Mean What You Say – But by all Means, Say What You Mean

Good evening! How is everyone?

I love language. It has the power to inspire, educate or entertain us, but it also can be confusing or amusing, depending on how we read it or hear it. As speakers or writers, most of us choose subjects that are meaningful to us and we are very sincere in expressing that we mean what we say. However, because of the possibility and even probability that someone will misinterpret or misunderstand what we’ve written or said, we need to be careful to actually say what we mean. To illustrate, for the past year or so, I’ve noticed a large percentage of speakers walk into a meeting or onto a pulpit or platform and begin by saying, as I did –

Good evening! How is everyone? That question always fascinates me. I wonder if anyone was asked ahead of time to query, prepare and present a summary of how EVERYONE is? And, of course, the question of whether  the report will cover the physical, spiritual, mental, emotional and financial status of everyone or only one or two aspects of EVERYONE’S status? Or perhaps there might be an appointed psychic who can ‘see’ the group’s aura and give a concise report. A typical presentation has a limited time period so I’m also curious how much time has been allowed so EVERYONE will feel validated and that I don’t come across as totally self-centered and uncaring. [pause to reflect] At this point, it might be simpler if I just begin with you and let each person, in turn, tell us how he or she is – at least that way we will have a first-hand account of the individual’s status rather than some second or third-hand impersonal report.

No, as I think it over, that won’t work. In a group, even of this size, there are too many personality types. The extroverts in the room will be only too happy to have the spotlight on them and we clearly don’t have time for them to expound on all the details while the introverts will be so overwhelmed they not only won’t be able utter a word, they wouldn’t even hear about how you’re doing because their minds are going crazy trying to figure out a way to avoid having to be both seen and heard.

I know, some of you are thinking, “Good grief, it’s just a casual greeting. No one expects a response to it.” I agree, but if you say what you mean, why would you open with this empty question?

Thinking through all these possibilities reminds me of another of those things leaders say in group gatherings. How many times have you been in a meeting where the leader begins by saying, “Let’s all go around the room and introduce ourselves’? Have you ever thought about what chaos that would be? Each person getting up and walking about the room saying, “Hi, my name is Donna; what’s yours?” Except that everyone is up walking around and there’s no one waiting for your introduction; unless, of course, we do this sequentially. You (other side) get up and walk all around the room telling who you are and when you return to your seat, then it’s your turn. But then, again, I now only have 4½ minutes left for this talk, so by the time EVERYONE has gone AROUND THE ROOM, my time will be over. Clearly, that won’t work either.

I know by this time you’re thinking, “This woman’s a nut,” but I believe we all have those areas of brain playground that have us skipping off into territory the speaker or writer never intended. Again, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in church and the music minister said, “Let’s all turn in our hymnbooks …” Once again, my mind is on fertile soil and I’m busy visualizing myself inside the pages of the hymnbook turning – and, of course, I can’t just stop with turning. Cartoonlike, I’m dancing and skipping and leaning over the page to peek at what’s underneath.

Or what about the woman talking about the singer she heard at a preshow for another performer. She said this singer was so into her performance she was swaying from side to side of the stage. Oh, my! The visual is just too entertaining. I don’t know whether to see a stage that is a 24-inch square or a woman whose girth measures 30 feet across.

Then there was the Florida vacation hotel described as being ‘directly on the Atlantic Ocean.’ And no, it wasn’t an ocean liner. I wonder if their mattresses serve as floatation devices.

Just last week a funeral home was presenting about pre-arranging funerals so loved ones wouldn’t have to take care of those details in those first hours of their bereavement. One of the funeral planners identified himself as a prearranged funeral specialist. Even in so serious a subject as funeral planning, I’m chuckling while wondering what parts of him were prearranged – just hair and clothing or are we talking about arms and legs or maybe his head spins and you never know where it will stop.

I’m not sure if there’s any hope to keep me out of my brain playground while you’re speaking, but I would encourage you to give it a try by not just meaning what you say, but also by saying what you mean.

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Parallel Monologues

Back in the 80s, in an episode of the TV show ‘Greatest American Hero,” the hero and high school teacher, Ralph Hinkley, and the FBI agent, Bill Maxwell, were walking along the beach talking about the huge and growing problem of drugs. For me, it was one of the best depictions of the art of conversation – or lack thereof – I’ve ever seen. Bill saw drugs from the perspective of crime – in other words, catch ’em and put ’em all in prison – while Ralph saw the problem in terms of the young lives drawn off course and lost to potential – in other words, rescue them. The fascinating thing was observing their sentences running parallel to one another but never intersecting – though they were together and talking about the same thing at the same time, at no time did they ever actually meet in conversation.

In April Oprah had a guest on her show who put a name to this; he called this syndrome parallel monologues. What a great term – parallel monologues – two people carrying on monologues simultaneously with neither really hearing or even acknowledging the content of the other’s words. No change can be effected in lives or perspective because no true communication ever occurred between them.

Parallel monologues may not only have an impact on our one-on-one conversations with friends and acquaintances, but may be one of the biggest dilemmas we face in our world today. We are faced with so many problems in our world – in business where corporate greed and the bottom line trump people issues every time, in families where divorce and latch-key kids have almost become the norm in a world described by a similar phrase [at least to my ears] to parallel monologues – serial monogamy – in government where the direst economic situation we’ve faced for most of our lifetimes is upon us and our politicians still can’t stop spending billions of dollars on silly things – even in the name of stimulating our economy.

A few days ago, I read an opinion piece in the Oklahoma Gazette on the right to life/choice issue in which the writer called the issue “black and white” – between a woman and her body and the health insurance/medical community only. I was so struck by that label that I finally wrote a post on my blog site in response to it. This complex issue is anything but black and white – nothing with such financial, emotional, medical, relational and spiritual ramifications could possibly be labeled black and white, particularly when trying to include the points of view of the mother, the father, the grandparents, the child and society. In my post I tried to look at all the possible ramifications (though briefly, of course – it was an Internet blog). Someone apparently read my post and sent a comment that said something to the effect of, “pregnancy is a time of joy for the mother, and prenatal health and vitamins are very important.” Though I would say her statement is true most of the time; in this instance – based on the subject matter of my blog – her comment was an illustration of parallel monologues – she was responding out of her own experience without regard to anyone’s else’s experience.

We’ve likely all participated in those parallel monologues. For example, the DHS attorney telling an absent father he has an obligation to provide financial support for his children and his response is something like “ain’t no way that ‘expletive deleted’ is getting’ a dime out of me.”

In Toastmasters, evaluations are a way of getting immediate feedback on our presentations; those evaluations aren’t designed to be conversations and so can’t truly be parallel monologues, but I do believe there should be some evidence of at least attempting to develop listening skills. However, I couldn’t count the number of times evaluations of my speeches have included comments on content that made me wonder whose speech they were evaluating because it certainly had little relevance to the one I had just given.

Although I think this is important and I’ve given it some thought, it isn’t an area I’ve tried to solve on a global basis so I don’t know what the answer is, but I can, off the top of my head, suggest a few beginning changes to try to develop better communication skills:

  • Actually pay attention to what people are saying, instead of formulating your response during their discourse;
  • Investigate some of those areas of gray on issues – actually think through as many possibilities as you can – instead of just looking for support for your own position;
  • Reflect on/think about things you’ve heard or seen in sermons, speeches, movies, songs or books. Ken Gire in his book “The Reflective Life” provided a sample page to record your thoughts. The sections of the reflective sheet include Reading the Moment, which is the place for you to write the specific thing you saw or heard or felt. Reflecting on the Moment is the place where you record what you thought or researched. Responding to the Moment is the place where you set goals and begin to allow change or growth in your life because of this experience.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.” Just think how much we could learn and grow if we just followed his example and thought – even once a month or so.