A Lesson Learned in Communication

Despite my many years of public service and heavy involvement with communications, I find myself in a constant state of evolution that never seems to cease. New platforms and new levels of engagement constantly keep me guessing. One thing has not changed though, we must continue to try and communicate with each other, no matter how hard it may be.

When I was a kid, I remember a very impactful encounter I had while on vacation.  I often roamed, and got lost, and this day was no exception.  In particular I ended up in a store, scared and confused as I did not know how to reconnect with my mother and older brother.  Bouncing from aisle to aisle, I met a young lady who approached me with kind eyes and a beautiful smile.  Her approach immediately calmed my anxiety, but she used no audible words. Instead, she began to use sign language. I recognized it was sign language but felt inadequate as I did not know the signs. I wanted so badly to know and converse. Her patience with me was inspirational.  Just as it seemed we were beginning to have a level of understanding, my mother showed up.  I did not want to leave.  I pleaded with my mother to stay so I could have more time with this wonderful person.  Time was not on my side though and I left without ever knowing her name or how to reconnect.  I cried as we left, hoping that I had not disappointed my new friend too much by not knowing sign language.

Later that year I decided I would find ways to learn signs in hopes of one day finding my friend again, in a Hallmark Christmas Movie fashion. How relieved we both would be that we had a common method for communicating with one another. Unfortunately, the day never came, memories faded, and I lost much of what I had learned.

Fast forward many years, and I was working in the park system. One late afternoon, I was in our park office and received two patrons.  I welcomed them in and asked what I could do to assist.  They gestured for a piece of paper and a pen.  I quickly provided it to them and eagerly awaited the response. They let me know that they would be utilizing written instruction unless I was fluent in sign language.  Ashamed, I hung my head and responded in writing that I could not sign, but would gladly assist. As they left after completing their business that day, I recalled my earlier childhood experience and decided I must rededicate myself to learning sign language once again.  

I waited a whole year for an opportunity to communicate through sign language in my professional life.  As luck would have it, the same patrons came back to reserve a shelter. I was so excited to share what I had worked on.  The smiles I was met with were worth more than a whole year’s salary! They praised me for what I had learned and then I shared with them the inspiration they had lit inside of me.  Just as they were about to leave they provided me with some signs that I just did not know, so I signed, “I do not understand.” Looking at one another and then at me, they made a sign slapping an “L’ against their upper chests. I shook my head again, indicating I didn’t understand that sign either. Shamefully I handed over a paper and pen. The response was, “lazy is the sign and keep learning, is what you need to do,” to which they both laughed a little.

My lessons learned in both those experiences could have been very different.  I knew that I needed to work harder to find a way to communicate in a way that was desirable and respectful to the other person.  It would have been easy to get frustrated and give up. 

Barriers to communication today can exist in many forms.  We don’t all speak the same language.  Sometimes, we speak the same language but don’t interpret the same way.  Sometimes, we are so distant in our positions that communication seems impossible.  Sometimes, we expect the worst in response and so we fear communicating at all. 

Should we give up when it is hard to communicate?  Should we just quit communicating?  You would be surprised at how many people respond yes.  Or, maybe you wouldn’t. I truly fear where we may land if we give up on trying to find ways to communicate with one another.  It was okay for me to feel like I hadn’t communicated in the best manner. It was okay for me to need to try and improve my communication.  The worst outcome would have been that I gave up. The satisfaction of connection and working together, far outweighed the effort in overcoming obstacles.

History is ripe with tough communication amongst people.  Nothing significant has been accomplished without trying. It seems like my lesson learned is one that now, more than ever, stays true to what I must endure to keep communicating. I hope you will join me.

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