Communication is like the Weather; Everyone Grumbles about It, but Nobody does Anything about It

Hal Wicke
Assistant Professor
Department of Speech and Communication
NYSCAS, Touro College

I thought about this paraphrase of Mark Twain as I was participating in a recent Faculty Senate meeting. The word “communication” was mentioned several times. The Senate was discussing, among other issues, the need for better communication among and between the various Touro constituencies.

Communication in its many guises and even under the most ideal circumstances is complex and difficult. In both oral and written communication, multiple layers of messages occur simultaneously. In a class lecture, the professor may be speaking about one thing, but students choose whether to listen or not, to engage with the topic or not, or to check in on their iPhones for the latest click bait.

In a meeting, each participant is physically present or on ZOOM, but who knows what is going on in the minds of each colleague. Random  responses are the norm. Focusing a discussion is job of the chair who may or may not choose to manage the discussion.

Often we discover when we are talking with someone only to find their feedback indicates they had heard something else or have any of a dozen other unexpected responses. Many conversations comprise of alternating assertions not directly responsive to the statement which precedes it. The dialogue in Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” (1903) captures each character’s isolation and tension in these separate discontinuating monologues.

People Don’t Listen

One of the hard lessons of communication to accept is that people don’t listen, or at best, they don’t listen carefully. If you have ever played the game of “Telephone,” you know the experience. “Listening fidelity” is a constant ghost in every communication exchange.

We ask ourselves “what is going on between people’s ears?” Often there’s no “there” there.

As teachers, we would like to believe that our students pay rapt attention to every word we say. They don’t.

Professors may drone on, lost in their worlds of words while students play with their iPhones, lost in theirs. For the instructor, repetition in a a variety of costumes is one solution to penetrate the veil of student consciousness. Perhaps an inspiration for the instructor might be Mozart’s 1780s composition of 12 variations for the piano of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

Hey, maybe we should do some much vaunted critical thinking  Uh-oh! We are stuck. Critical thinking requires listening which is rarely taught. But who teaches critical listening?

People Listen to Their Thoughts, Not Yours.

In 2007, Dr. Frank Luntz, the Oxford educated Republican political consultant and pollster, wrote a very insightful book, “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.” Luntz argues that when we attempt to persuade – and if we are to believe Aristotle, all communication is persuasive, we can ill afford to ignore the audiences to whom we speak.

“It all starts with listening. [Luntz] believe[s] that you can’t effectively speak to your audience if you don’t first understand them, their needs, their opinions, their underlying emotions.”

Before we begin each class, do we undertake an examination of student needs, opinions and underlying emotions? Probably not, We typically assume our students are tabula rasa, on which we impress our nuggets of wisdom.

As we develop our thoughts, we believe we logically develop our presentations designed to explain complex ideas in simple terms. We focus on what we think is important. In order to survive, students must learn to plug into the professor’s priorities, not theirs.

Our vocal delivery of these nuggets is the sole transmission medium. Students must adapt to our style; they can’t switch channels. Occasionally our delivery resonates with some affect. Straight information delivered in straight acoustical terms is boring.  Vocal coaches call this a lack of vocal variety or monotone. Occasionally we digress with personal anecdotes giving rhetorical texture to the lecture. The professor can encourage acute student listening may be fostered by a host of tactics.

Acknowledging Our Eight-Second Attention Span

In 2015, Microsoft reported that the average attention span has slipped to 8 seconds. In 2000, an earlier study measured the average attention span at 12 seconds.

Our students, conditioned by their media environment, look to be entertained. Our students are conditioned to respond passively. A professor is not a television performer. She is there to present information to her students and to generate student thinking. In informal surveys of my classes, students have admitted that their attention begins to fade after fifteen minutes. If I don’t change the focus of the class after 45 minutes, my students admit they have left the class mentally. They have said they wished they could change the channel.

Clearly, instructors need to examine how they present their material. Varying the frequency and variety of topics discussed. Alternating lecturing with Socratic interchanges, Introducing student dialogues on relevant issues are some of the ways to catch and keep student attention.

In addition, the dominant of sensory experience of our students is visual – flashing signs, jump-cutting in movies, the sensory overload of Times Square. By contrast, the bulk of our lecture presentations are almost entirely auditory. The lecturing tradition in college teaching is always under examination but despite a growing literature on interactive teaching, the tradition remains.

The Faculty Senate is charged with seeking thoughtful ideas and responses from our colleagues. As we have become more skilled in our communication, the Senators have become more skilled in capturing and conveying our needs to the administration. We Senators, like other humans, need to increase our wokeness, our awareness, of the layered simultaneity of our communication.

The Take Away

As we are learning painfully from the current political climate, communication has consequences. Currently, students do not have many positive communication national models to observe. Words matter. The way they are said matters. The feeling impact of those words matter.

Acute listening or active listening, is a tool to identify, recognize, reflect on the ideas and style of our own communication and that of others. Acute listening is the spine of critical thinking. Acute listening is hard work. We must become more aware. Our minds which seem to get distracted at the littlest whisper need to be self-disciplined.

If we are to learn one thing about communication, we cannot not communicate. Everything sends a message – words, gestures, dress, attitude behavior, silence, sarcasm.. Our messages create an emotional climate which is positive and/or negative.

As Maya Angelou has written, ”I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”



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