What 2020 is Teaching Us About Communication

Let’s for a moment throw away SmartMouth Communications’s aspirational motto, “communication is the currency of success.” Instead, let’s look at what 2020 is teaching us about the more fundamental importance of communication and consider rephrasing it to be “communication is the currency of life.”

2020 has been quite a year so far (and we still have one more quarter to go!). Due to the unusual confluence of events this year, and under the klieg lights of competing crises, communication as a practice has revealed itself to be more vital and more challenging than ever.

Leaving politics aside, I think we all can agree we’ve seen a surge in the delivery and consumption of communication from multiple angles. There are increasingly more ways in which communication comes to the fore, but in 2020 in particular, there’s also been urgency. Communication is fueling our opinions and actions in an almost exaggerated, but also necessary, way this year.
 
Let’s take a closer look …
 
Pandemic. Public health is as much about communication as it is about medicine or science. We are helpless, and potentially in harm’s way, in the face of any outbreak, let alone a global pandemic, which makes communication absolutely essential. At the end of the day, we all make our own decisions and judgment calls about what we as individuals will do to take care of ourselves, but before we can do that, we depend on communication from experts and leaders.
 
Protests. Protests are, by definition, a way for people and their voices to join together in collective communication. This form of group communication is meant to create impact and to have influence – louder and more powerfully than any one voice can achieve. Whatever we may think of protests in 2020, they have made themselves a prominent element of our society’s soundtrack this year.
 
Storms and Fires. Public safety, like public health, is as much about communication as it is about containment and rescue efforts. When it comes to natural disasters, communication is a matter of life and death. Public safety officials, leaders, and citizens alike rely on communication to save lives, homes, and businesses. Warnings, advisories, offers of help and shelter are all critical communications.
 
Campaigns. Campaigns are notorious noisemakers. However, campaigns are an essential way of communicating the choices we have in a democracy. This year, because we face so many dire issues – health, safety, economic, to name just a few – campaign communications are layered on top of and in the midst of constant, competing, and compelling crises across the country. Political leanings aside, I think we all can agree that campaign communications this year are more intense and more attention-grabbing, because they are more co-mingled with day-to-day events/crises than usual.
 
It’s been one heck of a year so far and, from where I sit, it’s been fascinating. Not only is there a tidal wave of communication coming our way almost all the time, but we have the need and the time to consume it all. It’s a lot to wade through, there’s no doubt, but consider the alternative: without communication, we’d face multiple risks and threats right now without knowing it and without being able to protect ourselves and our families. Perhaps communication actually is the currency of life.

Addressing/Redressing White Privilege in the Conference Room

In the early ‘80s in New York City, in my very first job, my very first colleague was Barack Obama. We both had just graduated college. We both started at the company within weeks of each other. We both were assigned entry level editorial jobs, working on a series of international business newsletters and reference books, and we both reported to the same supervisor.

Barack was smart, smooth, and savvy then. But he was also a little aloof. While he and I were friendly colleagues, chatted daily, and periodically went out for lunch, he pretty much kept to himself otherwise. He was the only black professional at the company; the other black employees worked as secretaries or in the mailroom. It was 35 years ago. Barack’s aloofness was also, in part, his “appropriateness” at the time. He didn’t have the latitude to be the social, chatty, sometimes loud and carousing associate that I could be.

When he became President – still smart, smooth and savvy – I watched him as infuriatingly unfair things were said to and about him, insults hurled at him (and his wife), and issues he championed were trashed or quashed. I frequently remarked to myself (and to anyone nearby who would listen) how cool, calm and collected he was no matter what because he had to be, he had no choice. He was a black man, and black men cannot get angry in public, it’s too threatening to white people. 

Fast forward, and here we are. Nowhere. Issues of systemic racism, implicit bias, micro and macro aggressions against people of color have made no progress … except, perhaps, the hope generated by recent protests and the renewal of active public discourse.

For those of us who are allies, but are also white, there’s a self-consciousness about our privilege and some feelings of helplessness about what to do right now – besides using our voices, voting, and whatever other forms of activism we can engage in. I, for one, can tell you I have so much heart and mind invested in helping to right the wrongs, but I am often at a loss for what, specifically, I can do to effect positive change.

I decided that, for starters, I can use my platform and communicate. I typically write this monthly piece to share tips, insights and strategies for being a better communicator and presenter. But, given current events and my despair over the dual and intertwined pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, I just couldn’t. Tips, insights and strategies seemed so trite right now … and so privileged. 

Instead, I decided to write about white privilege in the conference room and how we might begin to address and redress biases and inequities in meetings and presentations. 

Here’s the deal: I can be late, I can get annoyed or angry, I can tell a bad joke, I can be sassy, I can exaggerate my mannerisms, I can interrupt or talk over someone else, I can mispronounce a word or phrase, I can leave the room early — all without any consequences simply because I’m white. I’m not proud of that, but I’m aware of it. I have the same latitude to be big, take up more than my fair share of space, mess up, and even be offensive – without serious consequence – that I had in the early ‘80s. People of color haven’t and don’t have these luxuries and won’t … unless and until we force an awareness and an openness on ourselves and others. We need to take action and find ways to hold ourselves and each other accountable for the biases and inequities in conference rooms.

Here’s my starter set of suggestions:

  • Check yourself before you judge or speak up; 
  • Check your colleagues when they judge out loud or speak up; 
  • Hold a larger space for people to be different/do things differently.

Those, I would say, fall under the general heading of being tolerant. Beyond just tolerance, though, how about ways to be proactive?

  • Invite team members who are people of color to be lead presenters (for some reason, the lead presenter is like an NFL quarterback – more often than not, white);
  • Encourage directness and polite conflict, which, to date, have been more acceptable forms of communication for white people than people of color;
  • Learn about micro-aggressions and develop a system for imposing a “check” on colleagues’ responses to one another.

I don’t profess to have all the answers. I only have an awareness, an openness, and a starter set of suggested actions … so far. I’d love some input from readers. Please give this some thought and then share your ideas here. Thanks. 

Communication Tip #1,374

Communication tip #1,374 is this: Stop talking and start listening.

Communicating is a two-way street, a two-party system, so to speak. Yet in most discussions about communication skills, a disproportionate amount of time and focus (granted, I am guilty of this as well!) is spent on the output side. The input, or intake, side gets less attention.

What we’re talking about here is listening. Yup, we’re talking about communicating’s better half – the listening side of the equation. If you’re the speaker at a meeting or presentation, there’s a danger of preparing to “broadcast” but that’s only one half of your work at the front of the room.

Here are 3 tips on listening:

1. Employ what I like to call dynamic listening – listening with all of your senses, and listening before, during and after your meeting or presentation. In a nutshell: Listen, or pay attention, to your audience with not only your ears, but your eyes, your gut and intuition. And listen not only during your meeting or presentation, but before and after – by anticipating before and reflecting after. The goal here is to meet your audience’s needs, satisfy their interests, and create the best possible experience for them.

2. Especially during Q&A, listen for themes that reveal concerns and interests, rather than listening to specific words. Other people’s words can derail you, get you off message, and – the worst – potentially draw you into negative language. If you listen for the theme of someone’s question (or soapbox speech, which is okay too!), you will be more apt and able to take command of the reply and answer using your own positive, affirmative words as opposed to rehashing someone else’s potentially negative words.

3. For your own benefit and the benefit of the other person/people you are communicating with, use the therapists’ tried-and-true technique of active listening. Active listening involves fully listening for comprehension and restating back to a person what you understood their statement or question to be. This helps both parties in the communication. The speaker consciously listens in order to be able to repeat for confirmation – which aids their retention and comprehension. And the person who made the comment or asked the question feels heard and cared about – plus they have the opportunity to correct or adjust their point if it was misstated.

At the end of the day, it’s all about them – your audience – and not all about you. Therefore, the two sides of the communication coin are equally important in delivering a positive experience and good impression to your audiences.

Listen up and good luck out there!