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Resolutions for Better Communication

                                                            Denver Colorado’s Civic Center

It’s time for the annual ritual of making promises to ourselves about what we will change in the coming year.  In that spirit, consider a few resolutions that would make us and those we care about better communication partners. 

  • Resolve to be a better listener.

    Becoming an engaged listener is like losing weight: it’s harder than it sounds.  It requires momentarily giving ourselves over to what another is saying.  That must include minimizing other distractions, turning off the far too loquacious chatterbox camped out in our brains, and accepting the challenge of bringing our full attention to another. We can’t do this with everyone all the time.  Listening for nuance is work.  Start with the people that matter most.

  • Protect your soul by deciding to be a more thoughtful gatekeeper and information consumer.

    We allow a lot of worthless messages into our lives:  junk journalism, junk advertising, aimless web-browsing, mean-spirited trolls and the self-obsessed. As tech writer Farhad Manjoo noted last year in the New York Times, the Internet is “loud, shrill, reflexive and ugly.”  It “now seems to be on constant boil.”   So it takes far more personal discipline to keep this stuff at bay and to hold on to our social equilibrium.

    The key is to stay in the discursive world of long-form discourse as much as possible, spending time on articles rather than tweets, in-depth journalism instead of ‘news summaries,’ films in place of youtube videos.

  • Work to put a reasonable limit on the time your children spend with all kinds of screens.

    The American Pediatric Association recommends that children under two spend no time in front of screens.  They need more interactivity as they begin to grow.  Remember that “virtual reality” is a desert compared to the natural world.  Rediscover local parks or just the simple pleasures of a walk around the block.  With my own grandkids it’s been fun to relearn the truth that even young children are naturally weatherized.  Most love to be out and active even in the cold.

  • Resolve to save important feelings and information for face to face discussion.

    Proximity with others usually brings out the best in us.  Media that act as surrogates for ourselves (even misnamed “social” media) offer only selected approximations of the real deal.

  • Listen to more music.

    Because it’s almost exclusively the language of feeling, music unites us in ways that ordinary rhetoric can’t.  A friend reports that Mozart has been a nice escape from the numbing effects of recent political news.

  • Help seniors take a break from television news.

    We have convincing research that many older Americans succumb to a deep and unhealthy pessimism fed by too much news and mayhem. Television is often how they pass the time, especially if they live in a facility.  Do what you can to show them the more normal world outside their door.

  • Don’t believe everything you read.

    Apply some healthy skepticism to both real news stories, as well as the paid “clickbait” stories that are often nearby.  In 2016 has shown us anything, it’s that too many Americans form attitudes from conjecture and misinformation, often from low-credibility sources.

  • With the possible exception of those strange relatives up in Duluth, resist dividing the world into “us” and “them.”

    We may think in simple binaries.  But In the end, the complexities of individual lives will always deal the deck that we and others have to play.  Even after this brutal presidential election we need to find the intellectual honesty to acknowledge the inadequacies of our labels.

                    Happy Holidays!

Sleepwalking Through A Conference Call

CONFERANCE CALLThe ubiquitous conference call now routinely competes with other tasks: texting, cleaning out the inbox of our e-mail, checking online for some piece of ephemera, or counting the minutes until we can leave.

I have a good friend who flies a lot for work.  He regularly commutes to the West Coast, Asia and Europe to meet with clients and other members of his firm.  By all accounts, he’s very good at what he does.  Even so, on those rare occasions when he momentarily alights in our part of the country, I find myself invariably asking him if he could save a lot of wear and tear by skyping or relying on the standard business tool of the conference call.  He usually gives me a half-smile, once asking what I do when I’ve got time on my hands in a meeting that requires listening to disembodied voice through a box.

The truthful answer for me and probably most others huddled around a phone in a conference room is that we go into the human equivalent of a device’s airplane mode. We’re not really connecting. And most of us are probably not ready to play our “A” game. The person on the other end of the conversation is there but also not there.  We hear them, but reacting to them is awkward. There is always a sense that the vital rhythms of listening and responding to the unseen person are irretrievably crippled.  As my colleagues might say, there is no true synchronicity.  Moreover, most of us are now so device-dependant that an extended conversation with the unseen is an open invitation to move on to other tasks: cleaning out the inbox of our e-mail, sending texts, or counting the minutes until we can leave.

Of course the price to pay for being in the same space is not always a picnic. Meeting face to face with an angry clients is taxing. And the logistics of flying long distance are now something to be endured. Crowds, connections and airline schedules have become mazes that can require more energy than the business reasons for the trip. Even so, my friend regularly endures a juggernaut of 8-hour flights and airport transfers to meet in person with clients and co-workers.  He seems confident that he can bind those individuals to his agenda much more completely than would be the case if he relied on e-mails or conference calls.

Separated from those we want to reach, we begin to lose the incentive to transcend differences and work through difficult obstacles.

CONFERANCE CALLFor all of the effort of being in the same space, what is gained?  Any answer includes the obvious and the subtle.  It’s clearly evident that we pick up a lot of meaning from body language, especially (but not only) the face. As has been said many times in these pages, eye contact matters.  It gives us clues to the state of mind of the person we are trying to engage.  Moreover, being within four feet of a person we want to influence means they will have an obligation for attention that is usually lost in distant connections.  Attention adds energy to the exchange. Throw in the additional advantage of the obligation to actually listen, and the miasma of organizational sleepwalking  that characterizes some conference calls can be defeated. My experience is that this ersatz format allows attention to fall to perhaps just one-half of what it could be.  Separated from our interlocutor, we begin to lose the incentive to work through difficult obstacles.

Skype or some version of it is an improvement.  And there is every reason to celebrate the family and personal connections it can help maintain.  But in organizations where personal appearance and presentational skills count much more, making an impression at a distance is difficult.

In addition, knowing that oneself is on camera carries its own distractions.  Self-presentation to a camera is restricting and unnatural. It’s more or less like holding up a mirror to ourselves as we speak.  And most of us will do better not studying ourselves while we try to brainstorm ways to save the world.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

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