Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Communicating Across Generations

My Dad has been hospitalized for many, many weeks now. My siblings, a couple of the daughters-in-law (including my wife) and I ¬†have taken turns either keeping my Mom company or spelling her and just hanging with my Dad alone. We have tried mightily to keep each other abreast of a day’s events, and we have made yeoman’s efforts to help Mom communicate with all sorts of members of the medical community involved in Dad’s care. Man, has THAT been a challenge. The differences in understanding the lingo of medicine, not to mention the vast gulf between the frame of reference that exists between ¬†”civilians” and medical workers on the front line create communication barriers that can seem impenetrable.

Where does the responsibility lie when we enter into a conversation? Let’s define a conversation as the interaction between two people during which there is a purposeful transfer of some kind of information. Let’s refine that by saying that in this day and age we cannot define a conversation as simply as two people talking with one another. We have email, texts, FB chats and PM’s, Twitter @’s and PM’s, phone calls and Skype, and of course plain old face-2-face talking. Any and all of these have been, or yet might be used when we go forward with Dad.

So where does the responsibility lie to ensure effective transfer of information? Upon whom does it rest to make sure that facts or ideas have been successfully transmitted and received? How about the emotional content, the feelings that ride along with the data? Sometimes the emotional content is really the data that’s intended for transfer and is quite obvious, like the color guard accompanying a General. Oft times, though, the feelings attached to the words are as carefully and craftily hidden as a stowaway on a cruise ship. What exactly does it mean when a nurse greets Mom in the morning with the fact that Dad “struggled” the night before?

Here’s my bid: the responsibility lies on BOTH sides of the conversation. Active listening is key. Engaging in the conversation means engaging the individual on the other side. It starts at the very choice of vehicle: to whom am I sending this message? On the receiving end the vehicle should also be evaluated: who sent this to me? Think about it…the universe of topics you would engage with your 75 yo grandparents via text is awfully darned small, and if you are a grandparent who texts you can’t “receive” disrespect in a message filled with contractions and lingo. By the same token, both sender and receiver must be actively conscious of the frame of reference of any “other” in the conversation.

A Facebook status update is like a billboard, meant to be one-way, neither demanding nor expecting a reply. A conversation, on the other hand, is by definition bi-lateral. It requires active listening and anticipatory listening on the part of both people. It requires a shared understanding of the power as well as the limitation of each method one might choose to utilize. The smaller vehicle (text, Tweet) creates the greater distance and so must transfer the more basic information. More nuance or emotional content requires a different vehicle, at once larger (to include the details) and smaller and more intimate (so that everything can be seen as well as heard). Closer.

In the end we are social creatures, driven always to connect. The rules of communication have not really changed despite our ever-increasing ability to communicate, to connect. The more important the interaction the closer we must be to the other. Communication, no matter what vehicle we choose, requires that we listen better. Listen to what is said to us; listen to what we say; listen, especially, to what the other hears.

The responsibility for a successful communication is shared equally by both or all involved. Despite our newfangled world filled with different ways to communicate the most effective strategy hasn’t changed in a few thousand years:

Listen better.

 

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