Regardless of what wealth you inherited or accumulated, it is what you will do with it; and not what money will do to you, that make the ultimate difference.

Those of us who live in America would know the reference to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Constitution, but not many would remember that freedom requires responsibility to stop the exercise of freedom from becoming chaos.

Vision

Mine is about life — that all of us have an obligation to leave the world passed down to us to the generations to follow us; in a more humane and cleaner fashion (in the environmental sense of the word); in which peoples everywhere will have equal access to opportunity to improve themselves and their livelihoods; and to learn from each other.  Because of this phenomenon, inequality will give rise to greater equality; the huge disparity in wealth will be reduced and minimized over time; the line between the have and the have not will be erased; and capital will be deployed to benefit not just the few, but the many; that such an experiment with democracy will create eventually greater prosperity for everyone.


Concluding Remarks:

     This paper is a summation of one man’s experiences in life. It is meant to illustrate a not so obvious truth: that learning does not stop at commencement, but only begins or commences (in the true meaning of the word) as a life-long process. This is what gives us the knowledge and the technology to achieve the articulated vision.

What seems to be lacking is the political will and the responsibility, which only we have, as peoples enjoying the benefits of democracy — to hold our elected officials accountable, especially now, when the institutions of democratic governance is under attack internally as well as externally.

Perhaps the hardest lesson we have yet to learn is that war achieves nothing but destruction of life and human achievements.

Allow me then, to end this paper by recalling the sense of unity and joy I experienced singing in close harmony as a member of the Glee Club and of the University Choir —“Donna nobis pacem, per omnia seecula seeculorum”; “Grand us peace, world without end.”

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Billy’s Comments:  Those who are interested in Investments should read Richard’s Visions on Investing in Hong Kong today. See below:

HONG KONG IN A POST PANDEMIC WORLD

August 9, 2020

By Richard M. Liu <richardmliu@netivator.com>

Foreword

If Hong Kong were to regain in the post pandemic world her footings as a trade entrepôt, an international transportation hub, and a global financial center, one must find solutions to livelihood issues, specifically: [1] how to enhance self-sufficiency in foods and water through the use of technology in Hong Kong and external to the SAR? [2] How to diversify sources of supplies to reduce virtually sole reliance on imports from China? [3] How to keep her markets as self-sufficient and as price-competitive as possible? [4] How to address the energy requirement to include development of green solutions? And [5] how to solve the lack of affordable housing? 

Ideas, Concepts, and Solutions

Turning around an economy currently in free fall will require a private initiative to finance the resumption of cross-border trade to supply energy products to mainland China [as the initial profit center], and direct investments to overcome shortages in the whole range of foods from animal husbandry and fishery to produce and fruits [each category being a profit center] and to develop a new source of algae-based green energy [to become a profit center]. Selective use of the most advanced of the several applicable technological systems will enhance productivity, produce monetary return, and create jobs. Reviving a failing economy will require the combined usage of capital, technology and “a spirit of enterprise” to produce the daily necessities of life, in Hong Kong and external to Hong Kong as well.

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