For the past few blog posts, we have been discussing Managing Differences through Communication. In one of those posts we discussed the Golden Rule and the Platinum Rule. Last week we discussed Listening. This week we will discuss some of what are too often the undiscussables. The stimulus for this week’s blog post is the happenings of the SAE fraternity at the University of Oklahoma, which is thankfully (I hope) an uncommon event. On a broader scale we are discussing how what we think and say can either inspire others, or demean them.
To say that I am troubled about the University of Oklahoma SAE event is a major understatement. How could this happen in 2015? I was on the Human Rights Commission (Race Relations) at the University of Virginia in the early 1970’s, and was proud to be able to work on these issues with fellow classmates and faculty. Graduation came, and I moved on to the deeper south. I will never forget some of the disrespectful comments that I heard about different ethnic groups, comments that I knew came from ignorance and fear. And of course, these negative and disrespectful comments were not just being made in the south. A few years later when I moved to North Carolina, I was appalled to hear that this southern state had been the hotbed of some of the most brutal battles between whites and blacks as late as the 70’s. Even so, I certainly would never have thought that we would be where we are in 2015 with issues such as what recently occurred in Oklahoma.
Where is our respect for fellow citizens? Do people have to look like us, think like us and sound like us for us to deem them worthy of respectful treatment? How do we justify name calling on any level? We teach our children to not call names; do we not hold ourselves to the (at least) same standard? Do we think that we can fight the enemies in other places when we can’t get along here at home? What are we thinking? Do we really believe that one ethnic group is superior to others?
It is perhaps too easy to point to the most extreme examples of wrongful treatment by others to others, and fail to look within. For even if we haven’t resorted to name calling, are we really without fault as to what we think of others and how we treat them? Maybe you are, but I am not.
As a strong willed person (or so I’ve been called many times!) I realize that my passionate responses to others can be heard by them as me being upset, and maybe even angry. My tone of voice sometimes leaves no question of how I feel about what is being discussed. My tone of voice and the words that I use can be too direct. When I inappropriately use “I” and “You” language I can be heard as accusatory or controlling. Knowing these possibilities of my natural tendencies and being in a position to coach others, often I am on my best behavior and don’t make these mistakes. But sometimes I fail to catch myself, and my language isn’t what it should be. Perhaps some of you reading this can identify with my struggle. While I don’t believe that I think I am or feel superior to others, sometimes my language can imply that. I am most heated when discussing politics. I need to model Dr. Stephen Covey’s, “Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood.”
I need to remember the following. Tone of voice is the single most important variable in communicating. Too often the message is missed due to the tone of voice. It is important to be direct and clear, but not directive. While a (too) soft tone of voice can be heard as weak, a loud tone of voice is heard as aggressive. Avoid offensive words, and this includes any use of profanity. Yes, I realize the use of profanity is common, and I agree that some words are worse than others, but the use of any profanity is unnecessary.
Because of our different personalities we naturally communicate differently. Some of us get to the point quickly, and some of us “ring around the rosy.” In the workplace, regardless of our personality, we should get to the point efficiently, but not so quickly that we are perceived as not being friendly. It is important to not just tell others what we want/need them to know, but to ask their opinion, and show in our response that we are listening. We should disagree agreeably. And in all of our interactions it is important to slow down, listen and hear the message the other person is trying to deliver, and without judgment.
It has been said that most of our social problems could be solved with better communication. The purpose of communication is not to talk, and not even to listen, but to reach mutual understanding. Too often when communication mishaps occur it is because we are striving for agreement. While agreement is good when we can reach it, it isn’t always possible to agree. It is often and perhaps even usually possible to reach mutual understanding. But not if we think we are better than the other person. Our thinking precedes our behavior. If we think we are better than others, that thinking will come through in our behavior, including in our language. Then comes the name calling, whether it is expressed out loud, or left to germinate in our own heads.