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The Tone of Our Discourse

§ January 16th, 2011 § Filed under communication, training, writing § Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , § 6 Comments

“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized, at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do, it is important for us to pause a moment and make sure we are talking to each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”  – Barack Obama

Last month, I listed some communication resolutions for 2011. Apparently I don’t have a widespread enough audience yet to reach the entire country. I have listened to friends, acquaintances, newscasters, and pundits explain what happened in Tucson and what the root causes of the problem are. I agree with the President who said that a lack of civility did not cause this tragedy.

The issue of our country’s discourse is a two-pronged one. There is a legal standard. Free speech is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution. That means that you have the right to say anything you want. However, throughout history our courts have limited that right. You do not have the right to incite violence. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote:  “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”

I am not a fan of Sarah Palin, and I find her response to her perceived attack over this tragedy self-centered and disappointing at best. However, I will defend to my death her right to place gun-site type targets over a map of Congressional districts. I will even defend her right to say things like “Don’t retreat. Reload!”

We now have people who believe that the country is on fire and they need to scream to make sure we all feel the same fear.  I get it. There are those who believe that the country is sliding into socialism or fascism. They are tired of being politically correct.  They are genuinely afraid of what will happen if the health care bill continues to be enacted.  I defend their legal right to be as strident and loud and discourteous as they want.

I do wish, however, they would consider the practical aspect to all this rhetoric. Consider the scenario in the Holmes quote. If you are in a theater that truly is on fire, do you want someone yelling “Fire”? Or would you prefer someone who calmly explains that there is a danger and that you should quickly proceed to the nearest exit?

The second prong is a decency standard.  So much has been said these last few days about the tone in this country. Yes, we all have the legal right to be offensive.  However, just because we have the right to be rude doesn’t mean we should be.

When I hear people say they are “tired of being politically correct,” what I hear is that those people are tired of being polite and do not care if they offend. What is wrong with being more inclusive? Why can’t we use the filters we have been given?

We need to find ways to put across our thoughts and ideas, even those that are passionately held, without insulting others. Engaging our brains before we open our mouths is still sound advice.

So I will repeat my final resolution from last month: resolve to be kinder. As President Obama said in Tucson, “We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.”


§ November 4th, 2010 § Filed under communication, marketing, small business, training § Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , § 1 Comment

“Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand.”- Sue Patton Thoele

Over the past ten months, I have written about all sorts of problems and issues in communication. This month’s topic is the most important communication skill anyone can develop – listening. In fact, I found so many quotations about listening, it was hard to choose, so I’m going to use a few.

“Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.” – Andre Gide

We are a population of non-listeners. Even those who are moderately skilled at listening have to work at it. How often have you “listened” to someone while planning what your response will be? How often has your mind strayed? How often have you paid more attention to your surroundings than to the person in front of you?

Here is an exercise to increase your listening skills. The next time your spouse, child, friend or coworker starts talking, resist the temptation to interrupt. Respond with an appropriate nod or shake of your head, or murmur “Hmm” or “Oh.” Let the person complete his or her thoughts. When he or she takes a breath, look thoughtful and count to ten before responding to make sure the person is finished. If the person does not speak again in those ten seconds, carry on the conversation as usual. If the person starts to talk again, stay quiet. In the next pause, count to ten again. I know this will feel awkward at first, but try it. If the person you are talking to notices a difference, tell him or her that you are improving your listening skills.

“If you spend more time asking appropriate questions rather than giving answers or opinions, your listening skills will increase” – Brian Koslow

Listening well is a skill that can be learned. Like any other skill, improvement takes practice. Learning to ask questions that help you to understand what the speaker means will improve your listening skills, but will also help create rapport with the speaker. Your questions let the speaker know that you value what he or she has said, that you seek to understand his or her point. In doing the above “counting to ten” exercise, when the person has stopped talking, ask some clarifying questions. These questions might start with phrases like

  • “It appears as if…”
  • “You feel…”
  • “It seems like…”
  • “As I understand it, you sound…”
  • “If I hear you correctly, you’d like…”

“To listen well, is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well, and is as essential to all true conversation” – Chinese Proverbs

Creating that rapport and letting the speaker know that you are paying attention is the first step toward true communication. It is also a first step toward agreement. If you can truly understand what the other person is thinking, you may have a chance to give him or her insight into your viewpoint.

When we live in such a divided country, it is critical that we understand what others are saying. On this post-election day, I’ll leave you with this one.

“A good listener tries to understand what the other person is saying. In the end he may disagree sharply, but because he disagrees, he wants to know exactly what it is he is disagreeing with.” – Kenneth A. Wells

Try these exercises at your Thanksgiving Day table. It might make the whole day more enjoyable. Happy Thanksgiving!

It’s What You Don’t Say

§ October 5th, 2010 § Filed under communication, small business § Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , § No Comments

”The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” –Peter F. Drucker

The last few months I have talked to you about communication. There is one area that we have not discussed. Nonverbal communication is probably one of the most important aspects of communication. We use it for a number of reasons – to add emphasis or clarity, to accompany,  to contradict, or to substitute for the verbal message. The people who interact with us use the clues we transmit to interpret our meaning.

Nonverbal communication can include any information not in words that a speaker uses that might be interpreted by the listener. We normally think of facial expressions and gestures.  But the parts of our communication that do not include words can entail so much more, including eye contact, volume, pitch, amount of personal space, posture, inflection, and even the sounds we make (such as uh, um, hmm, referred to as paralanguage.)

65% of the message is nonverbal

Some researchers report that around 65 percent of the meaning of a message is conveyed nonverbally. Others rank nonverbal closer to 93 percent.  Even at the lower estimate, it is obvious that nonverbal communication is an integral part of our daily communication and without it, meaning can be lost.

I discovered this past weekend that nonverbal communication also serves an important task for memory. I attended my 40th high school reunion. I have a number of friends from those years who I am still close to, and I worked on the planning committee so I had been in contact with others over the last few months. But as the events started on Thursday, I was seeing some people I had not seen in over 40 years.

My task was to work on a PowerPoint presentation that ran continuously throughout the main event. The presentation was primarily a set of individual photos from our senior yearbook. We asked our classmates to send current photos in and I created a slide for each one that transitioned from the senior class photo to the current photo. I had seen what most of these nearly 60 year olds now looked like before I greeted them at the events.

There were a few, however, who had not sent their current photos in, and I found that the ensuing four decades had erased my memory and had created sufficient change in most people that I was unable to identify them. I noticed I wasn’t the only one. Throughout the events, you would hear people ask, “Who is that?”

Nonverbal is memorable

Once introduced, I could usually see the 18 year old I had known in the older face. But the real identifying information came from the nonverbal part of our interactions. The gestures, the tone of voice, the facial expressions, all played a key part in helping me remember my classmates.

One classmate has always had a very dry sense of humor. The deadpan inflection in his voice instantly reminded me of sitting in front of him in English class. One woman has the most piercing blue eyes and she stares intently when she is listening. She has not lost that ability to make people feel that she is paying total attention to what they have to say. Another always had a smile for everyone he met. That smile is still there. Another has always had wonderful posture. In spite of the years, she would still be a model for my mother’s warning to stand up straight.  It was a remarkable experience to revisit these old friends, but without the nonverbal cues, I’m afraid I would not have recognized many of my classmates.

Apparently, the nonverbal part of our message implants in our memories as much as a first kiss, a winning basketball game, or a particularly difficult teacher. I’m particularly glad I have these memories, and thankful to my classmates for the examples.

If these memories last 40 years, imagine how much nonverbal communication affects the people you interact with on a daily basis. Doesn’t it make sense to make sure your unspoken messages are coming across clearly and produce positive memories?

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