The challenges of effective communication

March 2, 2012

I’ve always been good at written communication. I’ve learned to do reasonably well with public speaking. Both forms of communication allow me to prepare ahead of time what I want to say and how I want to say it. Even with impromptu public speaking – what we do for “Table Topics” in Toastmasters meetings – I seem to be doing well (according to my fellow Toastmasters), though certainly with plenty of room for improvement.

All of those are one-way communications, though. (There’s a certain amount of feedback to a public speaker in terms of the audience’s body language, but I find it too slight to be of much help, so far.) Where I have difficulties is in two-way communication – conversations in person or on the phone, and participation in group discussions or activities. So when I saw that my company was offering the opportunity to attend a training seminar on “Effective Communication Skills That Improve Work Relationships and Teamwork,” I jumped at the chance.

I spent today attending the seminar, and I’m writing this while it’s fresh on my mind. I am still working through what practical steps I can take to improve my communication, as well as some disappointment that a lot of the content was basic information I already knew. But as the seminar leader pointed out several times, a lot of the principles of effective communication are “common sense – but not common practice.” If I put even one or two principles into practice on a regular basis, I’ll have gained from attending the seminar.

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Technology-enabled communication

October 14, 2010

I’ve occasionally reflected on the hypothetical question of which I would more mind losing, my sense of sight or hearing. Being a very visually oriented person, I would prefer to keep my sight. But after reading an article in the Wall Street Journal today, it occurred to me that I would rather lose either or both than lose my ability to communicate with others.

The article is about how parents of children with speech and communication problems are finding the iPad very useful in providing a means for their children to communicate. There are specialized devices that can help such children, but they cost thousands of dollars. Now less than a thousand dollars, you can buy an iPad and software that lets someone point to pictures to convey his meaning.

The article makes it clear that the iPad isn’t an all-purpose solution for everyone with speech or communication difficulties. Someone who can’t use his hands well could make little use of the tablet computer. But for a lot of children, the iPad is just the right size, and the mere fact that it is mainstream technology rather than a device made for handicapped people helps such children fit in better with their peers.

I’m very glad that Al doesn’t have the kind of problems that would require that kind of help. Back when he was a preschooler, though, I can imagine how useful such a tool might have been. At an age when most children are chattering away and driving their parents nuts with endless questions (my mother used to say that she couldn’t wait for us to talk, and then when we did she wished she knew how to make us stop), he could barely put two or three words together.

He knew lots of words, but they often weren’t useful ones. He could name every animal in his picture book of wild animals, but he couldn’t tell me which kind of cereal he wanted for breakfast. He often resorted to pointing, which doesn’t work well unless you’re close enough to make it clear which thing you’re pointing at – and when you’re three or four years old there’s a great deal that’s out of reach. Both of us ended up frustrated a great deal.

Fortunately a preschool director was able to connect us with the county resources for testing and working with special needs children, and over the next few years his speech and language improved dramatically. Now his biggest problem is that he has so much to say that he tries to talk too fast and we can’t always make out what he says. Today the school speech therapist met with him and talked about using his “snail voice” instead of his “racehorse voice.”

I’m not that much of a talker myself, so I could probably even manage without being able to talk, but I’d sure miss being able to write if I lost that ability. My emails can get as long and wordy as an old-fashioned handwritten letter – and I don’t get writer’s cramp in the process. I hardly ever finish the stories I start writing – but I tell myself that someday (perhaps after Al is grown up) I will. And of course there’s this blog, where I write about whatever strikes me as particularly interesting that I’ve been thinking/reading/learning about lately.

I don’t care for using a laptop, let alone a smaller device like an iPad. I’m a good typist, and I like using a full-size keyboard to relay my thoughts from my mind to the screen (and to whatever digital storage is available). But if I ever did lose the ability to speak and to type, it’s good to know that technology is making more and more ways for people to communicate.

Knowing the right thing to say

September 22, 2010

I used to think I was pretty safe from saying the wrong thing. After all, shy and quiet person that I was, I rarely said much at all. Besides, when I do speak, I think about what I’m going to say before I say it. I prefer tact to bluntness, and I qualify my statements with words like “might” and “for the most part.”

As a young adult, however, I learned (from friends who cared enough to give me constructive criticism), that I sometimes managed to offend people by what I failed to say. (My mother had seen no need to teach social courtesies, and I had to learn to say things like “God bless you” when someone sneezed or “Thank you” after visiting in someone’s home.) Also, while my quietness sometimes gives people the impression that I am a deep thinker, other times it gives them the impression that I am aloof or snobbish.

So I’ve worked at talking more, and not always planning everything I’m going to say ahead of time (which is tough for me, because I don’t think well on my feet). Over the years I’ve become more comfortable with making small talk, and with jumping into conversations without waiting for someone to ask my opinion. Sometimes I even start to think of myself as a decent conversationalist. But then some situation comes up which disabuses me of such notions.

My job that past several months has involved a lot more interaction with people I don’t know than in most of my previous jobs. (I did work as a bank teller for a few months, but the nature of the job provided enough structure to the interactions I had with people, that it wasn’t much of an issue.) I now sit at the front desk, which makes me the de facto receptionist. And I frequently deal (primarily by email) with people throughout the corporation who have submitted procurement requests.

I watch other people interact with visitors, and they seem to do it so smoothly and comfortably. I still have trouble deciding what is the best way to ask visitors for their names when they do not volunteer them, or whether to just call the person who is to meet with them and say, “You have visitors.” If I try to talk with them while they wait for someone to come meet with them, I worry that I am being overly chatty or informal. If I just say “Please have a seat,” and continue with my work, I worry that I am being cold and unfriendly.

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Happily behind the times

October 11, 2009

I am behind the times. I still think email is the way to communicate with people I don’t see in person. I get my news from the internet, but I don’t Twitter, and I rarely log on to facebook. I spend a good deal of time on the computer, both at home and at work, but most of the time I’m reading, not participating in communcation with other people.

I still think a two-hour response time to an email is pretty good (unless an urgent task at work is waiting for the answer). If I want a faster answer, I use a very old-fashioned means of communication. I get up from my desk and walk to the desk of the person I want to talk to (the requests I process come from people in the same building). I have Office Communicator available to me, but I have never once signed on.

According to an article in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal (technology does let me get ahead on some things), “email was better suited to the way we used to use the Internet—logging off and on, checking our messages in bursts. Now, we are always connected, whether we are sitting at a desk or on a mobile phone.” It’s true that my internet is always on, because we have cable internet, but I’m certainly not always on the internet. I do carry a mobile phone, but that’s mostly so my husband can always call me. (It’s also handy to have a calculator/stopwatch/alarm clock in my pocket).

I don’t generally need a quicker response than I can get from email. I have little interest in when friends leave for work or get home or go to bed, or some of the other trivial details that get posted on facebook. It is a handy place to see their vacation photos – especially because I can take a quick look and skip the rest if I’m not really interested. I found a couple classmates from high school on facebook – but I have ignored a few friend requests because I don’t really know the people, even if they go to the same church or went to the same college.

The article points out some of the downsides to the communication streams enable by services such as facebook and twitter. There is too much information, and it’s hard to filter out the important from the unimportant. Because you are posting something that may be read by 500 “friends” who are more acquaintance than real friends, you don’t share things you might with real friends. More of your life is on display for huge numbers of other people to find than you may really intend.

Those are some of the reasons I choose to stay behind the times. I only log on to facebook when I want to play Farkle. I rarely post anything on my wall. (After all, this blog is where I put the thoughts that I want to share with the people who are interested enough to read them.) I read blogs of people/groups whose thoughts interest me – even if blogs are also considered passé now.

I don’t dislike technology. But I dislike noise. And the noise level seems pretty high on these new communications streams.