Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Communication's Natural Order

Let me begin by acknowledging the act of communicating with another is, at times, is enough to make any one's eyes cross. On the one hand, ideally, successful communicating results in mutual understanding and exchange between multiple publics. But on the other, the questionsof how often that happens or how easily is that attained represent major hurdles. To communicate effectively, in my view, calls upon participants to place greater emphasis on achieving a "greater good" than they would toward satisfying their own self-interest. This speaks to placing the goals of effective communication over one's specific objective.

But how realistic is that? In his wonderful autobiography, Thomas Merton observed that the natural order of man's behavior is to "...live for themselves and for their own interests and pleasure, and therefore are constantly interfering with another's aims, whether they mean it or not." (Merton's book is "The Seven Storey Mountain" and I highly recommend it.) As I agree with Merton's opinion, I readily acknowLedge the innate challenge we all face when we attempt to communicate with another. If one accepts Merton's point of view, then the matter of group interest versus individual interest comes into play.

In fact, not only is this contradictory thinking at-play, it is part of the communicate challenge. Perhaps one could even describe it as THE ultimate communication challenge. If one is going to carry out their own goal, then doing so must be done is separate steps. First comes group or mutual interest and second comes one's specific goal. Anything less than that, at best, will most likely result in less then satisfactory or effective communication. Therefore, the natural order of communicating includes efforts to address both group and individual interest. The trick now is get everyone to recognize that so that all efforts to communicate can occur much more smoothly.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Taping into Sun Tzu

A key concept when it comes to communication is flexibility. Yes, people often are predictable but at the same time they can and do the unexpected. In addition, life itself can and does provide more than enough twists and turns to "keep us on our toes." In the most famous "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu, the author writes about how victory should be achieved by methods "regulated by the variety of circumstances." I interpret this observation as highlighting the importance of flexibility, that is having the ability to adjust to the unexpected. As part of this, Tzu notes one should not be locked into repeating tactics that initially gained them a particular goal.

By alluding to "The Art of War," I am drawing a slight parallel between communicating effectively and war. Both "sides" as it were are striving to achieve a set goal: to be heard and understood. Sometimes this can lead to a conflict as, for instance, how I wish to be understood may not be in-sync with how you may wish to be seen. In giving an employee a pay raise, a supervisor may feel they are rewarding good behavior. Other workers, however, may view such an act as favoritism. These differing interpretations represent conflict and call for flexibility on the part of each "side" if they are to make known their logic and achieve some level of mutual understanding.

As part of this, as noted by Tzu, in warfare there are no "constant conditions." Such an observation certainly applies to life itself and the ability each of us has to alter any set of circumstances. We also, I believe, have the ability to adjust to changing circumstances in order to achieve effective communication. In this sense, as much as possible how we communicate should be similar to water in that it has no constant shape because in its movement it is constantly adjusting to its circumstances. Again, I draw from Tzu here. While we may have a particular goal in each attempt to communicate, we must be flexible in how we go about achieving it.




Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Dark Thoughts

Dark thoughts. We all have them. I am not necessarily talking ones of a sexual nature though they would certainly fall under that umbrella. They can revolve around comments about individuals or groups of people. They can focus on the characteristics or qualities of individuals, including ourselves. They can include actions we could take regarding our own preferences as they apply to ourselves or even others. The list of examples is pretty much endless. Whatever the specific subject or focus of  these kind of thoughts, generally a striking similarity they all share is that they are thoughts we keep to ourselves.

We keep them "dark" because if known to others, then would either be very embarrassing, lead others to think less of us, or possibly trigger negative actions toward us. Consequently, as a rule, we keep them safely tucked away in our own minds. One interesting characteristic of these kind of thoughts is that we do not mean them or, even if the opportunity presented itself, we would not act on them. So, one might ask, why have them? Despite their inappropriateness or even ugliness, they can be fun to have; serve as a safe release to help us deal with our anger or frustration. For instance, would I really want to "kill" that driver who cut me off in traffic? No way. Not ever.

Dark thoughts represent a common step in our own internal communication process that we often take on our way toward formulating thoughts much more appropriate for public consumption and even action. Dark thoughts, then, are nothing to be ashamed of unless they do see the light of day and end of being used against us. Sometimes folks make the mistake of sharing inappropriate or dark thoughts that should never be unveiled. Generally, this is a mistake unless the person on the receiving end can be trusted not to pass them onto others. Dark thoughts, then, are ok so long as they are kept in their proper place.

Friday, September 28, 2018

"...intention of the mind"

If there is anyone who had insight into the mechanics of good painting it was Leonardo Da Vinci. The mere fact he had "Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper," two of the most famous art works in world history on his resume, is easily enough to establish his credentials. When painting a subject, Da Vinci said a good artist has two primary challenges: "man and the intention of the mind." The first, he noted, is easy in the sense it speaks to properly capturing the physical appearance of the subject. The second, however, is a different story. It involves properly interpreting the actions of the subject. What are they trying to communicate in their actions, including their expression?

This is the essence of what any of us face in striving to be a effective listener. A person, for instance, states emphatically that "I did not rob that bank." What could be more straightforward than that? The meaning of those five words is very clear. But in making such a declaration, what is behind it? In other words, is it a statement of truth? Is the speaker being honest? As one on the receiving end of the statement, how do they go about answering that question? As Da Vinci would say, how do receivers of that message determine the intention behind those words? This is where being an effective listener becomes rather tricky.

The expression on the speaker's face, the tone of their voice, our own base of knowledge, and other facts that may be known at the time are among the chief clues from which most of us draw in assessing the truthfulness of the initial statement. Sometimes that is easy and sometimes not. Bottom line: what is the intention of the speaker? Is it to tell the truth or is it to deceive? Making the proper or correct choice can be a guessing game. An accurate guess helps facilitate an act of communication. An incorrect guess can compromise that act. All this adds fuel to the reality that communication can be and often is difficult.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Wanted: Slow Thinkers

Take a person who is standing around doing nothing. Suddenly, unexpectedly, from out of nowhere another person appears out of nowhere and throws a baseball at our first person's head. If that first person were to either catch the ball or duck, then in all likelihood he would be praised for either being a fast thinker or having quick relaxes. Instead, however, if he reacted slowly and ended up getting bopped on the head, then the judgement would be he was slow thinking. In such a scenario, of course, it is much better - not to mention less painful - to be quick thinking. Contending with a speeding baseball requires nothing less than that.

Thinking case, in this instance as well as many others, often is instinctual. We react because our "gut"  tells us it is the proper course of action. The action we take is not necessarily based on painstaking research. It is not the result of deliberate consideration in which one weighs the pros and cons of various courses of action. Rather, it is the result of whatever information we can quickly access and then making a snap choice. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, other than the fact not all situations call for fast thinking. There are times when the opposite of that is actually the best way to go.

If you are thinking communicating effectively is one of them, then you deserve a high-five. Despite the fact, there is a kind of romance we associate with fast-thinking, the challenge of connecting with others is the best way to go. Determining ways in which another prefers to receive information, how they like to be addressed, what their top interests and/or concers might be, and even how they like conversing with others requires unsexy, unglamorous slow thinking. Just because one "thinks fast" does not necessarily make them smarter than those who think with greater deliberation. In some ways, it may even mean just the opposite.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Whitney Balliett

I always get a kick out of reading what I consider to be good writing, especially by a writer that is either new or unfamiliar to me. These days I am enjoying a journal of writings on jazz by the late Whitney Balliett. (He died in 2007 at the age of 80.) Balliett wrote hundreds of reviews and articles on jazz for The New Yorker. While I have long admired his insights and communication flare, wading through a collection of his work serves as a very nice reminder of just how strong he was with pen-in-hand.

"He nodded, and clapped his hands soundlessly." "The old Half-Note.....it's narrow, trestlelike bandstand, and it's lowering ceiling, a set in a German Expressionist movie." "Its irresistible and original characteristics seemed to imply endless spaces and crazy weather and the howdy openness of Southwesterners." "It was full of his usual devices - the slamming chords, the agitated staccato passages, the breathtaking arpeggios, the blizzard density - but it had two new qualities: lyricism and gentleness." Who writes like that? I am not sure anybody does these days. But Balliett sure did. As a former drummer, he took his love for music and made it sing with his writing. On top of that, he was enlightening.

Going back to the beginning of this entry, then, what is good writing to me? It is communication with flare, insight, good and useful information, heart, and thought. All these qualities jump out in the works of Balliett. Too bad he is no longer with us as effective communicators are always needed. Studs Terkel once called Balliett "one of our most trustworthy guides." In a literal sense, Balliett's work pertained to the subject of jazz. More broadly, however, he painted word pictures that inspired his followers to learn more about the complexities and layers of life itself. How I would love having even half of Balliett's great skills.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Macro, Micro Communication

Generally, when we hear the words "macro" and "micro," many of us associate them with the field of economics. Macro-economics, for instance, speaks to a general, large-scale overview of economic factors.  On the other hand, micro-economics refers more to an examination of single factors that pertain to economic matters. I believe those same terms can be applied to the field of communication. Nearly every day we all assess our own specific communication strategies through macro and micro lenses. The difference is the two terms are not used by communication scholars and professional practitioners all that often - if at all.

So, because or perhaps despite that, I would like take a few moments to apply each to how the practice and subject of communication is addressed. Macro-communication refers to looking at the act of interaction from a broad perspective. One entity communicates with another. Perhaps it does so in a way that is not smooth or even off-putting. Nevertheless, their message is understandable and received correctly. With that, scholars and practitioners examine the mechanics of the communication effort and assess how it may have been done more effectively or, at the least, differently. Such a step moves one into micro-communication.

Specifically, this involves the matter of individuals within an entity go about communicating with others within the same entity as well as outside. First, there is the obvious question of whether the communicating was effective or successful. Beyond that, the matter of specific strategies used becomes an important point of focus. Such a step is not unlike what economists do when they examine single policies put forth by individual bodies. This, then, is broadened into studying the efforts or actions of multiple entities. An initial conclusion here is that macro and micro communication scholars are not all that different from their peers in the field of economics.