Can You Hear Me Now?
Clever cell phone ad phrase, but an increasingly important question related to civil discourse in today’s highly charged environment where toxic messages fly with abandon. If the question is a good one to explore, it does not take long to find that the answers about being heard are more complex than one might think.
Thinking about understanding one another and communication has been going on for a very long time, of course. Smart people have various takes on what matters, but if there is one theme running through communications commentary by wise people it’s that we don’t really do too well today on the clarity of communication scale.
And, if we start at the heart of communication, understanding a reality we want to share, one might conclude things breakdown pretty fast.
A well-regarded communications expert, Paul Watzlawick, offers this challenging assessment: “Our everyday, traditional ideas of reality are delusions which we spend substantial parts of our daily lives shoring up, even at the considerable risk of trying to force facts to fit our definition of reality instead of vice versa. And the most dangerous delusion of all is that there is only one reality.”
By the way, Watzlawick published some of the most influential publications in communication/interactional theory during his lifetime during which he authored more than 150 scientific papers and 22 books that are translated in 80 languages.
I confess the Watzlawick theory about multiple realities throws me off my long-held notion that we can all form our own point of view, but we can’t make up our own facts. Indeed, selective fact selection does contribute to much of today’s misunderstandings, especially when the communications comes in the 140-word bursts of Twitter.
At the moment of actual communication, executive coach Ed Batista offers an important observation. Says this expert, the “failure to distinguish between intent and impact” is frequently the cause communications misfires. The individual seeking to share a thought misses the fact that their intent and impact are two different things.
This reminded me of a former colleague who was thought by her staff to often be angry. It was true, she had a short fuse. But, knowing she thought well of her staff, I asked why they thought she was angry with them most of the time. It turned out that she had formed a habit of sending her emails in all caps to get people’s attention…that was her intent. The impact was that people likened the all-cap technique as screaming at them and concluded she was mad.
This brings us to the corollary of Batista’s argument that the individual receiving a message also joins together in their mind intent and impact. The impact of the all caps email made recipients feel the boss was mad; therefore, the boss was in fact mad at them!
Of course, email, Twitter, Facebook, in fact all electronic communications makes all of this much more difficult. Face to face communication gives you so much more information before someone even speaks. You get to sense whether the person in front of you is happy, angry, sad, relaxed, tense and so many other readings one gets from face to face interaction.
Knowing people in organizations who fire off messages to colleagues who might be right down the hall, I always found that a short walk and face to face conversation brought about a far better result than a hostile email chain.
There is plenty of reason to fear today’s shorthand communication. As mentioned, there is the shortcoming of eliminating the understanding that comes from face to face dialogue. Then, there is the tendency to use Twitter or just short communications bursts to communicate complex thoughts assuming a recipient is going to possess the ability to decipher the intent of the message. It is fair to say that things go off the rails faster and faster using shorthand techniques.
One reason for a deteriorating situation is offered by London author/journalist James Bartholomew who introduced the concept of “virtue signaling” a few years ago. It’s his theory that increasingly people are working to create a favorable view of themselves to a select audience through the expression of indignation. The concept is that expressions of anger and outrage replace the real intent which is boasting about one’s devotion to a particular point of view. And, in many ways, Twitter proves a perfect vehicle, perhaps even encourages virtue signaling, by offering the availability of only so many words to make a point.
One example the author uses is that an individual with strongly held environmental views including a deep commitment to conservation and preservation might select a statement that plays to these interests like, “I hate 4X4 off-road vehicles.” This comes with no research or even an argument on the merits, just one strong negative statement.
Bartholomew makes an additional point about how many people not only fail to offer a thoughtful case for their position, they also find they can take a pass on actually doing something virtuous. Here is his comment:
No one actually has to do anything. Virtue comes from mere words or even from silently held beliefs. There was a time in the distant past when people thought you could only be virtuous by doing things: by helping the blind man across the road; looking after your elderly parents. These things involve effort and self-sacrifice. That sounds hard! Much more convenient to achieve virtue by expressing hatred of those who think the health service could be improved by introducing competition. (Emphasis mine.)
Maybe the shorter version of this is found in the phrase, “deeds speak louder than words.”
The take away from all of this, for me, is that clear and thoughtful communication is difficult. It is difficult when two thoughtful people sit and talk through an issue making it almost impossible when challenges fly via tweet or in Facebook.
Seems like, with challenges growing, we all might brush-up on our communication skills and increase contact with those with whom we want to share ideas as well as voice concerns.
I sure hope that intent and impact came together in this short discourse!
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Craig Fuller served four years in the White House as assistant to President Reagan for Cabinet Affairs, followed by four years as chief of staff to Vice President George H.W. Bush. Having been engaged in five presidential campaigns and run public affairs firms and associations in Washington, D.C., he now resides on the Eastern Shore with his wife Karen.