An effective communicator is like a good driver. You are responsible for your actions. This means you must be aware of circumstances and anticipate results. The following is a true story of a driver who did not, and the consequences that ensued. The lessons apply to communications when you are behind the wheel.
Dateline: February 15, 2012, 8:10 a.m.
Location: Upstate New York
Upon return from my Valentine’s Day evening, the low-fuel warning light lit up on my dashboard. I needed to purchase some gasoline. I pulled into to a gas station to fill up. My tank is on the passenger side, so my car was facing left. A blue pickup truck at the other pump faced toward me. He’d have to back up, I thought, as I pulled in. I wondered if that would be a problem for him. As I pumped my gas, so did the driver of the pickup truck. Got the picture?
I watched as he filled his truck. He seemed distracted, unaware of his surroundings. His head was down. For a brief second, maybe more, I thought he might just jump in his truck, and plow right into me.
He finished pumping his gas, and climbed into his truck. All the while he was looking down. I don’t know if he was playing with his radio, looking at his cell phone, or something else. Again, the mini-panic that he still hadn’t noticed my car.
But he did. He looked up, and began to back out. Right then, a smaller pickup truck drove into the parking lot behind him. My guy must have stopped looking in his rear view mirror. The smaller pickup began to honk as as the bigger blue truck slowly, and without hesitation, backed into it. That sickening sound filled the air, a sound that announces the day is not going so well.
As I left the scene, a few things occurred to me:
You are the captain of your ship.
Cars are heavy. Really heavy. Weight carries impact, so you better pay attention. It is only different by scale and degree in comparison to the actions of the captain of the Costa Concordia cruise ship that ran aground near the island of Giglio. Know where you’re going and stay on course. Be ready if external circumstances dictate change.
Lesson: Have a communication strategy; know your audience, and the route by which you intend to reach them.
It’s not that accidents necessarily happen fast or without warning. Oftentimes they can be foreseen. In fact, if the driver was a quarterback and I was the coach with one of those headsets calling plays, I would have yelled at him to STOP! Take an immediate time out. It was obvious he was not paying attention to his surroundings.
Lesson: Communications do not happen in a vacuum either. Be cognizant of competing interests that can become distractions when you deliver or respond to a message.
We have an obligation to live in the moment. When you take the wheel, you are the driver. All those things at which you nodded at when you were a 16-year-old kid in Driver’s Ed—are true. Stop. Look. Listen. Check your mirrors, etc. They never said, “Stop. Look. Listen. Check your cell phone.” Your responsibility does not end when you press the Send button.
You, and you alone, are responsible to assure that your message was received, understood, and acted upon. You own it.
Lesson: To be an effective communicator you are responsible for a situation so that things go right, or be responsible for the consequences if they go horribly wrong.