Tuesday, March 14, 2017

When Words Harm

string can phone
(Photo credit: borzaya/Thinkstock)
Since the beginning of time, humans have tried to "break the code" of effective communication. Yet even with research and technological advancements, the fact remains that communication and relationships between communicators fail because of what we say and how we say it. Words matter!

A Date Night Example

Recently, my husband and I went to dinner at one of my favorite restaurants. The polite waitress welcomed us with, "Good evening, folks." I cringed knowing the word "folks" was a trigger for my husband. He responded with, "Do we look like folks?"

You could tell by the look on the young woman's face the answer was a profound "yes." Being professional and quick, the woman asked what he suggested. Peeps went over about as well with her as folks did for him. I managed to jump into the conversation and free the waitress from the awkward conversation, assuring her the greeting was appropriate.

So what was it that caused my husband angst about the term "folks"? Generational? What shaped his understanding of the word and cause a bit of harm to the waitress, my husband, and the fate of our date night experience. Merry Melodies "Looney Tunes" movies ending with Porky Pig saying "That's all, folks!" was common during our day. But knowing my husband like I do, I think he saw Grant Wood's "American Gothic" painting of the farmer with pitchfork in his hand with his wife by his side is the image with which he associated.
Grant Wood [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The exchange bothered me so much that I needed to bring peace to this situation. I pulled out my smart phone and looked up the definition of folks to be that of "people in general." I shared my find with both husband and waitress. Husband agreed that folks was acceptable and the waitress got a big tip from me.

Neither party wanted to harm the other, but words have meaning (whether literally in a dictionary or how a person shapes them) and when taken out of context or used improperly can harm. Effective communication is a critical skill for leaders.

Communication in Wildland Fire
[Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, p. 22]

Communication is the primary tool for establishing an effective command climate. The ability to communicate effectively is universally rated as one of the most important leadership behaviors.

Communication is the foundation upon which we build trust and enable our teams to develop cohesion. Effective communication is a two-way process. Good leaders actively listen to build trust with others. Communication enables us to convey objectives and intent, break error chains, and improve situation awareness. Leaders are cognizant of the central role that communication plays in the ability to lead and always strive to become better communicators.

Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge - Digging a Little Deeper
  • Watch "How Words Can Harm."

[Imagine the video of Porky Pig saying "Th-th-th- that's all folks!" No fair-use/public domain copy was available.]

About the Author:
Pam McDonald is a writer/editor for BLM Wildland Fire Training and Workforce Development and member of the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee. The expressions are those of the author.

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