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Failure To Communicate

Do you remember the iconic line in the classic 1967 movie "Cool Hand Luke", where Luke (Paul Newman), a petty thief, is sentenced to a Florida prison farm run by a sadistic warden, and in a confrontation between the two, the warden states:

What we've got here is, failure to communicate.

Doesn't that pretty much sum up where our society appears to be at today? Oh, we are communicating alright, however, the communication is all too often talking at people, not talking to them. What's the difference? Well, the difference is huge.

If I am talking at you, I'm expecting you to listen to what I have to say, but I'm not interested in hearing any response from you. I'm not interested in hearing what you have to say so I've closed my mind to any utterance from you. Consciously, or subconsciously, I want to own the conversation and I want to own you.

Now, if I am talking to you, not only am I expecting you to listen to what I'm saying, I am open to listening, and trying to understand, what you have to say. I don't necessarily expect you to agree with everything I'm saying, but I am hoping you are willing to try to understand my position or my point of view, and I am going to be open to listening and understanding what you have to say.

In a 1/28/22 morning show (New Day) interview with CNN host John Berman and Frank Luntz, a long-time GOP Pollster and strategist, Mr. Luntz was talking about the current state of politics in the US being a total 'shitshow.' During this conversation, Mr. Luntz commented on how people involved in politics today have a mindset of wanting to delegitimize and dehumanize those who don't agree with their views, they want to 'own' them. The rhetoric of today is meant to demean and demonize those who hold a different opinion or viewpoint, which he blames in large part on social media. Accepting responsibility for being a player in this realm, wherein his focus was very much on negative communication, and which he feels led to his becoming ill, Mr. Luntz also places blame on politicians, the media, and pundits ('talking heads') for not hearing or presenting both sides of issues. Mr. Luntz went on to state that it is not appropriate to destroy the lives of people you disagree with.

I've never heard of Frank Luntz before listening to that interview but I agree with his analysis of politics in the US being a 'shitshow' and his comments about the negativity of discourse in the political community. But it is not just limited to the political arena. It's all around us today, seemingly in all aspects of our lives. I previously wrote about drivers ("The LLH Driver" blog), sarcastically poking fun at those who are lovable left-lane huggers, however, look at drivers as a whole and how aggressive many of us have become behind the wheel. Isn't this a form of communication as well? If we drive aggressively, aren't we sending our message to anyone around us that we own the road and that they must conform to our behavior?

For those of us who are part of the older generation, we probably have recollections of our parents or grandparents making reference to how the younger generation has lost the 'art' of conversation. I'm not sure I agree with this reference to conversation being an art, as this comes across as being a bit pretentious. What I can accept is that conversation can be many things depending on the context and circumstances surrounding the conversation. In referencing the art of conversation, I think the point being made is that there is a methodology that can be learned and applied that will give the practitioner the ability and the confidence to go into any social situation and initiate a conversation with anyone or comfortably join an already ongoing conversation. This is certainly a skill that many of us desire to achieve but which most of us fall short of learning and practicing in order to become proficient.

In the broader arena of communication, or lack thereof, having the skill to initiate and carry a conversation implies there are a couple of critical components at play. First is communicating your thoughts, ideas, concerns in a way that is non-threatening and presented in a way that invites a response. Second, is active listening. Asking questions and then shutting your mouth and focusing your brain on listening to the response is active listening. Unfortunately, all to often, we engage in the first part, that being expressing ourselves, but the active listening part gets pushed to the side when we finish speaking and automatically go into a response mode where we anticipate the reply we will get and have already started preparing our response to the anticipated reply. The result - listening has been forsaken; communication has fallen apart. I pride myself on being an active listener and have practiced this skill throughout my career and in my personal life, however, I also acknowledge to falling into the trap of shutting my brain down to listening from time to time. The results have been a learning experience for me.

At this moment in time I find myself contemplating running for local elected office in the community where I live. Having spent close to 30 years managing the daily operations of local government organizations as a municipal/city manager, I feel I have a strong background that could be of benefit to the decision-making process of the city council. And, recent events in the community have brought into question the commitment of the current elected official representing our part of the community. So what does this have to do with the topic of communication? Actually, quite a lot. Elected officials are visible public figures and communications to and from these individuals are very important to residents in assuring them that their concerns are being heard and addressed. Public perception of elected officials, at all levels of government, is extremely negative and at an all-time low presently. Peoples view of politics, of politicians, and of elected officials in general is highly divisive. In this current environment, I would say that effective communication is in the toilet. Do I have any illusions that should I decide to run, and if elected, I can make a change to our little part of the world? Yes, I do. I think I have the skillsets, experience and understanding of effective communication, and of the importance of listening skills in the communications process, to be an effective representative of not just the constituency that I would represent, but of the entire community.

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