The last few weeks I’ve been designing and teaching a course on communication skills not for writers but for medical professionals. It is a study in clear, defined language, communication that seeks total clarity without room for metaphor or multiplicity of intent or meaning—those medical professionals really need to know just exactly how you feel, weather or not you understand how to take your meds, if you are willing to wait five minutes. My students practiced conversations that reiterated, repeated, rephrased information again and again, conversations that limited and outlined and left no need for questions.
Can you tell me what I just said?
What I heard you say is this. Did I get it right?
Would you like a translator?
It might be helpful if I draw a picture. Here is a picture.
Why don’t you write down the ideas.
Let me read this back to you in my own words.
This language, these limited and circular conversations are, of course, a strategy that the medical providers can cling to in the rough waters of human emotion and confusion, the analogy and multiplicity of truth that surrounds every patient—that is that surrounds every human, especially when those humans are in a doctor’s office.
The stakes in this class felt very high and while, on one h
and, the communication did not feel subtle, on the other, I found an elegance in the utility, the repetition and focused drive towards such a difficult task, that an ideas will originate in one person and be conveyed completely to another. It’s not so different, really, than a writer working to convey an image or a strange tick of a character.
In one activity the students paired up. One student was given a task that they needed to get the other student to do. As the game progressed the tasks changed and I removed modes of communication until the pairs only had the words yes and no and yes? and no? They had no other words, no physical gestures, no smiles or frowns.
Five minutes in all the pairs but one had achieved their goal—it helps get the message across if a needle and thread or coloring book are on the table. Context clues are huge. The pair, however, that had started with nothing but a marker and a piece of paper had not yet solved their problem. As the rest of the class watched silently the two kept up a slow, patient dialogue:
Yes. No? No. No.
No. No. Yes. Yes.
No. Yes. No. No. No. No. Yes.
A tense, hopeful feeling filled the room as we all watched two people use this most concrete and fallible language, as two people worked so hard to both completely understood each other and, at the same time, have no idea what the other was truly trying to say. What should she do with that marker and paper? Yes? No. Yes? Yes. No. After a few more minutes I had to call it and the pair moved on to other tasks leaving behind the paper filled with scrawls—pictures, an alphabet, numbers, half sentences and a few names.
In the next round of the game I gave the same task to another pair and told the class that, this time, they could use yes and no and gestures.
In two simple motions—pointing to themselves and then sweeping their arm around the room—and the written
word class? this second pair finished off the task in 45 seconds, a written list of the names of all 18 students.
Wow, I though. That was an effective demonstration of the power of different and integrated communication forms. Pat yourself on the back for designing that one.
What works for medical providers works for writers. In a few weeks I’m starting a class that explores fiction and story through the study or other art forms. After watching the world that opened up with the sweep of an arm I cannot wait to see what turns up when we are allowed music and sculpture and dance and architecture and the guy who sings Teddy in the echoing hall of my train station each morning. I hope you will come find out with me!
Crossroads begins April 14th, 6:30-9:00 pm in our SF Mission Location. Come generate pages and pages of new writing!