Tuesday, 12 September 2017

What Do You Need

This isn't a review of The West Wing and we really need to sit down and think about communication because things cant go on the way they are. I need to change...

As many of you may have noticed I am currently on a rewatch of the inspired TV Series, West Wing (Aaron Sorkin beats Joss Whedon into a lagging second place for his writing on this) The characters of the Bartlet administration are so well written they actually feel real to me, more than that, they feel like family. They act like family too and the ructions and spats between Josh, Sam, Toby, CJ and Leo are what makes The West Wing such an outstanding program. Despite the occasional tussle they actually work together cohesively as a team and the oft uttered "What do you need" is a phrase that has always struck me. Why? because it is one that cannot easily be misinterpreted as anything other than an open handed offer of support and assistance. Leo McGarry (Chief of Staff) wants his team to have anything that will ensure that Jedd Bartlet is as successful and Presidential as he can possibly be. Unlike, 'what do you want' or 'can I help you' it is phrase that is received as it was intended, always. Social Media has done a lot of good- it has allowed fans to connect directly with the creatives they admire. It has brought groups of people together and it can also provide support networks to the most vulnerable in our society. But there is a downside and I think it requires us to relearn how we communicate.

It is widely accepted that only 7% of communication can be attributed to the words we use (or verbal) with the remaining 93% split between body language (a huge 55%) and the tone that we adopt (38%) , or non verbal communication. We have all been in situations where, due to heightened emotions, a conversation has mutated into an argument. This can often be because the tone we use becomes more persistent and the body language that accompanies our words more frantic and agitated. It has less to do with the words that we choose and more to do with how we are conveying them. In today's society our phones are more likely to be used to access Twitter and Facebook and not to answer a phone call. We reach for our phones to send a text or an email and not to dial someones number and speak to them verbally. When you consider that even the use of a phone will remove 55% of our communication effectiveness as body language is much harder to read with voice alone, this means that we now lose the other 38% attributed to tone. As human beings we are adept at using all of our senses to communicate with each other and to effectively develop our relationships for any number of purposes. The alarmingly speedy rise of social media platforms has meant that we are struggling to adjust to the way that we now communicate. This inevitably leads to misunderstanding and our messages being lost in a wave of ferocious rage as people attempt to listen without using their ears. It has occurred to me that without a serious readjustment we are heading for an age that non verbal communication will mean that meaningful interaction is only an occasional pastime. Could we really be heading for an age where we get along better without actually seeing each other face to face? We must learn how to communicate and listen in this fast paced society we have created.

It's not just a problem that only effects our communication skills either as the ability to listen also depends on our understanding of what is being said to us. I find that I am less likely to patiently and actively listen in a conversation if I become agitated and emotionally engaged. I am embarrassed at how many times in social media interaction I have been thinking of my next tweet when I should be fully ensuring that I understand what is being tweeted to me. It is so easy to fire off an angry tweet or post an emotional comment before fully comprehending what is being said. How many times have you found yourself in the midst of hurtful exchange with a friend or loved one and it's only afterwards that you realise you hadn't a clue what they were trying to say? I am fond of the phrase "we have two ears and one mouth, so we can listen twice as much as we speak" but it is one that I find more difficult to adhere to when I cant hear the other person speaking. It is all to easy to interrupt a stranded discussion and tweet an opinion without fully taking into account the context and views of others. All to easy to spout my mouth off and not stick around to see the results of my venting. We can literally tear people down and destroy them with a few thoughtless 'social' media moments and not even realise the damage we have done. Communication has got to be two way but, in this brave new world, no one will hold us accountable if we do not do so ourselves. It feels very much like we have all become actors standing on a soap box desperately trying to grab everyone else's attention.

A few thoughts on how we can make this work better for ourselves. I often see arguments on social media that start with a misunderstanding, I have caused a few myself and they are almost impossible to resolve once offence has been taken. I try to make sure that my comments cannot be taken in any way other than the one I intend to convey. But even so, people can so easily get the wrong idea and fire an angsty response. I try and work on the assumption that people are not trying to deliberately offend me and it is probably just me not understanding. As all of our communication is now in the words that are used it also means that the way they are received almost entirely depends on what mood I am in. I am far more likely to be offended if I have had to referee another pointless argument with my children or if I didn't get enough sleep last night. These are all my issues but they effect how receptive I am to someone elses comments. Alcohol is also a huge factor and it had been pointed out on more than one occasion that I am much more antagonistic after a few drinks. All of these factors need to be considered before assuming that the individual we are conversing with is being deliberately offensive. Difficult when you bear in mind the speed which our timelines move in.  There are the small minority of people who just want a good old fashioned argument and will instigate one wherever they can. But most of us don't have the time, energy or inclination for such banality and just want to navigate our way through life without upset. Sorry is a powerful word and I challenge anyone who seriously believes that if they admit they were wrong and apologising they somehow lose standing or position. We desperately need to communicate in a way that doesn't compromise our opinion but at the same time allows us to listen effectively to what is really being said to us. Time to unstop our ears and practice active listening! "What DO you need?"

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