OR "Just Because We’re Good With Words Doesn’t Mean We’re Communicating Well"
By Carolyn Crawford
A slightly different style of blog today as this is taken from a 15 minute talk I was asked to make for a community group education night recently. I’ve fleshed out the bullet points and updated the examples to be more broadly relevant, but otherwise the ideas and flow remain the same. It was an interesting and enjoyable evening for me. I hope it is for you.
THE POWER OF WORDS
“There’s a beautiful story that Victor Frankl tells that’s always stayed with me. For those of you who don’t know, Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived Dachau and went on to write a book called ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’. In that book he tells of an old man who lost his wife and two years later walked into Frankl’s office still grief-stricken, still heart-broken, at the end of his tether and open to psychiatric help. Victor listens to the story of how the couple had been married for over 60 years had raised their family and had been so happy together and how hard life was for the man now she was gone. And after he finished, Frankl took a moment then asked, “and how would it have been for her if she’d survived you?” The man replies that she would have been equally devastated. She would have mourned him every day that she lived on past him. At which Victor Frankl asks, “so you’re telling me that by outliving your wife, you’ve saved her this grief”. The man simply stares at Frankl for a moment, nods his head, shakes his hand, says thank you, and leaves with new meaning and strength to carry his burden.
Words have enormous power. A kind word can support, encourage, uplift. It can be life giving and life affirming. A cruel word will not only hurt a person but may destroy any trust in the relationship for potentially many years – even a lifetime.
Words are also powerful tools of creation. God SAID “let there be light”. He didn’t hope, intend, wish or click his fingers. He SAID. The words themselves made the light manifest, just as when we say “I will succeed” we affirm and manifest our ability to do it. When Mohammed Ali affirmed “I am the greatest” he made it so. When NASA said “failure is not an option” they focused only on potential solutions. And equally when we tell ourselves or perhaps those around us, our partners, children friends or relatives, that we’re useless, stupid, unreliable, irresponsible or hopeless we make it so for ourselves or for them … which is why such a focus these days on what they call ‘positive parenting’
Many people are very good with words, perhaps more so in the world today than ever given the wide availability of literacy combined with print and online information. We mostly (but not always!) value and admire those with the gifts of education, knowledge and articulation. We enjoy being inspired by lively, entertaining and engaging speakers, whether a story-teller at a backyard barbecue or the leader of a business or country. Being opinionated is often considered a virtue. We’re taught to question and challenge, explore, brainstorm and debate. It’s often through speaking up and speaking well that life presents us with both professional and personal opportunities.
ARE WORDS ENOUGH?
But does that mean we’re the best communicators we could be? Does that mean we’re using our words wisely? And are effective words enough? Is that all there is to ‘good communication’?
I’m interested in some of the negative stereotypes born out in our popular media and I wonder if they point the way towards opportunities to learn and grow in our communications. There are still an unfortunate number of ditzy, overly talkative women played out in many movies and tv series. ‘Two Broke Girls’ comes to mind and most Cameron Diaz films. Not to mention Rose for ‘2½ Men’. There’s the emotionally shallow or at least emotionally inarticulate men, from ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ through to ‘Big Bang Theory’ and of course ‘2½ Men’ rates an extra special mention here too. There’s the cool, suave strong, silent types from the Ocean’s 11 series, the hard-nosed tough male and female detectives in the various CSI shows, and of course superheroes and action heroes of both genders. And let’s not even start to get into the cultural stereotypes like ‘Wogs Out Of Work’, ‘Fat Pizza’ and poor old Raj once again from ‘Big Bang Theory’. Thanks God for ‘Game of Thrones’ is all I have to say after thinking about all of that!
Let me clarify. I’m not saying these stereotypes are as commonplace as the media might make out, nor as extreme, but I wonder if they teach us something useful about how we project ourselves and communicate with the people around us. I wonder if they give us pause for thought as we meet and interact with the people around us. Are we living up to a stereotype they may have in their head about us, or break it? Am I a walking, talking cliché? Have I bought into the stereotype at some level myself and do I let that excuse my behaviour or communication style in some way. “Well it’s just normal for men to never discuss their feelings so I don’t need to try” or “It doesn’t matter if I’m overly chatty as a woman in a business meeting. It’s charming and funny and they’d expect it.”
THE PURPOSE OF COMMUNICATION
So coming back to whether we’re good communicators, or whether there’s room for us to continually improve our communication? That depends of course on how we define successful communication and for that we need to consider the purpose of communication.
I went through a stage of reading many of Harold Kushner’s books (who wrote ‘When Bad Things Happen To Good People’) and I always loved this quote “The purpose in life is not to win. The purpose in life is to grow and to share. When you come to look back on all that you have done in life, you will get more satisfaction from the pleasure you have brought into other people's lives than you will from the times that you outdid and defeated them.”
If we take that as a useful meaning of life, to grow and to share, then the purpose of communication is to further that cause. It’s about connecting with another human being. It’s about bringing two worlds closer to each other, creating a stronger and deeper bond. It’s about sharing emotions, explaining concepts and strengthening relationships. From there we can also collaborate to overcome common problems and challenges as the human race, a deeply social race, has needed to bond to do throughout history.
THE POWER OF LISTENING
For that to happen, it’s not only important to have an opinion or to broadcast our thoughts – to be knowledgable and good with words. As the wise King Solomon taught “there is a time to be silent and a time to speak”. As much as we value education, knowledge and articulation, I wonder if we value listening and therefore if we foster it to the same degree. Certainly I had to laugh when an older lady I know lectured me one day for 10 minutes on what a great listener she was!
I want to finish up with 3 quotes about listening that I find thought provoking and certainly make me think about how I could improve my own listening in order to both deepen my relationships and improve the way I represent myself in the business world, either making or breaking the stereotypes.
Stephen Covey author of “The 7 habits of highly effective people” says “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”. He goes on to explain what he call empathic listening “Empathically listening, requires putting our judgements and opinions on hold and being truly open to the other person’s world view and ideas.”
I think this is the piece where it’s easy to fall down. It’s difficult to put our ideas on hold as we fully try to listen and understand someone else with whom perhaps we disagree. But if we don’t try there’s no hope.
William James, philosopher and psychologist from the turn of the century said "There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation."
Do we try, as much as possible, within our families, particularly inter-generationally, to again put our ideas aside and fully understand someone’s intent before we draw our own conclusions. I know when my 5 year old son is dawdling I’m prone to thinking he’s not being helpful by getting into the car quickly enough, only to find out he stopped to pick me a flower. Have I applied contempt prior to investigation?
Finally I find this quote quite stunning because it takes it to a whole new level. The full piece is 3 paragraphs long so I’ve just pulled out the first paragraph. It’s from Krishnamurti, Indian philosopher again from the early 1900s: “I do not know if you have ever examined how you listen, it doesn’t matter to what, whether to a bird, to the wind in the leaves, to the rushing waters, or how you listen to a dialogue with yourself, to your conversation in various relationships with your intimate friends, your wife or husband. If we try to listen, we find it extraordinarily difficult, because we are always projecting our opinions and ideas, our prejudices, our background, our inclinations, our impulses; when they dominate we hardly listen to what is being said. In that state there is no value at all. One listens and therefore learns, only in a state of attention, a state of silence in which this whole background is in abeyance, is quiet. Then, it seems to me, it is possible to communicate.”
So in finishing please remember that the word LISTEN contains the same letters as the word SILENT. Most of us are very good at talking. Perhaps there’s an opportunity to heal the world, one relationship at a time, through deeper listening.”