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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

Thanksgiving in the aftermath

Thanksgiving--a day of food, family and fellowship. It offers us, just before the Holiday Crazies begin, a glorious day to kick back, relax, and count our blessings. In the past, I have reflected in this space on what I am personally thankful for. My list covers a lot of ground, from supportive friends and family to the brilliant comic Sarah Silverman.

This year, however, I offer a different message to those of you venturing outside your comfort zone, taking that real (or metaphorical) journey over the river and through the woods. We have all been bruised by the grueling election season and its immediate aftermath. So as our national holiday approaches, we would do well to look around and ask how we can put ourselves, our families and our communities back together. Let's take a simple first step and listen, really listen, to one another. Now don't get me wrong--I am not advocating acquiescence or amnesia. But I am suggesting it might be best to wait until after the pie is served to point out Aunt Tammy's rhetoric of racism, Cousin Fred's sexism, or neighbor Abigail's elitism. Because we do need to root out language that excludes and divides. At the same time, it is important to find common ground with those who have different perspectives. We must do that if we want to continue The American Experiment we celebrate at Thanksgiving. So I propose that as we mash the potatoes, sit down to the turkey, watch the parade, or enjoy the game, we actually try to listen to each other with open ears and open hearts. Because like the route to Grandmother's house, the road to real communication may be a long one, but it is never a one-way street.



Boxed In

Picture this: you're facing a room full of strangers, telling them about something you understand inside out, when suddenly you see blank looks on too many faces, and wonder if you started speaking a foreign language. Or, just after you have confidently delivered your speech, you find out from the questions asked that people did not get what you were saying, not one bit. Sound familiar? It happens to most of us somewhere along the line.

When we really know our stuff we run that risk even more. Which is why being an expert in your field does not necessarily mean you're the best person to speak about your topic. Remember those speeches you've heard from esteemed experts or cutting-edge innovators who lost you after "good morning?" As listeners, such an experience represents a lost opportunity for learning at best, and a complete waste of time at worst. Yet when the tables are turned and we are the ones speaking, how do we regard these speech fails? All too often we blame our audience for not being smart or attentive enough to cherish the pearls of wisdom we are throwing before them. That is the completely wrong approach.

Wherever you are speaking--a classroom, an auditorium, or a meeting room-- your primary objective is to connect. Always. The verb may vary: share, teach, elucidate--even, perhaps, persuade. But remember you cannot convince anyone of anything until you have made a deep, real connection first! And that means taking a step back. Getting out of the weeds. You may be immersed in your topic and quite excited about what you have to share, but unless you are speaking a language your audience understands you won't connect.

We are facing some pretty huge problems these days, many of them compounded by the fact that not only do people not understand, they have given up trying to understand. The big, complicated concepts that drive science, economics, and politics shaping our daily lives will certainly affect the future of our communities, our country, and our planet. But many don't have the interest or desire to begin to understand them. There are many reasons for this, but one thing I have seen over and over is the inability of experts to effectively explain these concepts to non-experts. If people don't understand the larger relationships between various forms of energy usage and climate change, for example, maybe it's because no one has taken time to explain it in way they understand. Life moves pretty fast these days (thanks, Ferris!) and if you don't make an effort to connect, people feel disrespected. Then it's Bye Felicia.

And there you are, one step closer to having your great solution to the world's problems shot down by ignorant funders, defeated by a misinformed electorate, or otherwise sabotaged by people you might see as "just plain dumb." But you have to take responsibility as a speaker. No one can read your mind, and if you need to connect the dots for them, that is what you do. Step outside yourself and see what might be complicated or hard to comprehend. Ask someone to help. Someone who is not an expert in the way you are. Then break it down. And practice. Putting a reminder in the notes section of your PowerPoint is not enough. You need to make a plan and "bake it into" your presentation. If you wait for Q & A at the end to gauge audience understanding, you run the risk of sending too many listeners to their happy place along the way. And that's not a risk any of us can afford.

So step outside of the box you've put yourself in. The one where you're comfortable talking to people who already understand what you mean. And try to connect with others out there in the wide, wide world.


Toxic weeds

As someone whose whole professional life has to do with words and what we communicate through them, underneath them, and in between them, I have had many thoughts "communication" in the final weeks of this presidential election. I qualify the term because communication theory posits a loop: speaker-message-listener-feedback-speaker, etc. What we have seen from Donald Trump has been like broadcasting--in its original 18th century usage, "seeds sown by scattering." Accusations, overstatements and generalizations are thrown to the winds, and, with nothing to tie them down to reality, these seeds of half-baked ideas float about until they land in some sort of soil. If it is not hospitable they wither and die, but if they find fertile soil, they take root and grow into toxic weeds that threaten to overrun anything near them. I have a weed like that in my backyard. It winds through my neighbors' fence into our space. We call it the "evil weed" And, like Donald, it always comes back no matter how often we try to yank it out. Because the roots are not something we control.

I have been thinking a lot about the depths to which our political discourse has fallen this cycle. Bullying tactics have become more and more normalized as we slog on toward November. They have reached a fever pitch in the past ten days, and I fear that our sense of what constitutes bullying and why it is so bad for us may be permanently warped. When Donald stands in front of the press and public and says with a straight face "It was just words. It didn't mean anything," it makes my blood boil. Of course words have meaning! I have blogged before about this facile excuse for bad behavior. Every word has an intention behind it (unless your brain has become disengaged from your mouth--which almost seems to be Trump's defense. But that can't be right. Who would vote for a candidate who doesn't think before he speaks. Oh. Maybe that is what they mean by "authenticity"?!?) And, contrary to what his campaign tells us, the concept that bullying is wrong has not just been rolled out this October to thwart Donald. In January 2104 I wrote about the need to see language as a tool that can easily be weaponized; at that time, even the NYPD recognized that fact.

Like so many people, I am weary of this election charade. The daily posturing, name-calling, hate-filled language coming from the Trump camp is something many of us have been working to eradicate for years. It is invading our space, like my backyard's evil weed, which I will keep pulling out and cutting back. And someday I will either weaken it so much that it can no longer thrive, or I will have to do something I have resisted thus far, and go ask the neighbors to help. They may not want to eradicate it (they seem to find it attractive), so we will compromise and work toward a mutually beneficial solution. That's what grown-ups in a civil society do.


Comfortable in her own skin

One thing was crystal clear to me as I watched the first presidential debate on September 26th: only one of the candidates was comfortable in her own skin! Hillary kept cool, and expressed her feelings with a secret smile, which seemed to serve as protective armor (the "go to your happy place" technique most women are all too familiar with), and an expression of genuine glee ("all that studying paid off!"). She must have decided to control what she could, and not waste energy worrying about anything she couldn't--like her unpredictable opponent. She maintained her composure and spoke in a relaxed tone of voice, and looked like she felt centered, grounded and as calm as possibe under the glare of those lights. She had, as we say in acting, an objective: something you want to/need to accomplish in the course of a given scene. She made reaching that objective her goal--regardless of her obstacle.

Donald, on the other hand, reminded me of insecure beginning acting students who flash "aren't I great?" looks at the instructor and classmates because they know they have no idea what to do. But they hope their false confidence can hoodwink the audience. The technical term for such a person is "show-off." I think Donald falls into that category, though he thinks of himself as a showman. His "technique" consists of riffing off what his audience gives him. Since he has so little in the way of a coherent message, he depends on their response to guide him, claiming that "off the cuff" is more authentic. (You know what I say about that.) That approach might work for a well-trained improv performer, but not Donald. He's a mediocre showman, at best. And when he is out on a tightrope without the net of audience cheers, he has no center to help him keep his balance. His energy is all outward-focused; he pushes his message at his audience. And when he can't tell if it's connecting, as we saw in the first debate, he has no inner resources to fall back on. Because there is no real objective beyond basking in the crowd's adulation.

The next debate on October 9th is town hall-style. This will be fascinating because Donald will assume he can nail it. But this will be no rally of Trumpers. And it will be moderated. The intimate setting will reveal who is most comfortable in their own skin, who has integrated their message into their very being. Barack Obama, I recall, did an extremely good job of playing to the audience in his 2008 Town Hall. That is where I first noticed he was ambidextrously handling the microphone, so he could gesture inclusively to the entire audience surrounding him. Not an easy thing to do, and one that would not even be on most candidate's radar. But non-verbal connection is important. So if Hillary can keep up her relaxed focus, she'll have an even better time in that informal setting than she did behind the podium. And Donald? He'll shout and stomp, rail and rage. He'd better be careful, though, or he might fall off the tightrope!


Tone policing: Vinegar vs. Honey 

Long before it had a name, I was the victim of "tone policing." I was outspoken, but I was also a good girl, so I often swallowed my anger or frustration and heeded the advice to "calm down," and "lower your voice." I got used to having expression of my feelings negated in this way by authority figures of all kinds. But I never got used to it and I never liked it!

I could write a book on how power has been wielded against me in this way by those who felt my speech threatened their privileged worldview.  So much that they were justified in silencing me. And this has not been just my experience! Our screens are exploding with examples of that behavior now, on TV, on social media, as well as in the press. Black Lives Matter activists are being told, as they express their quite justified anger, that they won't be listened to until they can "be more reasonable." Transgender allies are being shut out of conversations because they dare to raise their voices in protest of ridiculous "bathroom bills" or police brutality.

Then there is the other side of the coin. The spurious argument about infringement of free speech rights. Supporters of the outlandish candidate for president spew repugnant falsehoods, then turn around and accuse those attempting to engage in civil dialogue of trampling their free speech rights. But calling someone out on hate speech is never wrong. Bigots, racists, homophobes and haters of all kinds do not see it this way; their blindness on the issue is a large part of their problem.

No, shutting down the hate is not tone policing. Tone policing hinges on power imbalance. Assumptions of superiority couple with the fear of losing undeserved privilege and result in reflexive silencing of those who would challenge that privilege. So when the marginalized lash out at their oppressors, the oppressors duck the issue by saying "I can't talk to you; you're too upset!" or "I can't hear what she is saying because she is too shrill!" Or, my personal favorite, the dismissal disguised as "friendly advice" from a gatekeeping stranger: "you'll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, sweetie."

All these arguments are spurious. People who are angry need to be listened to, not ignored because they aren't using your preferred vocabulary with the correct tone at an acceptable time. Anyone who has successfully raised a child can tell you that! The sooner you address their grievance, the better for all of us. It is a problem-solving short-cut, the most effective one anybody has come up with. So even if the only strife you encounter is in your home or office, be aware that silencing people in this way will only make things worse.

Oh, and by the way--I just had to trap a bunch of fruit flies hanging around my kitchen and guess what? My jar of vinegar caught dozens. And the honey? Not a one!