Sunday, September 5, 2010

Communication Breakdown

Hey, girl, stop what you're doin'!
Hey, girl, you'll drive me to ruin.
I don't know what it is that I like about you, but I like it a lot.
Won't let me hold you, Let me feel your lovin' charms.

Communication Breakdown, It's always the same,
I'm having a nervous breakdown, Drive me insane!

Robert Plant-

Robert Plant is a fabulous singer, but it has to be said his best mode of communication is probably not the written word. The hard sciences are often very particular about defining terms - knowing exactly what the definition of a word is. This is a really good idea. When you are being operated on, you want your doctor to say to the nurse “hand me the scalpel” not “hand me the thingy”. Same goes for pilots, nuclear warhead...guys, and anyone else in charge of something important.

A friend of mine asked me to prepare a talk on communication for an I.C.B.C. (that’s a government insurance corporation) conference. So, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone by writing a blog about what I plan to say. By the way, killing two birds with one stone would be really, really hard. Even getting close to one bird with any sizable rock is tough (I just tried). Just carrying around a rock and looking for a bird raises some suspicion apparently.

There are probably a zillion ways one could approach the topic of effective communication, but I think for brevity’s sake we can whittle it down to a few basic principles. When we communicate, we do it through the vehicle of the 5 senses:


If you are a cook, you probably use all of these to communicate. But if you are interacting with another person on the street, you’ll probably just use:


Unless you are Robert Plant. Or you are really, really friendly.

Further whittling will reveal we use language more than any of the other faculties of communication. My friend Oscar asked me to prepare something about communication from a “Yogic perspective”. So I considered that. One could say that from a yogic perspective, we’d want our communication to be:

As concise as possible
Worth listening to

So that brings us to an interesting question - what is worth saying? We use language to interact, to get things - “pass the salt”, and to describe our inner state - happy, sad, poignant, furious and so on. But to do this we need a listener. Good listeners are a very well paid bunch of folks. This is so because the act of listening literally creates space for the speaker to fill. And not only that. When we are really listened to, it encourages us to give our best as a speaker, to craft our language to be as palatable as possible, and to say what we mean. Ahhh - to say what we mean!

There are at least 8,000 homophones and homonyms in the English language. New words are being created daily - some statistics say over 20,000 English words per year are being added to our language. Some of these are scientific or medical terms that we may never use, like Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis - just hope you don’t get a lung infection in an African mine. All of this makes choosing the right words pretty tough. So how is it that we do it?

I think great speakers are great listeners. They never stop listening, even while they are speaking. They have honed their sensitivity to pick up non-verbal cues from their audience of one or a hundred. I have seen this ability in all the great speakers I’ve heard, and it is a function of awareness. This awareness is present when the internal babble of our minds is quiet enough to allow us the sensitivity to really regard another and receive who they are and what they might understand and have an interest in. Great musicians have the same ability. Rock musicians. They can even be seen flicking their hair away from their ears in what appears to be a sultry way, but which is actually a very methodical and sophisticated way of listening better.

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