No Time, No Communication, No Problem!
There is a comic strip that shows a man lying on the psychiatrist couch talking to his psychiatrist. The patient said, “I had a dream. I don’t know if it was a good dream or a nightmare.” and the caption goes on to read: “I dreamed I had a harem but they all wanted to talk about the relationship.” I laughed out loud when I saw that. For most men when they hear the words, “We need to talk” they would rather be hung by their fingernails than endure what they know will follow. If communication is always “heavy,” always conflictual, always tense, then more of the same is certainly not something anyone wants. In fact, many people—both personally and professionally—(consciously or unconsciously) make sure there is no time for non-task related communication.
Create the Space, the Communication Will Follow
But assuming that you really do want to increase your communication, how do you do it? “Quality time” was the buzz word for many years and the supposed solution to too little time with the important people in your lives. The problem, however, with quality time is an implied obligation to create “quality” in this time. This expectation subtly created one more place of pressure and performance for lives already overloaded.
The first six years of my life were spent on a family ranch with my brother, both parents, and a set of grandparents. It was an idyllic childhood and it is this point of reference that helps me understand how difficult our “system” today is for communication creation. As is typical with almost all agricultural families, we worked all the time. But “ranch” work was different from “city” work. We worked together as a family so “work” time and “family” time was not distinct. And the work often involved hours at one task, but it was not highly concentrated mental or physical task time. The work ebbed and flowed, though it was continuous.
For hundreds and hundreds of years, across cultures and generations, an agrarian society was the norm. It is a “system” that supports interpersonal communication. When working together on tasks that often stretched to include many hours, families communicated with each other. On the back of a horse, with nothing but the sounds of nature around you, you communicated with the people around you. This communication did not necessarily translate to deep conversations or even to verbal exchanges, but it did create the “space” to talk if you wanted to and the “space” to not talk if you didn’t want to.
Talk was not competing with sound bites, always-available music, an endless internet, texting, and phones. Having both the experience of my rural early childhood as well as a fast-paced city life as an adult, I have a unique point of comparison. It offers me a unique understanding of the challenges we face to create a “space” for communication to happen.
A Cultural Conspiracy
“Anyone wishing to communicate with Americans should do so by e-mail, which has been specially invented for the purpose, involving neither physical proximity nor speech,” said Auberon Waugh, journalist and satirist.
Our culture does not support quality (or quantity) communication. Some of the most revealing information happens in unofficial times. Unfortunately, today you must proactively create a space and time for interpersonal communication to happen. It does not happen “automatically” like it used to. Our culture does not support you in your efforts, so you must muscle the space and place for communication to occur. I am sure this “cultural conspiracy” is one of the reasons for relationships not working today.
The Political Divide
One of the explanations offered for the sharp division politically in the U.S. is that members of Congress do not spend time together apart from Task Time (arguing on the Senate and House floor). There was a time when after all the Task Time, the politicians would meet on the weekends at social events where they were interact as back-slapping colleagues, rib each other about their differences, and go home friends. The next Monday, they would be “at it again”—arguing over everything. Now, at the end of a hectic work week, the elected representatives get on an airplane and fly home to their families in their home state. Camaraderie has diminished and hostility has increased.
Are You on My Work Team or Not?
Companies have found that scheduling retreats and picnics create unity, camaraderie, and corporate well-being that hours of nothing but Task Talk can never accomplish. Scheduling time to socialize and get to know each other apart from your Production goes a long way. (It’s not coincidence that key business is often done during nine rounds on the golf course rather than at the office.)
In fact, according to an Harvard Business Review article on the commonalities of winning organizations, the British cycling team told the researchers this: “People often ask what they can learn from cycling and I tell them, take your team away, get to know each other and find new things to do. Our biggest improvements always happen when we do this.”
One of my fondest and most cherished memories of my childhood is riding horseback on the way to some Task with my brother and Dad. Dad’s horse was always in front and along the trail would be an Algarita Bush (a bush that grows little green berries). My Dad would pass the bush, grab a handful of berries and toss them over his shoulder and rain them down on my head. “Daddy!” I would protest. And then, since my horse was right behind his, I would quickly pass the same bush. Predictably, I would grab a handful of the same small berries and throw them forward, raining them on his back. (And, of course, a handful were thrown over my shoulder to rain on my little brother’s head. He, of course, returned the favor.) This berry exchange usually interrupted long periods of time with no talking whatsoever—just the steady, labored walking or trotting of our horses as we climbed up and down hills for hours. Though there was little talking, there was bonding and communication happening. We were working, communicating, bonding–but not always talking.
Why is this relevant? Contrast that experience with a life so fast paced that the only time you get “communication time” with the people you love is if you all have lost your phones. Americans are not comfortable with silence. The minute there is a pause in the conversation, their attention is directed to surfing, texting, visiting– online, of course. It is amazing what the “silence” of nature can draw out of people and the “space” to communicate that is created by hours on the back of a horse.
A Mediator’s Technique
One technique I learned as a mediator is the use of silence. In tense times during conflict, there is a natural inclination for the parties to “fill the space.” If the mediator is uncomfortable with silence, he or she will “fill it in,” often missing a valuable opportunity for very important information to surface for the participants. Allow the silence. Someone will fill the space. Communication will happen. As a mediator, it is important to not be that person. Allow the uncomfortableness of the space to do its work.
So, what is the solution to create quality communication in your work or personal relationships? The solution to create communicate is this: Create a Space and then Just Show Up. Communication will happen. Bu there is a key caveat: Create a placeholder for communication without the expectation of it. No pressure. (This is the reasoning behind a Friday night date often recommended in marriage seminars.) You don’t have to talk about anything, but you also have to create the “opportunity” for communication to happen. (Four hours in front of the T.V. does not count.)
Just Show Up
I have used the “Create a Space and then Just Show Up” principle in my life to establish many positive habits. I don’t put a lot of expectations on myself about what has to happen within the space. I just create it. The only rule is that I must “Show up.” If it is running, I don’t dictate how far or how fast. I just have to be out there running for a set period of time. Just show up. If it is God Time, I don’t dictate the exact activity. Just show up. I have noticed that if I start putting lots of other qualifications on the time, I start avoiding it. I eventually catch on to myself and abandon all the other requirements because it starts to erode the first basic principle. Just show up. Communication will happen.
Hill, Alex, Liz Mellon, and Jules Goddard. 2018. “How Winning Organizations Last 100 Years.” Harvard Business Review.