Sunday, January 9, 2011

Eye Of The Beholder

I read somewhere recently that communication is not the responsibility of the listener.

That is to say, if you are trying to sell something (ideology, new car, or what-have-you) that the burden of the message is on you.  

That you can't blame the listener for not hearing you correctly.

This concept plays into our lives in many unexpected ways that we may not think of in terms of a communication project.  For example, if you want very much for your children to grow up to be productive and contributing members of society, then it's on you to keep that message going throughout the entire time you have the little buggers within your influence.  The responsibility for their successful adulthood is yours until the move out of your house--even beyond.

Lately, I've had situations in my life in which there are people who talk a good game--they are powerful and influential, and people look on them with favor because they have indicated that's what they want.  Some of them have very large media and ideological infrastructures who are out there pumping their message and pumping their fists all day, every day.  They are yammering on about how they feel, and why you should agree with them.   

There are a lot of these very loud people out there, demanding your attention, and they all make sense at one time or another, making it very confusing to decide which one of them deserves your full attention.

Somewhere on the other end of the spectrum, there are people who's actions are their communication, and there is very little message or fist pumping going on.  Because of their actions, they quietly attract a group of like-minded people (AKA "Friends") and they are happy and grateful for the company.   They don't ask for accolades, but they do get them, because the people who are positively affected by their actions are grateful that they, the Do-ers, got up and did something instead of just talking about it and expecting the listeners to do all the heavy lifting.

When I read "communication is not the responsibility of the listener", it was a part of business communications article written by some Harvard MBA trying to explain how to become a successful business leader.  It applied directly to something I was experiencing at work, so I remembered it.

Two days later, the media exploded with the news that a US Congresswoman is shot in the head at close range, and that the same Congresswoman happens to be one of the individuals "targeted" by political opponents.  

It was then that I realized that  "communication is not the responsibility of the listener" applies to absolutely everything.  While fingers immediately started pointing at Sarah Palin, her camp decided to go with their version of blaming the listener for not hearing them correctly.  

"While all signs point to yesterday's shooting as being the lone act of a deranged gunman, it's not secret that public discourse in this country in the past year has been, as (Keith) Olbermann says, amplified by violent imagery.  In the past month or so alone an alarming number of cable and political personalities have been casually calling for various people's assassination.  To question why that is acceptable is a welcome, necessary discussion and should not have had to be brought about by yesterday's tragedy."

My boss has a saying about how some people "know just enough to be dangerous".  While he uses it in a joking way, and in most cases it is funny, the truth is that the environment of "communication" that we have cultivated, politically and otherwise, has bred a large population of people knowing just enough to be dangerous for real.  While we clamor for ratings or political gain, or even just to be paid attention to by anyone, our language becomes increasingly pointed.  Eyes on the prize, we shorten our message to the 140 character/7 second blip and leave the rest of it open for the interpretation of the listener.

The more people you speak to, the greater your responsibility to be completely clear.  Just as my boss has more responsibility not to be a jerk than I do, Sarah Palin (and any politician/business leader) is more influential and therefore needs to be more careful about the messages they are endorsing, because the message is not the responsibility of the listener--it's on the speaker to be very, very clear exactly what they mean.  It's not OK to be silent until someone gets hurt or killed and then say that's not what you meant.  It's not OK.  It's not OK to allow people to go on believing that you have gun sites pointed at your opponents and then, after people get shot, go back and claim that they are surveyor's marks.  If they were surveyor's marks, why didn't you say that the first time someone expressed concern?  By not saying it then, you allow people to draw their own conclusions.  

To those who have a responsibility to be very clear, this was a huge failure.  It is now upon those of us who communicate through our actions to respond with great clarity.  

1 comment:

  1. so fucking well said.

    excuse my french, but really.


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