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Communication Breakdown

How thinking like the world's greatest communicators could help reduce work-related stress.

It’s really one of the most frustrating feelings in many of our working lives, the sense that we’re not being listened to, or that unclear communication is harming the efficiency of our team. It’s a major cause of workplace stress, feelings of resentment between colleagues and disengagement between management and staff. And, while many of us take steps to become more confident, more competent or more convincing speakers, that’s only addressing the problem from one side, and let’s be honest, that’s the easy side to fix. I say this because there is plenty of help available to us in that regard, and we’re used to thinking of great speakers as great communicators.  Most people, when asked to name some of history’s most famous communicators, will think of Martin Luther King, JFK, Churchill, Hitler, Charles Stewart Parnell, or any number of other notable orators, who used the power of their words to influence people, for good or ill. We learn about their famous speeches in school, make documentaries, write books about them, and even build statues of some of them. The power of rhetoric has been a favourite tool since ancient times, and has been studied and taught since the days of Plato, gained broader appeal through the books of Dale Carnegie and the like in the last century, and right on up to the present day phenomenon of the Ted Talk… We all want to be better speakers.

 But becoming a better listener? That’s a much less common pursuit..

  …Or so it might seem.

 Because there are people whose skill at communicating with each other is so highly developed, that when working as a group, they can listen to all of the others in that group simultaneously, shift their focus from one to another without losing awareness of the other individuals, and carry on their task, uninterrupted, reacting to all of the information they’re receiving instantaneously, while also being conscious of the groups’ communication with those outside it, and responding to that too.

 Sounds like the perfect team, right?

So, are these rare, almost superhuman communication skills reserved for surgeons, air-traffic controllers,maybe, or top-level chefs? No. Although all of those professions come close, in terms of the tightness with which their teamwork operates, the people I’m talking about are tighter still, and communicate with such efficiency as to make it seem effortless. And they’re often capable of doing so for hours at a time.

 I’m talking, of course, about musicians. Nobody, but nobody, communicates like musicians do, and the world at large, while appreciating their talent as entertainers, may not even be aware that they are, in fact, celebrating the art of communication taken to its highest level. 

Regardless of genre, style, gender, age, race, colour or creed, musicians speak to each other, often without words, and respond to each other so quickly, as to seem to move as one. I’ve been a gigging musician myself for over 25 years, and have had the pleasure of playing with people from all over the world, sometimes with little or no rehearsal, and I know well that, once the people I’m playing with are experienced musicians, we’ll communicate perfectly well, needing just a glance, or a nod to keep us in sync. And when I play with those with whom I regularly rehearse and perform, we often don’t even need that.

Now, obviously, it wasn’t like that on day one.. But I well remember how, as a bunch of inept teenagers, myself and my fledgling bandmates learned how to not just communicate our ideas to each other, but to streamline that communication and hone our skills, as we learned to listen to each others’ bum notes and missed beats, and react accordingly, so that we didn’t lose each other, and we’d all arrive at the end of a song in good time. And we practised, and we learned, until we developed a skillset that meant there were no more missed beats..

  Now, just imagine that kind of communication skillset being brought to bear in your work environment.. What a difference it would make to the efficiency of your team, whatever line of business you may be in.. 

Because if efficient teamwork is the key to business success, and effective communication is the key to teamwork, wouldn’t we all work better, and happier, if we learned to communicate like musicians?

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