Communication is Leadership: everyone row in the same direction

Communication is Leadership: everyone row in the same direction

INTRODUCTION

Communication is the bedrock of the human condition: there is perhaps no greater accomplishment of homo sapiens than being able to share an idea, a concept, or an opinion with a fellow ape. In the 21st century, there are more ways to share your own unique perspective on the world to the world than ever before in the blink-of-a-galactic-eye that we upjumped animals call human history than ever before, yet I keep running into the same old problem: people don’t know how to communicate. I am not talking about using the right emoticons in a text message, or being unable to get their video running on their GoToMeeting videoteleconference, or attaching a file or photo to an e-mail message. I am talking about the raw ability of people to actually communicate: that is, to exchange information effectively. I have recently run into two situations where this lack of what I consider to be a fundamental skill–like walking upright and breathing regularly–has driven me to take definitive, tie-cutting, self-preservationist action.

SITUATION ONE: Read My Mind

As a self-proclaimed King of the Nerds, a hard-working employee, a small business owner, and a 15 year IT veteran, I have a constant stream of requests coming in to assist people with an alphabet soup of apps, platforms, strategies, tech help, troubleshooting, and plain old good advice from a geek. Most of these pleas for assistance I handle with my inimitable blend of slightly-pedantic schoolteacher and humorous, patient, step 1-2-3 teach-a-man-to-fish wizardry; I like to see people do great things with their ideas, and I understand how frustrating a simple tech impediment can be for someone who just wants it to work. Occasionally I will run into a situation where communication breaks down because someone is making the assumption that you can read their mind. And they will get very frustrated because you cannot read their mind. This also breeds the Catch-22 situation of either requesting additional clarification–thus angering them further–or making your best guess–and then running afoul of not having delivered what was in their mind. This is maddening, and I am certain that most everyone has run into this situation before.

Spock IS able to read minds; however he has to lay his hands on you to do so

Spock IS able to read minds; however he has to lay his hands on you to do so

Case in point: while assisting a small company with the creation of their corporate website, I was bluntly accused of not following the proper policies and procedures. Since I had never seen these policies and procedures, I asked for a copy of said P&P, and none were produced. Instead, a stream of angry invective about “common sense” and a slew of unrelated issues were produced with how unhappy this company was with my performance. Seeking to understand where the communication had broken down, I continued to probe the issue by pointing out the obvious disconnect: I cannot follow P&P if I don’t know what the P&P are. And lo! the client was enraged further. For the first time in my life, I was sincerely agog at the wrath of the client. There was only one option: I calmly handed off all of my projects and responsibilities to other team members and quit working with that company.

From my training and experience with teaching both high school and college classes, I am fond of reminding people that “the only dumb question is the one that goes unasked”. Without bending the thrust of this idea through ridiculous situation-based specifics, I strongly believe that anyone who is asking a question is trying to communicate effectively. You have to extend this basic credit to a person who wants clarification. It should also cause you to listen to the question, both the content and the context; and this simple act of communication–between a someone asking a question and someone responding with information–is literally how the world works. No amount of technology, power, or skill is going to change this most basic of things on a fundamental level. It just boggles my mind that some people are so caught up in themselves that they make no attempt to listen. Willingly or unwillingly, they are breaking the time-honored chain of communication from one individual to another. The only recourse is to join them in the obstruction: stop attempting to communicate and effectively, give up.

"He said 'this one's for Becky', as he watched the last one fall..."

"He said 'this one's for Becky', as he watched the last one fall..."

Choosing to walk away–or as Kenny Rogers puts it in “Coward of the County”, turn the other cheek–is incredibly difficult for me to do. It is like choosing to fail, and I avoid making that choice at all costs; there HAS to be a way to compromise, remove this impediment, or find a win-win situation. On the other hand, I really don’t like to choose to fight, but in the most reductionist, simple terms: communication comes down to fight-or-flight, and you gain more information by fighting to communicate than by fleeing and guessing.

And, if you really want to talk about policies and procedures, it is now my policy to not do any more pro bono IT work or consulting. It is very much why lawyers are so careful not to hand out advice willy-nilly; it can be construed as an attorney-client relationship, and now you are on the hook to see the issue through in one way or another. This is colloquially called the Cocktail Party Client phenomenon [PDF, 123kb]. There was also a phenomenal Reddit thread (that of course I can’t find) from a lawyer walking all the way through how much work one “free” piece of advice from a lawyer could cause–and this was via experience, not theory–including the fact that the lawyer had to prove in court that there was no attorney-client relationship (thus NOT representing the “client’s” best interests) and a running total of dollars lost versus a paying client who would benefit from all the skill and knowledge of the attorney in a proper relationship. Doctors also can’t–or shouldn’t–give free information for approximately the same reasons. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but IT people: you must protect yourself in the same way by getting an agreement in place or by resisting the urge to fix things for free. Although this goes against every fiber of my being to help, teach, assist, educate, and un-frustrate people, the same technologies that enable people to communicate often fail to do so effectively.

My final thought on example #1: Read My Mind: if I had a do-over with this same client, I am pretty damn certain that I would handle it exactly the same way as I did the first time. NOBODY reads minds, and when you explain to someone that “I cannot read your mind” if their response is “everyone else does; why can’t you?” then it is time to end that relationship post-haste. It is unreasonable to expect someone to be a Jedi mind-reader (presumably like everyone else), and unconscionable to excoriate someone who “can’t”.

SITUATION TWO: Occupy San Diego and the Threat of Legal Action

A sympathetic OWS protester in Munich (AP Photo/Joerg Koch)

A sympathetic OWS protester in Munich (AP Photo/Joerg Koch)

It is no secret that I am fascinated by the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon that is sweeping the globe. Although a lot of assumptions can be made about my politics, civics, and sympathies by this fact, I have carefully considered where I stand on the #OWS issue, and I can assure you that you don’t have any concept what my actual position is. The corollary to “I can’t read your mind” is, conveniently, “you can’t read mine”. In a nutshell, I am enthralled with the real-time adventures of the American people voicing their discontent by exercising their Constitutional rights to be n

oticed, seen, and heard. Some people describe this as “democracy in action” — I think that it is certainly “communication in action”, and as such, deserves paying attention to and forming your own opinion about so that you can participate in the melee in one way, shape, or form, whether it is on the ground at an #OccupyEverything event, around the watercooler at your job (if you have one), or heated and valuable Facebook wall discussions. Trust me: I have actively participated in all three in the last 168 hours.

I have been following the OWS movement since early September, when I first got wind of it. I am very interested in what sort of reactions and results happen because of regular people deciding to come together and test the exercise of their rights in America, especially in this economic depression, this political landscape, and this unprecedented age of information. The Internet has transformed communication at its core: it really can only be compared to the invention of movable type and the printing press; perhaps even the written word and language itself; i.e., communication. Much has been said about the role of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other new media in communicating real-time information, as evidenced by the “Arab Spring” and the riots in the UK, but now we see this come to the American heartland. What are we Americans–who invented a lot of this tech–going to do with it?

OccupySD protesters being arrested for refusing to take down tents at the San Diego Civic Center (AP Photo/ Gregory Bull)

OccupySD protesters being arrested for refusing to take down tents at the San Diego Civic Center (AP Photo/ Gregory Bull)

So when the OWS movement came to San Diego, I figured “think globally; act locally” and started trawling the websites, Facebook pages, Twitter and Tumblr accounts, LiveStreams, and other Internet-based intel that were available to get some local boots-on-the-ground information as to how this event was happening in real-time. The experience was eye-opening, to say the least: not only did it take an inordinate amount of browser windows to keep track of all of the latest breaking rumor, news, announcements, and innuendo, everyone participating had the best of intentions, yet were engaged in an organic exercise of “telephone”. Because all of this chaos was happening within 30 blocks of where I live in San Diego, I was enthralled with the way that my sleuthing and juggling of two different browsers packed with 20+ tabs of information would see the same event ripple out with dozens of voices and opinions, none of which quite aligned. It was an awesome firehose of information, and yet I couldn’t get over the fact that if this communication was coordinated just a little bit better it would make all the difference in the world between having a geek like me able to piece together all of the relevent info from a dozen technologies and a regular person being up to speed on the latest by checking a Facebook page.

Violating my pro bonorule from the previous example, I decided to jump in as a volunteer on the LiveStream chats and lend my skills to squash rumors and promote advantageous information sharing across these social networks, calling out my sources with links and pleading for representation on Twitter, Facebook, etc. Meanwhile, let the opinionated move the chat room along with discussion and conversation. It was a powerful, organic solution that included either loops of relevant video production and occasional live events brought to you by a number of dedicated personnel including video producers, tech people, anonymous donations of equipment, and most importantly, several dedicated LiveStream anchor personalities. It was the height of professionalism when I could depend on the LiveStream coming up and someone like Kym or Kali was dependably giving us on the receiving end of the latest on-the-ground information backed up with a full audio-video stream.

Protesters marching on October 7, 2011 at the start of the Occupy San Diego movement (Nelson C. Cepeda)

Protesters marching on October 7, 2011 at the start of the Occupy San Diego movement (Nelson C. Cepeda)

I was so impressed, I decided to get directly involved. I have been to #OccupySD locations dozens of times. I have been invited to moderate committee meetings due to my percieved neutrality, focus on coordination, and leadership via discussion and compromise. I have personally driven to multiple locations to provide boots-on-the-ground reporting to the members of the live chat so that they could get accurate information out. I have donated a significant amount of time, money, and effort just to insure that people can get factual, relevant, real-time information out of the Occupy San Diego movement so that we don’t come across like a bag of dicks. This is an inside joke from the Occupy SD “Media Team” worth explaining. One person trying to figure out if the LiveStream was actually live said “if you can hear me, say ‘bag of dicks'”… I said “bag of dicks” in chat. That went out to roughly 150 people on the LiveStream, including international news media. Oops. Now search YouTube for “Live TV News Bloopers”. Shit happens. Let’s get back to getting accurate information out, right? I will just get back on the phone and try to continue to negotiate win-win situations, and having everyone associated with OccupySD row in the same direction.

Last Wednesday, I went down to the Civic Center (CC) for the first time to attend the PR/Media Committee meeting before General Assembly (GA). I came in my Boy Scout uniform and ridiculous camo hat with a whiteboard of suggestions, requests, and feedback from the chatroom. I had told my friends on the Live Stream chat that I would go represent their interests; after all, I should have some weight representing 150 people or so, right? I was effectively ignored, besides contributing some “let’s move along” Certifed ScrumMaster advice. I figured I had more value going back to the Live Chat and reporting that the Committee had heard me…sortof…and continuing to quash rumors and link to verified information.

It became pretty easy to recognize kindred spirits in the chat room; they were the ones who really wanted to insure factual information dissemination and quash rumors. I am pleased to report that I made quite a few good acquaintances via the OSD chat infrastructure. That is why I took another crack at organizing the online presence of Occupy SD: I stood up the “SMC” or “Social Media Committee” Friday night.

Full regalia for the BSA uniform; although I have all this stuff, I just wore the shirt

Full regalia for the BSA uniform; although I have all this stuff, I just wore the shirt

On Saturday, I went to the Civic Center and moderated a small group of dedicated people in a discussion of Social Media. I think we started out with 10 people, most of whom had come down to have this discussion because I had deigned to appear in person to help moderate the discussion, and ended up with an unruly crowd of 40+. I was there to promote healing. I believe my catch-phrase was to “rise from the ashes like a Phoenix!”. I have never in my life drawn on that many hidden reserves of calm and patience as I did for that meeting. If you did not understand that there were a lot of egos and misplaced anger and flat-out territorialism concerning the flow of information out of Occupy SD after that gathering, well, then you weren’t there. We accomplished having most people leave with a sense of purpose, unity, and urgency: the Occupy SD social media had to do a better job of coordinating accurate information. Let’s get to work; I will help coordinate and broker win-win situations.

It was later Saturday evening that one person, understandably frustrated, uttered the words “file criminal charges”. It was not in any way directed at me, nor my efforts for Occupy SD; however, them’s fighting words, and my self-preservation kicked in.  This is why I quit answering my phone, responding to e-mails, and otherwise participating in the movement for the time being. I have witnessed more nefarious bullshit–circulating chat room logs, threatening legal actions, locking people out of accounts, redirecting websites, hijacking donation sites and their funds, bitching on live-to-the-world broadcasts, accusing people of being “infiltrators”–than I have ever seen in my life. You all should be ashamed of yourselves, and you know who you are. In fact, this clash of egos is the Achilles heel of the entire OSD movement.

Occupy Wall Street, and “We Are the 99%” has to understand what including 99% means. A constituency of 99% it is a movement of inclusion, not exclusion–we all have to get along and agree on basic principles to be able to communicate.  In order to communicate effectively, you have to broadcast at a 6th grade comprehension level in the US. A lot of my friends would insert a Fox News joke here; I have learned to insert a MainStream Media (MSM) joke here because they are the same thing: profit-driven talking heads with fancy graphics and reliably suspect information. When you see an organic movement such as Occupy SD actually get a live broadcast of a semblance of a news report that glues you to the screen because it is actually happening in real-time, this is nothing less than a triumph of communication and technology.

No amount of technology replaces simple, time-honored communication skills

No amount of technology replaces simple, time-honored communication skills

My final thoughts on Example #2: Occupy Wall Street and the Threat of Legal Action: Communication is broken within the OccupySD Media Team from the perspective of the Internet; this audience is measurably 100+ people strong and can occasionally multiply by a factor of 10, and they are figuratively dying to help out, participate, and communicate. They are doing the best that they can with the tools that they are given, and they want their voices to be heard. I don’t see the difference in this 21st century of me speaking in person or through Skype / Facebook / Twitter / Chat Room. I don’t believe my voice is diminished because I am rendered on a computer screen versus standing there in front of you saying the same thing, and OccupySD should pay equal attention to the awesome volunteers that are participating virtually as well as the physically present ones.

CONCLUSION

Communication is broken: we just don’t know how to get our point across effectively any more, from the hundreds of communication technologies to the strangeness of having to talk to another human being in person–like during the SD Blackout of 2011–without your iPhone, tablet, or computer signaling you and demanding your attention with a never ending stream of update messages, SMS messages, e-mails, phone calls, Skype conferences, Facebook posts, Twitter retweets, Dropbox syncs, Growl pings, FourSquare check-ins, Yelp! reviews, YouTube video suggestions, LiveStreams, GoodReads notes, software updates, and the rest of the cornucopia of ADHD business that occurs through your tech. Redouble your efforts–regardless of the platform–to understand whether or not you are listening, and in return, if you are being heard.

None of this technology can read your mind.

None of these gadgets removes the fact that you are responsible for your own actions.

Comments
  1. Tammy says:

    Thank you for your efforts! hugs

  2. Chrissie A says:

    I was a tad worried/concerned about you being MIA – thank you for expressing the situation so eloquently

    • froggacuda says:

      Thanks, Chrissie–I’m still actively supporting, just remotely, and not just San Diego. Wonderful people out there in NYC, Cleveland, Portland, DC, and Atlanta as well. 😉

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