I believe with every fiber of my being that communication is literally everything.
Every minute of every day, we as humans are communicating. By the things we do, the things we don’t do, the things we say, and don’t say. Every moment we are communicating something to someone. Every utterance, every eyebrow raise, every motion, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the pictures we post, the events we attend – all communication all the time. And with the prevalence of social media these days, often both our direct and indirect communications get a reaction, even if we weren’t looking for one (just ask Sen. Ted Cruz or Gov. Gavin Newsom).
Communication is so important to our human experience we are constantly inventing new ways to do it. We used to carve on cave walls, then eventually we spoke and wrote, we sent telegraphs, talked on the telephone, we broadcast over the radio and eventually television. Hell, at one point we even wrote in the sky. Now we send emails and text messages (talking live is so 1990s). And we spend countless hours posting on Facebook, tweeting, Snapchatting and Instagramming. Because, after all, a picture is worth a thousand words…we take that quite literally these days. The advances in communication in our lifetimes has been staggering. I often chuckle when I think that one day it will be a “thing” that I lived through the invention of the internet (aka, the “world wide web”). That invention, and digital communication more broadly, has completely revolutionized our ability to communicate all the time, all over the world, instantly. That has become our “normal” communication experience and our expectation.
With all this communication going on – literally millions of transactions and interactions a day – how is it that we are so bad at it?
Clearly, we know it’s important — we spend gazillions of dollars on it. I’m not sure the statistic even exists to sum up what we spend on understanding communicating with one another, getting better at it, examining the greats and on and on. We take classes, buy books, do TED Talks, watch YouTube, get coaching, and attend conferences. We want to communicate better with our bosses and employees, with our spouses, our parents and our kids. Some of us even seek to understand how to better talk to God. We want to write better, speak in public better, even tell jokes better. There are entire industries built around all of these things. There are thousands of consulting firms full of professionals (like me!) whose full-time jobs and careers exist to help you or your organization communicate better.
But yet, we suck at it. Seriously. We’re bad at it. How can that be??
It’s not as if we haven’t had good examples. World history and the arts are full of immaculate, stunning examples of brilliant communication. Even just in our own country’s history we have ridiculously great examples – Presidents, political leaders, activists, poets, musicians, writers and artists of all kinds.
“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Neil Armstrong
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” President John F. Kennedy
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” President Ronald Reagan
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” John Newton
“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” President Abraham Lincoln
“The greatness of humanity is not in being human, but in being humane.” Mahatma Gandhi
“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” Mark Twain
“There’s no crying in baseball.” (sorry, couldn’t help it…) Tom Hanks as Jimmy Dugan in “A League of Their Own”
We could do this all day. There volumes and volumes filled with all the best quotes, speeches, sermons, eulogies, plays and songs – all the best communications ever written or uttered. Even today – there are lots of people inhabiting the earth who are good communicators. But in general, on average, we tend to not be good at it. And it may just be me, but it feels like we are getting less good at it all the time. That can be seen in the mood of the country right now – how our political leaders and the media are behaving and communicating. People don’t understand what is being communicated. Or worse, they don’t trust it. It all seems broken.
I have read lots of theories – lots of communication – about why we find our country is in the state it’s in. How we are becoming more tribal, hanging out and communicating only with people who are like us, see the world and communicate the way we do. How social media is making us more isolated and less capable of real human communication and all the wonderful messiness that comes with it. How economic shifts in the country have gutted rural America and made people angry. How the COVID-19 epidemic, and our inability to communicate about it (and create policies to address it) has resulted in more deaths than WWI, WWII and Vietnam combined. Resulting in an enormous blow to the public trust in political leaders.
All of these theories have merit. But I think they generally all lead back to the issue of trust, or the lack of it. They say that practice makes perfect. But it seems that having more ways to communicate is not making us perfect at it. Perhaps we need to be more practiced at finding ways to use communicating as a means to build trust? That will be our next topic!
(ICYMI: previous installments of this blog can be found here and here.)