Today, I interview Michael Rost, whose young life included the emphasis on “comparative suffering.” He tells us that to his father complaining was unwelcomed and was overshadowed by the reminder that others had it far worse. So his young mind learned not to open up to others. Well, when you don’t speak much, you’re able to become quite the listener.
Michael took it to another level, becoming fascinated with tones and vibrations coming through in the voices of the adults around him, allowing the subtleties to help him to discern what was really going on– the things no one was saying out loud. Later in his doctoral studies of phonology, Michael learned that when we hear, our brain processes emotional response before it processes the actual meaning of the words. He continued to finish his degree and became heavily involved in the academic world, thriving in a world of intellectual talent.
But eventually, his mind and body had a disconnect, and the psychological pressure to perform manifested in physical exhaustion, dizziness, and burnout. Although it went against his family’s nature, he eventually sought therapy to get to the root of his dizziness and ended up realizing he’d felt pressure from all sides pulling him in different directions and it was causing internal conflict.
Now that he’s learned to listen to his own voice and focus on his own goals, Michael has learned to slow down and balance his thoughts so that he can teach and write with intention.
Michael Rost has had a lifelong interest in communication theory and has had an illustrious career in academia, specializing in psycholinguistics; in language teacher education, focusing on speaking and listening development; and in instructional design, concentrating on listening-based language courses.
Though he has numerous publications in linguistics, Michael recently published his first novel, a memoir called The Journey Home — which is published under the pen name Gabriel Bron. Michael is a great believer in the value of “pivotal experiences” in one’s life and career – and he considers his first encounter with Speaking Circles, some 20 years ago, in which he met me (Doreen) and Lee Glickstein, to be a pivotal experience — which transformed his view of public speaking and his view of writing. He is “forever grateful” for this encounter — and for the doors it opened to more personal and more satisfying self-expression.
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Transcript of Interview
Find Your Voice, Change Your Life Podcast
Podcast Host: Dr. Doreen Downing
Free Guide to Fearless Speaking: Doreen7steps.com
Episode # 54 Michael Rost
“Performing With Balance and Intention”
(00:35) Dr. Doreen Downing
Hi, I’m Dr. Doreen Downing, host of the Find Your Voice, Change Your Life podcast. As a psychologist I help people overcome their fear of speaking in public. But there’s more than just speaking out in public if we look at every conversation as a way of speaking and in fact, also be in public. Because even if you’re with one person, it’s a in public situation. So, I invite guests to talk about what their sense of not having had a voice is and to reflect on that and if there’s any kind of underlying roots that we could get to that’s fine, because that’s always something that’s curious to listeners, is well, have other people suffered or struggled, and how have they found their voice. So, today, I get to meet and interview a friend of mine, Michael Rost and let me just read some of the bio that I have that will show you what a magnificent, accomplished human being he is. Dr. Michael Rost has had a lifelong interest in communication theory, and has had an illustrious career in academia, specializing in psycholinguistics, teacher education focusing on speaking and listening development, and in instructional design concentrating on listening face language courses. Though he has numerous publications in linguistics, Michael recently published his first novel, a memoir called The Journey Home, which is published under a pen name, Gabrielle Bron. I’m going to say that again because I read it and I was actually blown away with the writing of it as well as there’s some illustrations. The name that you would need to look up is Gabrielle Bron, B-R-O-N. So, make sure you go find it because it’s a journey just to go along with Michael as he discovers some things about his parents and himself. So, Michael is a great believer in the value of pivotal experiences in one’s life and career. He considers his first encounter with Speaking Circles some 20 years ago, where Michael met me in flextime and he thinks that’s one of his pivotal experiences which transformed his view of public speaking, and his view, oh, also writing. He says, he’s forever grateful, which is– thank you, Michael– forever grateful for his encounter and for the doors it opens to more personal and more satisfying self-expression. I think that’s what we’re talking about today is voice just isn’t– you don’t just get up on a stage, and that’s what we’re talking about. It’s self-expression anytime, anywhere. So, Michael, wonderful to have a conversation with you. Thank you.
(03:48) Michael Rost
Great. Thanks for inviting me. It’s lovely to be here. Thank you.
(03:51) Dr. Doreen Downing
Yes. So, as I said, it’s about self-expression. When you think or reflect back, what would you say might be a sense of a memory of not having voice, having some difficulty expressing yourself? How early does that go back?
(04:13) Michael Rost
Oh, wow. How deep do you want to go?
(04:17) Dr. Doreen Downing
You know me, I’m just like, oh that’s my business.
(04:20) Michael Rost
Okay. Well, when I reflect on that I think back to obviously childhood and growing up in a baby boomer post World War II generation, German Catholic strict family, one of the concepts that comes out of– at least my family and the families in my clan– is around this concept of comparative suffering, which is, “what are you complaining about? You don’t know what it was like during the war, as a post-war family.” I think a lot of it is rooted into, “just be quiet because you have nothing to complain about”, so not that complaining is the only thing that kids do. But whenever any kind of discomfort or unfamiliarity or clumsiness came up, it was like, “oh, just shut up, you don’t have it so bad.” That sort of spreads that concept of, “you don’t have anything to complain about, you don’t have anything to say, you don’t have anything to contribute.” So, it became a kind of comparative thing where you would say, is this worth talking about, it’s this not worth talking about? Will I be hurt if I say this? So, growing up in this kind of culture of, you need to deserve to be heard and that’s one piece of it. As I mentioned in my novel, as just really a personal memoir, I discovered some of my family history as my father was in World War II and suffered tremendously, apparently, but he kept it all silent. I wanted to learn more about him, and I didn’t until quite late in his life. But I think his ethic– and as the patriarch of the family– his ethic was, “don’t share your suffering with anybody. Let them move on from it.” I guess it’s a very loving gesture, if you think about it. As a parent, you don’t want your children to suffer. But it’s a kind of a paradox: they’re suffering by imagining what you suffered. Right? So, there wasn’t an openness, in other words, in my family, and it wasn’t until, I think– I pursued an academic career, it wasn’t until I was close to 40 years old, that I had to really retrace the steps and figure out how eight years were toxic because it sounds as if my parents were dumping poison on me and they weren’t, is just sort of the zeitgeist of the time that parents raised children to be free of suffering, or to be free of difficulties. They wanted to make your children’s life better. But at the same time, they weren’t sharing the backstory, so to speak, and it took me quite a while to unravel that and that did affect my sense of voice really. Yes.
(07:34) Dr. Doreen Downing
Well, you’ve already said so much and this is a point of view that I haven’t heard yet on the podcast. So, I look forward to continuing this sense of how you compare yourself to others. Usually, that comparative story comes later out in grammar school or high school, peers, or you’re comparing yourself to other folks. But what you said is even earlier on, there wasn’t a listening, a listening to you, whatever it happened to be around and of what seemed to be around complaining or just speaking up about anything, and that I think what I just really getting from you right now, it’s the listening that helps you find your voice.
(08:21) Michael Rost
Oh, absolutely. I think as a child who– at that time, I wouldn’t conceptualize it or language, it as not being listened to. It was just something is not fitting here. But I learned to value listening, and I became a very close, I would call it “code breaker”. When I would see the adults acting this way, I would say, oh, this means that, they’re not going to tell you that’s what it means. But you can sort of figure out by their verbal and nonverbal behavior, this is what it means. So, I became an avid listener, as a child, more or less, as that’s the only avenue of making sense of the world. If I wasn’t going to be listened to, you know, in a detailed verbal sense, I had to develop a more of an observation listening perspective, which I think all of us who’ve had challenges as children or struggles or even trauma, ultimately if we stay with that difficult experience, it can be actually what seeds voice later on.
(09:33) Dr. Doreen Downing
What a great concept, seeds our voice by looking back and finding and it could even be in that difficulty. You just reminded me of what it was like when I was five years old and people were having a party. I didn’t realize it was code breaking, but I love that idea. But people– my family was having a party and there was a lot of booze, a lot of alcohol in those years. I think it was in the 50s, early 50s. I knew– like I knew my father was leaving but everybody was laughing and having a good time, but he was divorcing my mom.
(10:14) Michael Rost
But that was a pivotal moment where he was literally going to.
(10:18) Dr. Doreen Downing
But I didn’t know that till I looked back on it and realized, gee, how did I get to be such a good deep listener? I was doing it way back when, like you’re talking about adults are acting in a certain way. But there isn’t something that’s– I’m listening, I’m hearing something else going on here, a party, but something really major is about to change my life and nobody’s talking about that. So, that idea of what you just said about “code breaking”, observing, being the observer, and I would say, I was probably naturally intuitive also about tuning into what’s happening around me in order to make sense of it. Yes.
(11:09) Michael Rost
Yeah, I think there are– I’m not a psychic or clairvoyant by any means. But I think there are vibrations. I mean, I’ve studied phonology and there are harmonics, multiple levels of sound even that coexist. You can learn to tune in to the different harmonics of sound to not necessarily comprehend it. As you were saying, to tune in to it and feel there’s some meaning here that needs to be heard. I think as a listener, by choice or by circumstance, you learn to break the code, or you learn to see the harmonics and find meaning in ways that are being denied to on the normal plane, so to say.
(11:59) Dr. Doreen Downing
Yeah, the layers. I like what you just said, too, around the harmonics and the sound that there really is. In your studies, I think you’re bringing something today that I, again, have not heard that with those layers or those harmonics, there is something that we’re listening, we’re listening to all of it, we’re animals, right. Some people are listening to other layers, probably more naturally. But I love the idea of being able to train our listening.
(12:35) Michael Rost
Well, one thing I learned in my doctoral studies about phonology is– I mean, this sounds very morbid, but it’s all standard procedure– we hook people up to different electrodes and parts of the brain and you can sort of study which areas of the brain are being activated when they’re listening, or when they’re speaking or when they’re performing some tasks. The first part of the brain that lights up in listening is the amygdala, which is where the emotion is processed. So, we can somehow understand the emotion before we understand words. Like, you’ll often laugh at a joke before the punchline comes, because you’re somehow hearing the emotion of the story, or you can start crying before you get to the point where x happens, and the floodgates open. Your emotional processing is the first and most fundamental level of listening and I think, as a listener, you learn to tune in to that, and trust that maybe that’s what intuition is, it’s trusting the things you can’t fully comprehend.
(13:43) Dr. Doreen Downing
Yes. Since you’re a scientist, there’s neuroscientists with Pitman and Carl that have written a book, Calming Your Anxious Brain or something like Rewiring Your Anxious Brain. They talk about the frontal lobe having a whole different neural pathway than the amygdala that you just mentioned. How I integrate it in my work is with anxiety– what you just said about, “you’re going to feel it before maybe you even think it” so that oh, I’m going to be going to give a speech, as the amygdala is already firing and it keeps on firing. It keeps on firing and the frontal says, oh, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Yet the amygdala seems to be the one who’s activated.
(14:36) Michael Rost
In control. That’s the last word obviously.
(14:42) Dr. Doreen Downing
Yeah. Oh, well, there’s so much to discover here about voice and listening and speaking. What else? Maybe something about your own journey. I always like to get personal.
(14:57) Michael Rost
Well, I think one of the pivotal experiences for me was a long time ago, about five years into my serious academic career. I was teaching graduate classes in linguistics and psycholinguistics, and we call applied linguistics for teaching languages, et cetera. I had been sort of cruising along, I had achieved this high level of academic prowess and I was comparing myself, this is not comparative suffering, this is comparative achievement, where I’m comparing myself to other– and as it turns out, mostly men– on the faculty, kind of “pseudo father figures”, if you will. I was kind of measuring myself up to them. By all external standards, I was doing quite well. I was getting good reviews for my classes, I was publishing articles, and I was doing the whole academic gig correctly. Then there was one day– I remember, it was about Thanksgiving, or something of that year, the academic year starting in September– and I was at a social event, and I suddenly just became dizzy. Like, if I was talking to you now, I’d say, “Doreen, I have to sit down.” I mean, I literally thought I was going to fall over. I mean, that was a red flag, obviously, that something is not right. I mean, I know that you can diagnose it as a physician in multiple ways. But it was clear to me that this was something psychological, that I was having trouble keeping my balance, literally, and that the work I was doing in academia was coming from this kind of compulsion to achieve. Even though I was delivering classes, as it were, standing in front of the class and lecturing and performing, one of your guests talked about the rocket man.
(17:22) Dr. Doreen Downing
(17:23) Michael Rost
I mean, I was rocket man, when class started that six o’clock to nine o’clock, I usually had these evening classes, here comes rocket man, and I would buzz it along for three hours and then collapse. I was thinking that this is normal and I guess just my psyche, my amygdala, brought the loads, the whole package just gave out and said, like, “we can’t do this anymore. We can’t be rocket man anymore.” It was my first realization that I needed to pursue some kind of psychological support or exploration at least. Going back to my sort of German heritage, the idea of seeing a therapist would be considered verboten, you don’t do that. That’s a sign of weakness. Or even just vulnerability. I think the word vulnerability never was spoken, as a, “what’s that?” to something that is not part of the experience. Right? Well, it was just frowned upon. So, I actually felt somewhat ashamed for seeking help. Because it was like, I mean, literally, I’m a grown adult, if my father finds out, what’s he going to say?
(18:43) Dr. Doreen Downing
You are whispering.
(18:45) Michael Rost
I mean, that’s how I felt at the time. But there was a breakthrough on the very first session, when I realized, okay, this is for me to receive help, receive support, receive insight, receive clarity. The clarity that came in this very first session was, the psychologist said– she was recommended through a friend who I was able to confide in, you know, it was still very hush, hush. I mean, I envy people who are coming of age today because I think mental health and just mental duress is considered to be part and parcel of daily life and what you need to take care of. It’s as important as diet and exercise. Right? But at that time, it was a bit taboo. During that first session, she was asking me, “what do you think is bringing on this dizziness?” and I started to describe this kind of compulsion to perform perfectly. I remember the words because it was very odd phrase, and she said, it seems like you’re being jerked around, this kind of idea of like you’re a fish on end of a fishing pole and you don’t know who the fishing pole is connected to. She said, “Who?” I remember starting to cry, which again, was not something German Catholic, post-World War II guys do, right? She said, “who do you think? I mean, what’s this about?” I said, “it’s my father, my father is jerking me around.” Just verbalizing that I felt shame because I know he wasn’t a bad person, by any means. But I guess projection is a common psychological concept. I was projecting something onto him, I believe, as well.
(20:50) Dr. Doreen Downing
But you were also interjecting into yourself, because I think that’s where the message was inside of yourself. That’s what it seems like.
(20:59) Michael Rost
My interpretation of his, his persona or his take on the world. I realized that I will never find my voice or my center or my satisfaction or my mission, really, I mean, thank you for that concept, with that kind of introduction of other people’s voices.
(21:26) Dr. Doreen Downing
(21:27) Michael Rost
You know, what I mean?
(21:28) Dr. Doreen Downing
(21:30) Michael Rost
I felt that was a transitional point. I mean, I wasn’t, quote, cured, I don’t even think I’m cured today. But I have a sense of how that journey needs to transform. If I start to go down that path of unfollowing other people’s voices, from trying to perform according to somebody’s rocket man standards, or my own rocket man standards for that matter. It’s going to lead to at the very least, imbalance, and at the worst, illness or craziness or despair, frustration just a whole package of bad experience. So, that, I think was a pivotal point in my career. That performing, and importing, interjecting other voices and other directives wasn’t going to work. I mean, I can pull it off for two or three hours at a time. But that’s no way I felt to live a life, pumping yourself up for the performance, collapsing, then doing it all over again, the next night. Sounds like a Broadway show, or something. So, yeah, I think that was an important experience.
(22:59) Dr. Doreen Downing
Wow, you’ve already given us so much, and it, we’re going to have to have you back. Because I think you can unpack a lot of what goes on for people around not having a voice and what you’ve just said about what we’ve taken in other people’s voices, from way, way back, or maybe even now? I had somebody on my podcast who said that she was in a corporation and they were in some kind of meeting and she gave her opinion or spoke up and the boss came up to her afterwards and said, “we don’t say that kind of thing here.” You know?
(23:37) Michael Rost
(23:37) Dr. Doreen Downing
(23:39) Michael Rost
You were part of the “we”, yeah.
(23:41) Dr. Doreen Downing
Yes. “You’re going to be here, you got to put duct tape”, basically. He didn’t say that. But that whole sense of what you’re saying is, where we measure where it’s safe, or where it’s okay for ourselves or for career, or just being healthier is human beings is, where do we go for that? So, since we’re near the end of time, can you say something about what is now most important for you around finding and expressing your voice?
(24:16) Michael Rost
Well, I think now, what’s important to me, as a speaker or a teacher and as a writer, is to slow down and say less and mean what I say. I think that slowing down process is very helpful for actually becoming more productive kind of paradoxically. Because there’s more intention in what I say or what I write. I think that that’s an important thing to keep finding. I do think what’s important to me is realizing that, every act of expression, whether it’s writing or speaking, or conversing. It’s a kind of a self-care concept, to just take more care with expression, mean more what I say, think a little bit more, reflect more, slow down more. As I transition more into doing some of this fiction slash memoir type of writing, which was my original intent back when I was in college, it’s interesting that it’s sort of coming full circle, that I do feel that coming from a central voice, that’s my own original voice is very important. One of my writing teachers, Amy Tan, she’s local in this area, and be a lovely guest for you to have, talks about, finding voice is the most important thing for a writer. Technique and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, the same as you and Le, teach about speaking, the technique is all peripheral, it’s finding your voice. Once you find it even one time and you lose it again, you find it again, and you lose it, but you have confidence that you can come back, sometimes for some people, it’s little, it’s just a few seconds secondary claim their voice, but to know that it’s there is a confidence builder, and that you can come back and you can find it and then not to begin until you have no reason to substitute someone else’s voice just to fill the time. So, I think that is sort of where I am now. With my work with my thinking, my writing.
(26:57) Dr. Doreen Downing
Yeah, both. Knowing that there’s an inner sense of self that has a voice, but also having journey there enough that you be the freeway, it’s no longer a rough road, rough terrain that you go, keep going back, keep going back then it becomes just like a slide. There I am. One breath. Yeah, I’m back.
(27:30) Michael Rost
It feels good to go down that slide and come back.
(27:34) Dr. Doreen Downing
Well, it just made me feel like that slide and then your title of your book, The Journey Home, it’s just like, I just got back inside of myself. That’s my home.
(27:49) Michael Rost
Yes. Well, I appreciate the kind words you said about the book. I mean, to me, it was gratifying to be able to finally complete that story. I think I had the elements of it in me for many years. I think a lot of our work is we have the elements but we don’t have the voicing for it, and somehow during the early part of 2020, I guess with all that forced lockdown time I was able to take some writing classes online, like from Amy Tan and Margaret Atwood, even David Sedaris, the comedian, and just learn ways of telling your story that are true to yourself. That was very gratifying to be able to kind of pull these elements together and tell it as a journey. It’s about me, I mean, it’s my own journey to that. Maybe even the journey to the home voice that you’re finally able to tell your story and feel that it’s worth hearing, worth being heard.
(29:06) Dr. Doreen Downing
Well, that’s full circle from the beginning of our talk today, and I guess what I’m leaving with right now is what you just said about truth and that there’s a sense of truth that then you know, you’re either closer or you are there when you have a sense of truth and the voice comes from truth. Thank you, Michael. Thank you very much for joining me today.
(29:34) Michael Rost
All right, thank you, Doreen.
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Get started now on your journey to your authentic voice by downloading my Free 7 Step Guide to Fearless Speaking: doreen7steps.com.
Get started now on your journey to your authentic voice by downloading my Free 7 Step Guide to Fearless Speaking: doreen7steps.com.