Can You Hear Me Now?

I entered a coffee shop after my workout this morning and a very young, petit woman was on the job. She had on a tee-shirt with a single word emblazoned: “Seniors.” I asked for two iced coffees, with two sweeteners and cream.

She held up different sized cups in each hand and said, “Which size?”

“The one in your left hand,” I said. She promptly put that one away and used the cup in her right hand. I am not making this up. I watched her prepare the iced coffees and noticed there was no cream, yet she filled them to the brim. She made two trips for the sweetener, instead of getting them all at one time.

“You forgot the cream,” I pointed out, and she said, “Right.” Instead of pouring some of the coffee out to make room, she topped them off to overflowing with some cream, mixed them, and put the covers on.

I asked if she were, indeed, a senior. She said she was, and I asked which of the local high schools she attended. “Oh, no,” she corrected, “I’m a senior at the University of Rhode Island.”

“What are you studying?”

“Secondary education.”

(I couple this with a guidance counselor I saw recently in another state at her retirement dinner, giving the middle finger as part of her speech in critique of the state governor. Sometimes I’m so repulsed that I’m stunned.)

The senior is a nice kid and any of us can have a bad day, including me. But I began thinking about the primary and secondary school mess in the US in terms of providing universally high quality education, the frequent impasses between teacher unions and boards of education, and the woeful inability of too many kids to gain employable skills.

Every business today is a communications business. The Internet hasn’t changed that, it’s exacerbated the need. Every organization needs customers or clients or members, and they need to market, sell, service, and repair.

I’ve been consulting and coaching since the 70s, for some of he largest entities in the world, boutique firms, and individuals. I’ve been to 59 countries and written 45 books. I tell you this because I have a pretty fair frame of reference.

To succeed, we need four basic communications competencies:

  1. Read with comprehension. We need to be able to read a newspaper column, a blog post, or a book and understand the author’s intent, apply it to our situations, and relate varied ideas to each other. Speed reading is senseless unless it includes speed comprehension. I’ll take slower reading and greater comprehension any day.
  2. Write with expression. We should be able to use metaphors, analogies, and examples to help others quickly understand what we’re conveying in our email and business correspondence, and convince them of our worth and intent. This is a matter of building vocabulary and practicing writing. (And if you don’t teach kids cursive writing, how do they read their families’ correspondence, historical documents, write personal “thank you” or sympathy letters, and so on? If the power fails and keyboards are useless, are we then rendered inarticulate?)
  3. Speak with influence. We ought to address a meeting, a conference, or merely other parties with appropriate language and examples. We don’t (believe me) need to be “motivational speakers,” but we should be able to make our points without stammering or using “you know” as an adjective. The too-frequent resort to mere obscenity among many comedians is simply a demonstration of lack of wit and talent (which you can also see on Facebook and YouTube among those who curse instead of think).
  4. Listen with discernment. We’re all so eager to talk, that we don’t adequately listen. We want our Warholian 15 minutes, but we want it every hour. We hear a cacophony in ongoing stimuli, but don’t listen for intelligence or knowledge. Listening is a skill, but apparently there is insufficient instant gratification for those who just want to talk. Take the blue, blinking metal out of your ear and try listening for a change.

Read, write, speak, listen: In this environment, they are the fundamentals for success, the advantage over the competition. More than ever, we are a communicating society. The question is, who’s making sense?

© Alan Weiss 2011. All rights reserved.

11 thoughts on “Can You Hear Me Now?

  1. Great points Alan. Great story, too.

    The internet – along with texting, lurid emails, reality shows, etc etc. – has reduced real communication. Or rather, our society has used the internet and other means to descend to a lower level of communication. We are probably less of a communicating society than we were 10 years ago – it’s just that there’s a whole lot more noise. I was discussing with my 7 year old the other day how context is so important and so often missing when we retrieve information by electronic means. And context is critical to understanding in all of our communication.

    But my reaction to the statement about the retirement dinner is, “What?!” She seriously did that to express her emotions in a public situation? How did the crowd respond?

    • The crowd was other teachers and some outside guests like us. She received a splattering of applause and general smiles. It was a blue-collar, low class environment. It reminded me of a dockworkers’ meeting or the Ford unions I used to work with in the 70s as a consultant. I would NEVER allow any children of mine into a school system such as that.

  2. This one comes the day I am giving a speech on that very subject.
    Serendipity time!

    “We are a communication society,” a simple yet profound realization that must sink in to appreciate that the effort poured in marketing gravity is _important_ work.

  3. “Reading” Thrive! during morning workout.
    Misunderstandings and communications breakdowns sometimes occur (unfortunately) via e-mail.
    What are your “rules for e-mail etiquette”?

    • You never intrude or assume a familiarity that you don’t properly have. You use correct and civil language. You don’t ask for favors without offering something. You respond rapidly. You honor the other person’s preferences. You never place them on lists without permission. You get to the point rapidly.

      Pretty much like any communication, except you have to remember that inflection and volume are missing.

  4. Having taught many ‘education’ majors I can say this does not surprise me at all, regretfully. They study all of the educational policies and theories, and yet fail to develop any of the skills and knowledge they are one day supposedly going to attempt to teach others.

    I use to ask many of them why they were going into education, and would almost universally get: “because I love children!” And then usually how it would be so fun to be able to just hang out with children all day. I just quit asking. I think this is part of an overriding problem of everyone needing to be everyone’s BFF. It is particularly problematic when parents and teachers are more worried about being a young person’s best friend than being a parent or teacher.

  5. Show me a teacher’s union initiative that was put forth for the kids and not the teacher. Legendary union leader Albert Shanker said, “When the students vote for union leaders, I’ll worry about the students.” Horror show.

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