Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Silos, Separation, and the Craft of Conveying Meaning

All of us whose day-to-day work has us addressing an audience -- in person, via print, or via media -- must pause from time to time just to marvel that anyone can ever truly get their point across to anyone else.

So much gets in the way of pure idea-sharing.  So many factors can distort a message. 

I'm reflecting on the elusiveness of understanding tonight:  how rare it is for any of us to feel that we are truly understood.  And how difficult it  is for us to feel that we have successfully bridged that middle space between us and our hearers, and truly communicated what we meant to say.   

We can make a lifelong study of this craft of communication, yet still be left wondering if we really know how to do it.  I can speak or write eloquently, sending my words out in strong, sturdy, grammatically-correct sentence structures...  but I don't know -- I never can know -- precisely how you hear them.  Because ultimately, the perception I have of reality is not the same as yours.  Many of the assumptions I take for granted do not appear anywhere on your inner map.  And the memories that influence the way I express myself are forever alien to you.

We house our thoughts in separate human silos.  We sort and stockpile our experiences utterly alone inside our strongholds of identity.  And when we want to share the insights that come from our sorting, we have only words as tools.  Our view into each others' realities is like looking out from one set of windows into another, with smudges, fog, and raindrops on the windowpanes.

Saying something is never simple.  Hearing something is even harder.  We each must deal with the static of our own emotional state, the crackle of our own subconscious distractions, as we tune in to another's voice.  We are so quick to surmise that we know what each other means, but do we?

How much courage, patience and passion it takes to tell something truly and well.  How much like defying gravity it is to step beyond ones own sense of what's obvious, and construct communications that honor ones listener's need for simplicity and clarity.

The truth is, the hardest part about communicating isn't the telling -- it's the listening.  Because in listening, we attempt to enter another person's silo and experience their message as they themselves experience it, without contaminating it with our mental fingerprints of filters, stereotypes, and labels. In listening, we find clues to the other person that help us custom-craft the words we need to express our own ideas in a way that he will hear.

Good communicators are always polishing their windows, resetting their expectations, and abandoning their senses of entitlement.  They know how rare and how costly it is to share ideas well.  They know how much they need to understand first, in order to be understood.

Good communicators don't  rely on their cleverness to bridge the separation between souls; they rely on their cluelessness.  They don't assume that others should just know what they're talking about.  They never assume that anything "goes without saying."  Instead, they acknowledge and respect the distance between each of our thought streams, like the empty space between galaxies, and they do not take lightly the attempt to bridge it.

Good communication starts with humility.  What do I really want to say?  How can I put words around my idea to help other lonely silo-dwellers really get it?  Why is it worth saying?  How do I earn the privilege of inviting others to understand?  

Yes, tonight I'm thinking about the elusiveness of understanding, and the miracle that any of us ever hits that target outcome of having another person "get it."

I'm convinced that we communicators have a holy craft.  The true power of communication is its ability to enable each of us to transcend our profound isolation and connect us to each other, and to ideas, principles, humor, truth, and choices we would not otherwise have dreamed up on our own.  In doing so, we can change each others' destinies.  As communicators, we need to respect that power, and use it ethically and kindly.

Meaning is precious -- as precious as life.  Let's carve with care the word containers that we use to transport it.  Let's be courteous in our dialogue, since dialogue is all we have to bridge our separation.  Let's try our best to let light come through our tarnished windows. Let's use the power of communication to light each others' way through the rain, the fog, and the murkiness of our individual journeys.   Let's remember how mostly-clueless we all are, and how much we need each others' expressions of wisdom and comfort to survive, and thrive, in a world where each of us is ultimately alone.

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