Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Communication Breakdown

As someone who spends a great deal of time communicating ideas, and whose day job centers around communication, it may come as some surprise to you that I actually have difficulty communicating with people on a regular basis. I rarely talk on the phone, and I almost never answer it when it rings. Unless it’s from someone I know well, I don’t return “Call me” voicemails. I would prefer to get a real voicemail, one that tells me what the call is about, so that I can decide whether or not it’s a conversation I want to have. Or, as is often the case with work, so that I can do the research and have some answers before we have the conversation. Even better, from my perspective, would be if we can have that conversation by email, so that I can take all the time I want to choose my words and make certain that things say what I want them to say. Making certain that things say what I want them to say is important to me, which can present a surprising amount of interference to communication.

I never learned how to do small talk. I see it done, and I try to imitate what I see, but I just can’t seem to get the hang of it. “How’s the weather?” “Hot.” (Or “wet” or “cold” or whatever the case may be.) It may go as far as, “We had a real storm blow through last night, and now there is debris everywhere,” but that’s about it. I can’t seem to figure out how to make it stretch beyond that for the life of me. If I don’t have anything real to say, I’m more likely to just sit quietly than anything else.

Part of that is learned behavior. At one time, I would often say too much, a fairly common issue for young geeks and nerds everywhere who can’t quite understand that everyone else just isn’t as interested, and then I would get embarrassed when I did finally determine that no one else was interested. The fact that this determination usually came as a result of lots and lots of laughter, and laughter that was inevitably at my expense, only served to increase the embarrassment, and no one enjoys being embarrassed. I developed an almost pathological aversion to embarrassment, and so set about learning various tricks to avoid it. One of those tricks was learning how to keep my mouth shut, and sometimes I learn a new task far better than I intended, or even better than is necessarily good for me.

These days I am more likely to run ten different versions of what I want to say through my head and, by the time I decide which version I want to use, if I even make such a decision, it’s too late to say it, so nothing gets said. Many things go unsaid. I do try to make sure that important things do not go unsaid, but we don’t always know what is important at the time. There are some things that only stand out as important later, maybe when it’s too late. That isn’t something that can necessarily be fixed, but it is something to always be aware of.

Another part is simply brain wiring. We can’t all be Mozart, we can’t all be Hank Aaron, and we can’t all be Tony Robbins. Different people have different skills and, while some skills can be learned or improved through the proper efforts, some just are, or are not, as the case may be. It’s important to not get hung up on the difference. Play to your strengths, learn what you can, and understand that you can’t learn everything.

I can get better at speaking. There are classes and seminars for improving speech skills, as well as the various other skills that can go along with that. I can practice in reverse the same principles that I practiced to go to speaking less in the first place. It’s unlikely that I would ever achieve anything like expert level, but I could certainly improve. Realistically speaking, though, that probably won’t happen. There are only so many hours in the day, and I will never get around to learning everything I want to learn as it is. Don’t get me wrong. I will make some improvements just because improving communication improves life, but those improvements won’t likely involve anything as active as classes or seminars. It’s all about balancing priorities, and I have other priorities that mean more to me.

One final issue to touch on is what we normally think of as disability. I have a slight stutter and am mildly hard of hearing. Most people never notice the former unless they just happen to be around when I am very tired or extremely stressed, but everyone who spends time with me catches on to the latter pretty quickly. I describe these as things we think of as disability because I do not believe that I am disabled in any way, but it’s a classification that people understand, ands these are issues that can be disabling in more severe forms. One day my hearing probably will reach a point where medical intervention is necessary (though Heather and I may disagree on when that day has arrived), but I don’t have any reason to believe that will ever be worse than a simple hearing aid situation. My stutter … it’s extremely frustrating when it does kick in, but that is fairly rare, and I don’t have any reason to believe that will change. These factors can present barriers to communication, but they’re also things that I can and do work around.

These are just a few of my personal issues with communication, but what’s important to remember is that most people do have some communication issues, and they can be a variety of things. Some of these issues will have clear and observable causes, but some won’t. Some communication issues you may never know about unless you have a deep understanding of or relationship with the person affected. If we can remember things like this when we are trying to communicate with people, that understanding can actually help to alleviate some of the difficulties. We tend to believe subconsciously that other people have the same skills and impediments that we possess. It’s human nature, but it’s also usually wrong. They don’t. That other person you are struggling to communicate with may be facing obstacles you know nothing about. A little patience can go a long way in such situations.

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