I’ve a very simple definition of effective communication: An exchange between two or more folks where everyone understands and is understood. I’ve also an acute awareness of the impact effective communication can have. This is why being cussed out, encouraged, or whispered sweet nothings to, leaves you feeling some kind of way… Every time.
Never, though… Never in my life have I been so challenged to communicate as I was yesterday… By a few kids 12 years old and younger.
These children were part of a sweet, cheerful family and their parents allowed them to go on the civil rights tour I was leading. Mind you, this tour is effective and impactful communication at its raw finest. It’s designed to not only share facts about slavery, reconstruction, the civil rights movement, exploitation and racism but to help the visitor really understand it: To feel the impact.
At first, it wasn’t clear to me just what kind of challenge I was facing. That quickly became clear.
I laid down the basic rules to my exuberant, pint-sized audience and gingerly assessed their awareness with an introductory question:
“So, who can tell me where black people came from, originally?”
Many blank stares and a couple prompts later the eldest bravely raised her hand:
“Way back in the day!” She proclaimed proudly. I stifled a guffaw and the weight of the challenge began to sink in.
I led them into the life-sized recreation of a slave hold that marks the beginning of the tour. They were terrified and jumpy for the next 15 minutes.
Lots of soothing, assurance, and acknowledgement of how scary, dark and bad this all was, and how encouraging and inspiring the Civil Rights movement and its leaders are, followed. Mostly I taught by finding immediate, real-life points of comparison for them to grasp, and then used that to explain the larger ideas. A few jokes helped.
The exchange was a wonderful reminder for me of how seriously we have to take communication, and how many tools we have in our toolbox to use. Everything matters. Environment, receptiveness, emotion, humor, language, tone, gestures, culture, age, gender.
It would have been easy to breeze through the tour quickly, leaving those kids bored, scared, and plenty confused. I was in the right frame of mind to remember my toolbox and be able to use the right tool in every moment.
We’re not always that fortunate. When we’re scared, upset, shut down, vulnerable, frustrated, stressed out, or giddy it’s much easier to do more harm than good to the folks we communicate with.
Remember to take inventory on your surroundings, the people you’re communicating with and the tools you have before every exchange. It’s critical you use them.
We are in control of every exchange we opt into. If you feel you’re not, meaning you can’t take inventory and use those tools effectively, you can opt out. And should.
I mean, I try not to waste time talking to walls. When we choose to communicate with someone knowing we’re not really equipped to do it (and yes, having a receptive partner to communicate with is part of the equipment you need) that’s willfully talking to a wall. We got better things to do.
Sometimes you can work with what you have. Other times you can’t. Trying to force it can actually be damaging. If you can’t respond to someone’s emotion; use words they grasp; listen or be heard; move; see; or know who you’re talking to… Aren’t the odds a lot higher that you’ll neither understand nor be understood?
It’s irresponsible to be cavalier in the way we communicate.
We can’t know when we’ll encounter a child who’ll grow up to be a world changer; a man struggling with suicidal thoughts; a newlywed high on life; a woman broken by abuse; an elder filled with pride and expectation. Every one of those people, and everyone we encounter deserves the best we can give them. It starts with taking responsibility for what the heck you’re about to say.
If you can’t do that, walk away. Sharpen your tools.
Yesterday’s encounter with those children, and the need to share the heaviest, darkest part of American history with them was a supreme challenge. I’m glad I could rise to the occasion and hope they never forget what they learned.
I hope you’ll remember what you’ve got to work with and use it accordingly with everyone you come across.