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Professional and Personal Pointers for Credible Communication

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert A. Hunter
December 5, 2020

Some years ago, I earned a graduate degree in communication. I’m not sure how much I learned, for some conversations with my wife result in her suggesting that I should go back to school.

Nevertheless, over the years, I’ve observed some good examples of innovative ways to make a point, persuade or clearly communicate. I’d like to share a few of them.

One of the best illustrations I’ve ever seen was portrayed in the 1985 biographical motion picture Mask. In it a character named Rocky was a young counselor in a summer camp for blind youth. The object of his affection quickly became Diana—a sightless student in the camp. One day, the two of them were riding horses through the nearby countryside. Rocky attempted to enhance the pleasure of the ride by describing the scene before them—the brilliant sunshine in the bright blue sky, the blue water in the river, the green grass waving in the gentle breeze and the white, billowy clouds.

“Rocky, I don’t know colors. I’ve been blind since birth,” she said. His determination to help her understand colors moved him overnight to develop a creative way to tangibly teach her about what they’d experienced on their excursion. So, the next morning, he was prepared. Rocky led Diana to the camp kitchen where he pulled an ice cold rock from the freezer, put it in her hand, and said, “This is blue.” Then he put a stone from the cool refrigerator in her hand and said, “This is green.” Next, he pulled a rock from a boiling pan of water which was so hot Diana had to juggle it from hand to hand. “This is red,” said Rocky, “And when it cools down, it will be pink.” Finally, he took some white, fluffy cotton balls from the first aid box and handed them gently to her, saying, “And this is billowy.”

“I understand,” she said, “I understand.”

The renowned deaf-blind Helen Keller visited a large religious gathering years ago to give a speech in which she declared she had learned of that religion’s signature hymn and that she’d like to hear it. The astonished congregation watched as the president of the church led her to the organ and placed her hand on the console. The organist played the music. She “heard” the song through vibrations and she began to weep.

These remarkable examples tell me that we can find innovative ways to communicate almost anything to anyone.

While serving as city manager of Ogden, Utah, I often traveled with police officers to convey a feeling of support.

Some of my experiences were heartwarming, when, for example, I was riding with a patrolman who parked the car in his assigned minority neighborhood and said, “Let’s get out and walk. I want you to meet my families.”

We strolled for a few blocks. I watched as he greeted by name those who were on their front porch and asked how they were doing. Certainly, he was implicitly communicating, “I’m your friend and I’m here to help you.”

In another experience, I realized that our city’s franchised private ambulance service was performing disgustingly and determined that the best course would be to turn the service to our EMT firefighters who immediately rejected the notion that they would become “gurney pushers.”

Inspired by having watched the movie Mask and my experience with the police officer, I pondered ways to incentivize the firefighters. So, I spent days, maybe weeks, of eating with, sleeping in the dorms with, and going on calls with these emergency personnel. In that process, I learned of their specific concerns and was able to express my need for their reliable service which would bring lucrative resources to pay for the equipment and facilities they needed. The ambulance transfer to the fire department was successful because we communicated by listening to each other, understanding mutual needs, and building trust.

It’s also important to understand that we cannot not communicate. Thus, we must be careful in everything we do in order not to engender unwanted messages.

I remember a time when a colleague of mine who was a lay leader of his congregation, knowing of my addiction recovery volunteerism, asked if I had a book on anger management to help one of his members. I took it to his open office, and finding him not present, left it on his desk. Soon, others in the office began to wonder about him. It was an amusing reminder that confidential communication should be wrapped in “brown paper.”

In communication, it is critical for the encoder (the message originator) to understand the way the decoder (the person or body receiving the message) will interpret the information conveyed. Thus, the message—direct or indirect—must be carefully prepared to achieve positive results.

My personal hope is that I will become creative enough to improve communication with my wife.

Author: Robert A. Hunter is a longtime community leader in Utah, teaches Leadership and Political Life at Weber State University, and serves as public policy liaison for United Way of Northern Utah.

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