In a 2015 interview, the Surgeon General of the United States was asked what the biggest disease facing America was. As reported by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, Vivek Murthy gave a surprising and attention-grabbing one word answer, "isolation." Off-hand, I would have guessed heart disease, cancer or even increasing obesity as the answer to Friedman's question. One wonders how in these times of great technology and folks having the ability to almost instantly connect with another or friend how feeling isolated could happen. Aren't we supposed to be, in fact, the connected generation?
Yes, we are. Yet in Murthy's view, feeling alone is the biggest thing from which people suffer. How ironic is that? To me, this points to several of my own observations. One is that people are not using technology to connect as much as they are to express themselves. Connecting with another requires placing greater priority on building a relationship than it does focusing on one's own feelings, perspective or interpretation of the surrounding world. I do not see that happening as much as it should. Another observation, clearly related to the first, is that people are placing less importance on listening. They would much rather be in the role of message sender than message receiver. This is understandable, yet unfortunate.
Therefore, the growing ailment of isolation is directly linked to a decline in our interpersonal skills. The less effort we makes in making and sustaining connections, the greater our sense of feeling alone. Given this, it leads so many of us to wondering why more folks are not reaching out to us. Instead, we should be trying to figure out ways we can more effectively reach out to others. Does this mean we all should become social butterflies? No. But it does mean we may want to begin viewing what we see, hear and read with a perspective that goes beyond our own. To do so calls for an adjustment in how we go about communicating with all those around us.
Growing up, my parents kept a ping pong (table tennis for you purists) table in our basement. I spent many many hours playing and for a while was actually pretty good. I remember my Uncle George used to have what I considered to be epic battles. Upon further reflection, it is very possible that my "second father" held back so as to keep things interesting for me. I take this quick trip down memory lane as next week all of us at work are participating in what we hope will be a fun table tennis tournament. Strictly an internal event, this event is being organized as a team building exercise to help boost office morale.
Another primary purpose is to strengthen inner-office communication. This is why all the matches in our so-called tournament will be one team versus another. By random drawing, everyone, including our president, has been teamed up with a co-worker not of their choosing. This means for the duration of their games, people are going to have to work closely with another in a situation that will certainly be fast-paced, hopefully fun, and perhaps even a tad stressful. Plus, some folks at our workplace claim to be good players while others, like myself, describe themselves as being are less than that in ability. Given all these elements, each team is going to be faced with a genuine communication challenge.
Such a challenge is going to be one faced by all players and all teams, regardless of their ability or whether they win or lose. Each player will need to communicate verbally and non-verbally with their partner as well as be able to assess the actions of their opponents. While there is no question each person's level of skill will be a determining factor in who ultimately wins or does well, how well they communicate will also play a major role. Such an observation applies to a multitude of life's scenarios, not just ping pong.
So, the ultimate goal of communication is to generate better understanding between individuals and publics. It is not necessarily to create agreement though that would certainly be nice. People have their own perspectives, opinions, etc. and that is ok. Despite that, it should not be an excuse to not at least "get" where another person is coming. Effective communicating from all sides - and this includes active listening and mutual respect - can pave the way for genuine understanding. The ultimate result of that is what Edward Bernays mentioned when attempting to define public relations: it creates a harmonious adjustments between publics.
When it comes to understanding, perhaps Madam Curie said it best: "Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less." With so much shouting at, name calling and stereo-typing within our world, unnecessary fear, in many ways, seems to be having a field day. While I would love for it all stop immediately, as a society we would definitely be on the way to eradicating it if all of us were more dedicated to better understanding that and those which we tend to fear. The question, it seems, is how best to begin making that happen. What role can communication play?
My suggestion is for communicators - the ones who get paid to do that for a living - is to begin dedicating more of their abilities to inform or educate rather than persuade. Such a request, I know, is a tall order. But it is not an impossible one to work toward. It can be done. People are more at their best when they are informed. Generally, they tend to make better choices and behave more kindly and rationally. So many miscues and divisions occur more out of ignorance. Ignorance and false and misleading information also breed intolerance. And all this leads to the fear to which Madam Curie referred.
There continues to be much talk about "fake news" these days. Without question, it is the voice of President Trump that is the loudest when it comes to the use of this term. Others, of course, have picked up on it, but his remains the one that is most dominant. In theory, the phase refers to those media outlets that make-up stories and then print, post or air them tough knowing they are false and/or misleading. In reality, at least when used by Trump, the term now seems to largely pertain to those stories that are critical or unfavorable rather than inaccurate. When it comes to the media, our President seems to have a low threshold as to what he considers to be "fake."
Presently, the general public seems to hold the media in low esteem. (In fairness, according to the Pew Research Group, it seems to hold the government in even lower esteem.) What makes this so hurtful to our nation is the fact it is the media that provides almost all of us with the information and context we depend upon in order to try and make informed decisions. But with the President so heavily and consistently critical of the media or press, it is understandable that many citizens are beginning to share his negative perspective. The result is this is not a good time to be working as a reporter or editor.
With these sources of information seeing their credibility erode (along with that of government officials), it is no wonder that there is a disturbing portion of our society that seems lost when it comes to either having information it can count on as being accurate or fair. Many even seem to have difficulty identifying those media outlets that are honorable and trustworthy. All this represents a breakdown in communication - a social science we as a people need more than ever. The road to betterment needs to be navigated on truth. Truth is only as effective as how willing people are to give it their confidence. For that to happen, my hope is that all this "fake news" business will stop.
I tend to put a great deal of stock on communication. At times, I come across as viewing effective communication as a panacea for contending with all problems between people and even nations. If people communicate openly, fully and respectfully, then there is little that cannot be addressed and, if conflict is in the air, solved. After all, what obstacle could withstand such an assault, especially when coming from all sides of an issue? That tends to be my mantra. But is what I suggest true? Maybe. Actually, make that a very big maybe. As wonderful as communicating effectively is, it is important that it be discussed with a heavy dose of reality.
The hard truth is effective communication does not magically tear down walls, eliminate disagreement, or solve problems. Assuming two people are arguing in good faith, for example. No one is lieing, being closed-minded or disrespectful. They simply see an issue from a different perspective and believe their view is right. The reality is no amount of effective communication can or will change that. The opposing parties will continue to be on opposite sides. Even if each focuses on the so-called greater good of an issue, disagreement will remain. Effective communication, in truth, is not going to change or "fix" that.
I need to not lose sight of that or event hint that that is the case. Effective communication, in essence, is not the magic pill that will turn conflict into resolution. Having embraced that reality, however, this is not to suggest communicating effectively does not have its pluses. At best, it can and does lead to greater understanding and that is no small thing. Far from it. Two parties may agree to disagree, but at least by understanding and even respecting the other's perspective, they have a better chance of carrying on in a more harmonious way. Particularly in much of today's world, I, for one, will take that. That is not a bad reality to embrace.
My parents were like many that try to encourage their child or children to play a musical instrument. Looking back at what seems like a hundred years ago, one Saturday morning my parents had a man over to our house who specialized in selling musical instruments. For whatever reason, he brought with him an accordion. (I have to assume he did this at the suggestion of my parents. Where they got the idea that I would be interested in learning to play this particular instrument will forever remain a mystery.) I remember the man had me strap on this thing and showing me how to run my fingers up and down the keyboard and make what can only be described as noise come out of it.
Even though with his coaching I did play a few notes, I would not characterize that as playing the accordion any more than I would describe a monkey sitting in front of a piano and banging on the key board as "playing the piano." (I say that with no disrespect intended toward monkeys.) Playing any kind of musical instrument calls for far more than simply making sounds. Such an act requires a certain level of knowledge regarding notes and scales as well as an appreciation of the discipline required in learning to play even the simplest of compositions. Most any one can produce sound but not everyone can actually play an instrument.
This brings me to communication. All of us can make sound. We can all even communicate meaning even if we are uncertain of what specific words to use. But does having the ability to do this make us communicators? My answer is "no." As it is with musical instruments, effective communicating requires knowledge of language and grammar and even an ability to see/hear things through the eyes/ears of others. Without that knowledge base, generally the result is not all that different than what I produced as a child with that accordion. These days there are many noise makers in the world. Is there any one who does not believe we need less of those and more actual communicators? As a people, we need to move beyond the ability to make noise.
As one who does not like tension, I must concede it can and does play a big role in helping all of be better communicators. Suppose, for example, I claim the best movie ever made was "Field of Dreams." If someone objects and says the greatest movie was actually "Casablanca," then I have the challenge of defending my opinion. I am pressured to articulate my thinking in a way that makes sense and possibly even sways the perspective of the one who disagrees with me. Such an exchange begins with the tension of having my view challenged. Resolution is sought in my attempt to ease or eliminate the tension.
A client wants people to buy their new product. Tension. Coming up with a cohesive plan to achieve the goal is the resolution. Should the plan fall short, then the tension mounts and more efforts are needed to resolve it. Resolution. As emotional features, we are often driven by our feelings. Tension is found in such a state regardless of whether the feeling is one of happiness, anger or frustration. We either like the feeling or wish to change it. Either way, there is tension in that just as one can identify efforts to attain resolution in successfully changing or maintaining the feeling. Constant struggle. Constant tension and resolution.
That conflict is as much apart of us as the fact we strive to breath each of our moments. With those breaths and without that struggle, we ease to be. As this is my view, then with that comes tension to try and resolve that tension. This blog entry, you might say, is one attempt to do that. To be the best communicators we can be, we need the challenge to be the champion of our own voice. For myself, it is nice to think I am undefeated in this regard. But the fact is I am not. That is reality. This perpetual struggle is one we all share. It is something not to be avoided as the struggle for resolution contributes to our growth.
There is a story in the news right now about an outdoorsman who was recently bitten by a shark. It turns out a few years ago he was attacked by a bear. And a year or so before that he was bitten by a rattlesnake. If there is anything that epitomizes the term "trifecta" it is that. (I have a feeling that somewhere there is a gerbil patiently biding its time for the day when this guy crosses its path.) The fact this adventuress soul has survived all three of these encounters of the worst kind is good news, of course. But given what has happened to him - let's be honest - it is also funny. How could it not be? By the way, a word of advice: if this guy ever asks you out to lunch, then before answering you may first want to confirm what is on the menu.
Jokes aside, one would be forgiven for concluding that this man may be feeling down on himself for putting himself in vulnerable positons on a continuing basis. He may also be feeling frustrated for not being able to enjoy nature without also being victim of some unexpected and awful attack. It is also possible that he is feeling as if he cannot do anything right. While none of these experiences has happened to me, I can certainly empathize with his reaction to it all. Yes, being on the receiving end of attacks by three deadly creatures is terrible but "nature" is not the only aspect of the world where similar feelings are felt.
In the world of communication frustration can often feel as if it is a way of life. An example would be a person whose words are misinterpreted by others, is not listened to when she or he tries to restate what they initially said, and then attempts to write their message down only to be told their writing is messy and therefore unreadable. This is a trifecta of another kind. As communicators we need to take extra care is how we interact with others because do not always go well and the unexpected can occur in ways that can have awful consequences.
One of the great and most beloved novels of all-time is Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Let's be honest, if it weren't so loved, then why would Hollywood have bothered to make so many movie and television specials on it over the years? (This does not include all the theatrical productions that continue to be put together each year.) The main part of the story is when Ebenezer Scrooge, the main character, is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future the night of Christmas Eve. As is widely known, he awakes from his traumatic night a new and more kind-hearted man with a much more loving outlook on life.
I see some parallels between Scrooge's evolution and that of the public relations profession. Over the past nearly 150 years, it, too, has had close encounters with multiple versions of itself. The first visit came from what I might call the Ghost of Anything Goes. In this colorful version, communicating with mass audiences was carried out in a free-spirited manner. Make your message as exciting and colorful as possible with little regard for straight-forward facts. The second visit came from the Ghost of Analysis. It is here where an array of scholars and high-level thinkers took a hard look at the act of communication and produced a series of theories and models explaining the workings of this act.
Finally, the third visit, which happens to be going on right now, is from what I perceive to be the Ghost of Accountability. In our current times of societal division, there appears to be much disagreement over what used to be indisputable: facts and truth. Given that context, people, particularly public figures, seem to be giving greater weight to their opinions and perspectives rather than hard facts. At the same time, there appears to be a trend suggesting those same people may be coming to realize the truth is not be tossed aside or even ignored. Those, such as elected officials and talking-heads within the media, seem to be losing their audiences. They are beginning to be held accountable for playing loose with the facts.
I will be the first to admit that I am biased when it comes to job evaluations. I do not like them. Whether it is being on the receiving end or giving them, I find the dynamic to be uncomfortable. In fact, it is nearly as uncomfortable as asking for a pay raise. Even if it is justified, the idea of asking for more money because you have had a great year, you discovered a cure for hiccups, or simply because you are a hard worker, feels a bit degrading. The same is true when one is being evaluated by their boss. Trying to maintain a level of detached coolness while another, point by point, identifies things you could have done better or should have done at all is not easy.
My sense is when job evaluations are mentioned, people tend to think of the person who is being evaluated. But what about the person who does the interviewing? Their job, after all, is not only to assess the performance of the worker but do so in a way that demoralize them. This requires a great deal of thought and planning. The evaluator, of course, wants to be fair and thorough, but also encouraging and caring. People are vulnerable creatures whether we admit it or not. Being the subject of any level of criticism, regardless of how well intentioned, puts most any one on edge or in a defensive posture.
The evaluator faces a communication challenge. Their goal is to be truly heard and understood. Ideally, what they say should motivate the employee to try and do better, to improve their level of effort even if they believe they cannot work any harder than they have. I view performance evaluations like a special cake. If at all possible, its ingredients must include praise, sensitivity, constructive suggestions, and great clarity. Not everyone can walk this tightrope. One or two false steps can be devastating to the person who is being evaluated. But if successful, the evaluation can serve as a major springboard for greater performance.
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