Monday, January 05, 2009

clarity 2.0

Clarity is of no importance because nobody listens and nobody knows what you mean no matter what you mean, nor how clearly you mean what you mean. But if you have vitality enough of knowing enough of what you mean, somebody and sometime and sometimes a great many will have to realize that you know what you mean and so they will agree that you mean what you know, what you know you mean, which is as near as anybody can come to understanding anyone.

-gertrude stein

Tonight, in conversation with friends, we talked a bit about effective communication. During the conversation, I kept wondering if we’ve erroneously defined effectiveness by being understood. Indeed, with our accepted definition of communication, I could talk till I’m blue in the face and will not have “communicated” unless I got my point across. Probably this is the correct definition of communication. Unless one is understood, he hasn’t communicated anything.
So then I began to wonder if we’ve assumed we have to communicate when in fact, we’re merely asked to say what has to be said. At this point, I’m thinking of dialogue between God and the prophets wherein God tells them specifically what to say, and then adds the caveat that they won’t be heard or understood. (This of course is not the only way it ever happened – God told Jonah what to say, the people of Nineveh heard, obeyed, and were spared, and Jonah got pretty angry about it. I often wonder if it wasn’t Jonah’s norm to speak and be disregarded, so that he’d become quite fond of watching immediate consequences of ignoring him. Having been heard, he was robbed of the satisfaction of watching folks get what they deserved.)
Is the fact that people won’t listen, or can’t understand always indicative of a bad communicator? Have we not fulfilled the command to speak unless we’re understood and heeded? Or are we simply supposed to obey? Perhaps we’re simply supposed to speak when we’re told to, and keep our mouths shut when we’re not told to speak.

I remember a time when I was with a friend listening to a speaker deliver a telling of the story of Ruth. The speaker was wonderfully entertaining, deeply insightful, and very sincere. About ten minutes into his story, my friend leaned over and said, “this guy is an amazing communicator.” About five minutes later, my friend excused himself to make some phone calls. I wondered if perhaps our definitions of a good communicator differed somewhat. Truly, “this guy was an amazing communicator,” but to my friend, that simply meant he was entertaining (and that, only 15 minutes worth). There is, of course, the possibility that my friend was, in fact, commenting on the guy’s communication skills, but as it turns out, my friend wasn’t interested in what was being communicated, but only in how it was being done. Once he’d witnessed how it was done, he felt it more important to call someone on his cell phone. Perhaps he even called someone to tell them what a wonderful communicator he’d just heard, but of course he could not tell them what was being communicated.
Am I then to assess that in fact the guy was NOT an effective communicator? Or is it safe to say that he WAS an effective communicator, but that my friend was only interested in the communicating, not in the message that was communicated? Is communication in which no message was communicated communication at all? If my friend hadn’t the foggiest notion what the guy had said, what on earth did he mean when he praised him as an amazing communicator? Truly, hundreds of people benefitted from the message communicated that night – I was one of them, my friend was not. Was the speaker responsible for my enlightenment? Was he responsible for my friend’s disinterest in his message?

these questions are not merely rhetorical. I struggle with when to speak, when to keep quiet, and to what extent my responsibility reaches. Maybe yous guys can shed some wisdom?