The art of communication


Steve Frey


“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” You may recall Strother Martin, the actor playing Captain in the movie “Cool Hand Luke” saying that to chain gang member Paul Newman. The quote is often used as a joke in situations where communication is obviously inadequate. However, this failure to communicate is pretty commonplace.

Let’s start with some well-known, high-profile examples.

President Trump said this about Mexican immigrants during his campaign: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” This quote brings to mind one Mexican immigrant. He didn’t bring drugs or crime to this country, and he wasn’t a rapist. In fact, he was a member of the Special Forces Green Berets and served three tours in Vietnam. He was one of the most patriotic men you could ever meet and a career soldier. But while he was in Vietnam risking his life, his children, who were born in North Carolina, were being called “wetbacks” in school. Words can hurt, whether the president or a fifth-grader speak them.

Not to pick on President Trump (it seems he does have a difficult time communicating sometimes), but he also shared this about the Neo-Nazis and KKK members in Charlottesville: “But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.”  Do Jewish people, many of whom had relatives killed in the Holocaust, think fine people were chanting “Jews will not replace us” and other Nazi slogans that day? Failure to communicate?

On the state level, Governor Northam (after his disastrous news conferences about derogatory yearbook pictures where he reversed himself and said he wasn’t dressed as a KKK member or in blackface) in an interview called black slaves “indentured servants.” He was quickly corrected by the black reporter interviewing him and then corrected himself. Blacks and most whites understand prejudice well, and they know the difference between indentured servants and slaves. Shouldn’t the governor of Virginia?

Locally, the Montgomery County school division seems to have some communication issues. A teacher was suddenly taken out of the classroom, and a principal was abruptly replaced. Some students and parents protested because they didn’t think the process was handled or communicated well by the division, especially with only three weeks until graduation. Personnel issues are often confidential to protect everyone’s rights, but could these situations have been handled differently to avoid discord?

Many school divisions and local governing groups are meandering through the budget process right now. Often, a budget request by the schools is cut significantly by city councils or boards of supervisors, forcing school boards to make difficult decisions regarding salary increases, renovations, personnel levels, etc. Every spring there seems to be a failure to communicate, leaving much frustration and division within communities.

Often in small towns, groups are divided on a direction for an organization. Instead of communicating directly, some members push through ideas and other committee members feel left out of the process. Those members who felt excluded drop off committees and may even work against the best interests of the organization. In the end, the community suffers.

It is essential to pick words and responses carefully. Maybe instead of forming silos, people can put the needs of the group (country, state, county or community group) first and avoid petty infighting and power plays. After all, it’s not about whether one side or the other wins or loses on an issue; it is about whether the group succeeds and reaches its goals. If it does, everyone wins.

For that to happen, people need to sincerely respect one another. They have to communicate openly and freely share opinions but also respect the views of others. Leaders need to be aboveboard and transparent in making decisions and avoid hyperbole in making a case. Once a decision is reached fairly and openly (and no, compromise is not a dirty word), everyone should come together and work to achieve the goal. Again, this relates to Congress right down to a small community organization.

A country, state or locality is only as strong as the people working together within it. That teamwork always begins with excellent communication—speaking and listening—that is thoughtful, factual and sincere.

When people put their own desires above those of the community, large or small, nobody is successful, and bridges are burned that are hard to rebuild. When communication is effective, everyone benefits.

It seems like an unambiguous choice.


Steve Frey is a writer and CEO of Ascendant Educational Services based in Radford.