I just returned from the wonderful experience of my first Future Horizons conference - in McAllen, on "The Texas Tropical Trail" that follows the Rio Grande. I find myself thinking about some of the questions that came up during the discussions at the end of my presentations. There's a certain sameness, both in the questions and in my answers. I am reminded of the saying that, "If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." Have I gotten old and stale? Could it be so simple and so consistently true, the answer I have given to countless similar questions?
If I talk about special education law and the importance of people working together to avoid conflict, someone might ask, "But what about people who don't really care about the law?" Or perhaps the topic is strengthening relationships and the importance of mutual respect. Similar question: "But what about when only one person is really interested in respect?" It seems that, no matter what the topic, a question will be asked about what can be done when somebody else is unwilling, avoiding, in denial, uncaring, resistant, or something similar. And while there is a great consistency to these kinds of questions, there is an even more frightening consistency to my answers. Is it time I maybe learned some new tunes?
The answer I always give is communicate! I challenge my audiences with this simple ditty - a question to ask themselves if a problem is ongoing and doesn't seem to get resolved:
clearly and directly expressed
Years ago, when I was doing counseling on a full-time basis, I used to encourage my clients to jot this down (I would even do it for them) and paste it somewhere that they would see it often - perhaps on the refrigerator door, by their telephone at work, or on the bathroom mirror. The point was to help them remain ever mindful of this simple question and to empower them when they feel helpless. So long as they have not yet communicated clearly, with self respect, in the spirit of friendship, there is more that they can do; they still have power; they still have hope.
Is there something wrong with this picture? Or is it possibly just that simple?
I have been a staunch supporter of effective communication skills for many years by now. I have seen its phenomenal power to change lives and improve relationships. I have watched it build strong families and work teams, restore self-esteem, strengthen life skills.... I have never doubted it or strayed from this path, and it has always served me well. So, if you have a problem (and who doesn't!), let's try it on for size. What might happen if I tried my best to communicate, clearly and directly, expressing what I feel (hurt, sad, scared, belittled, alone, ashamed, or whatever - but in only one word) and what I want (reassurance, forgiveness, patience, understanding, an apology, to be heard, to be included, or something equally simple, focused, and clear), with self respect (not whining, not sheepish, not apologetic), in the spirit of friendship (not hostile, not attacking, not complaining, not discounting). Wow. Try it. See if it works.
But what if they won't listen? "Excuse me, John, I feel discounted when I perceive you to not be listening. I want you to hear me out and share your thoughts in response."
Yeah, but what if they never have time to talk? "Sally, I feel really concerned that we don't make time to talk, just you and me. I want you to set a time when we can have 20 minutes alone together."
Yeah, but what if I ask and they just walk away? "Bill, I feel hopeless when you walk away from me like that. I want you to hear me and try to understand."
As I mull it over, I continue to see such tremendous potential in this simple process. Yet it is a process few of us have mastered or yet given a fair try. Is every problem a nail because communication is my only hammer? Or is communication so enormously and genuinely powerful that one need carry few tools if one has it? I find I'm not ready to change my tune. Perhaps many problems really are just nails, and with effective communication, we can become master builders with nothing more than a hammer.