Check Your Preconceptions at the Door

December 1st, 2008 – by NSA Staff No Comments

It’s amazing how many people you get to meet over the course of a lifetime. All shapes, sizes, colors and backgrounds. Most of those people make an impact, somehow, in the time that you interact with them. Some make a lasting impact. I met one of those “lasting impact” types at a National Speaker’s Association educational conference in Denver. In fact, he stood out. Literally.

Mark Eaton is a 7-foot-4-inch former NBA player. He played his entire professional career with the Utah Jazz, and his number 53 hangs from the rafters in the arena where the team plays. Mark is now a professional speaker, and so I introduced myself. Since he towers a full 18 inches above me, I craned my neck back to speak to him, and he arched his neck down to speak to me. At that moment, I couldn’t help wonder about the physical impediments that stand in the way of meaningful communication. When we see a blind person, it’s easy to understand that they can’t experience visual aspects of communication that many of us take for granted. A person with total hearing loss will miss the auditory element of speech. We’re told that nature can “make up” for the loss of one sense by strengthening another; perhaps that’s true. But what if we’re not aware that one sense has been weakened?

While talking to Mark, my physical inability to maintain that posture meant that I cut our conversation short. I said something tactful like “Gee, I’m hungry; I’m going to grab a cookie before they’re all gone!” A smooth exit, but rude nonetheless. I also lost the opportunity to find our more about another person’s fascinating life!

Later on that same day, I recognized Mark from the back (he’s hard to miss). I felt somewhat sheepish about my abrupt exit, and as I circled him to say hello again, I saw a fellow speaker of normal stature standing on a chair so he could look Mark in the eye. No discomfort, no sore neck, no “lure of the cookie” to stop him from interacting meaningfully. He sought out a creative way to reach the same level as his conversation partner.

Talking up, or down, to someone, creates emotional barriers not unlike the physical barriers that Mark and I faced that day when we met. Check your preconceptions and biases about a person before you speak to them. It’s easy to be lazy when we’re communicating, to make assumptions and take shortcuts. Preface your questions with phrases like “Tell me about…” or “What’s been your experience with…” to ensure that you’re giving your conversation partner enough room to let their voice be heard.

Submitted by Mike Faber-Professional Member

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