2012-08-31

Open And Honest Communication

With a hat tip to David Henderson, I recently became aware of this Rachael Larimore op-ed piece at Salon.com.

It's a great piece, but I feel the scope is too limited. Larimore is discussing an isolated political issue, but in doing so, she rests her entire point on something much stronger and more profound. While she may have a great point about this politician or that, the following paragraph stands out as something I wish everyone would figure out:
Many moons ago, I spent a couple of years in a fiction-writing program at a local university. I never finished the novel I aspired to write, but I did learn some valuable lessons. The most important: “It doesn’t matter what you meant. What matters is what you conveyed.” In the context of class, that meant when we were sharing our work and listening to feedback, we couldn’t butt in and say that we’d meant something else. We needed to take ourselves out of our own head and try to understand what our readers had heard.
How many times have you spent time pulling your hair out with someone because they read you all wrong and got upset over something you didn't even intend to say? I sure have. We want to take that other person by the shoulders, give them a good hard shake, and say, "But you don't get it! I didn't mean it that way! I meant it another way! Why won't you listen to what I really meant, rather than what you thought I meant!?"

The thing is, though, Larimore - or I guess technically, Larimore's fiction-writing professor - was right. Your intended message is irrelevant. What matters is the message received. When you're delivering a message, you owe it to the recipients to deliver it accurately. Can they be faulted for getting the wrong message? No, not really.

Having said that, I recently passed by a marquee sign near my workplace on which someone had posted the following message:
It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.
Uh-oh. That seems right, too.

This puts us in a bit of a quandary, because on the one hand, it's not the listener's fault if you aren't properly misunderstood; but on the other hand, it is basically impossible for a person to deliver a perfect message every time. Where do we go from here?

As a speaker, you have to be patient, and you have to be prepared to say something more than once, in more than one way. The first time you say something, you might get it wrong. When someone misunderstands you, it is incumbent upon you to set the record straight. More importantly, you must set the record straight without becoming upset or indignant.

As a listener, you have to be receptive. You must give speakers the benefit of the doubt and consider what they really mean. You must be prepared to ask questions about things that aren't clear, and you must follow-up on your doubts with clarifying questions whenever you feel the speaker is saying something potentially objectionable.

It's a two-way street, and both sides come with some responsibility. This is what it means to communicate openly and honestly. We cannot simply and indignantly dismiss what other people have to say, no matter what our prior biases and suspicions are. We must give each other adequate latitude to convey their messages accurately, and we must be prepared to state things more explicitly when required.

Conclusion
To be honest, I feel a little sad today in having to write this blog post. What I've just said is perfectly obvious to everyone. Why, then, is it so difficult for people to practice patience, dignity, openness, and honesty in communication?

One theory is that they simply will not; another theory is that they simply cannot. My belief is that the former explanation applies in matters of politics, and the latter explanation applies in matters of total interpersonal communication breakdown.

Perhaps one day I will write a blog post on total interpersonal communication breakdown. It is a post that desperately needs to be written.