A paradox is a true statement or phenomenon that nonetheless seems to contradict itself. It also can be an untrue statement or phenomenon that nonetheless seems logical. A good example of paradox is the ancient riddle, “the child is father to the man.” How can that be? Further deliberation provides illumination as to the intended meaning of the sentence: there can be no man or woman who has not first been a child. Childhood experiences shape the kind of man or woman the person grows to be.
“The Great Paradox of Life” was the title of the first sermon I preached in my first parish (now a great number of years ago). I enthusiastically explained to my attentive congregation that life was characterized and defined by paradox. Waxing eloquent about the many paradoxes in the Bible, I cited example after example of how human beings had set out to fulfill a dream only to have it challenged and changed along the way by a God who wanted more for them than they had ever dared dream possible.
You should have been there. It was wonderful. Any nods I saw were made in apparent agreement to what I was saying rather than in preparation for sleep. I had made a connection with these people and impressed them with my command of Scripture and understanding of life. The kind and gentle smiles on their faces indicated to me that they knew what I was talking about – and believed that I knew what I was talking about.
At the end of the service, I greeted each person as they left, shaking their hands and looking expectantly into their eyes waiting to hear words of praise and appreciation for the words of wisdom I had offered in my sermon. The kind and gentle smiles were still on their faces – only now it seemed more like a knowing smile intimating that they knew something I didn’t. Some had kind words of welcome; others uttered phrases of heart-felt support.
Only one person commented on the sermon. He told me that he really appreciated what I had to say and that it meant a lot to him. I thanked him with appropriate humility. Then he said, “May I ask you a question?” Thinking he wanted to know more about the topic of the sermon and, wanting to further impress him with the depth of my knowledge and experience, I said, “Certainly!” He said, “What’s a paradox?”
In all the (too) many words of that sermon I couldn’t have explained the experience of paradox any better. What I thought had been persuasive communication had turned out to be unconvincing rhetoric.
Life often gives the test first and the lesson afterward. Life’s paradoxes are tests that beckon a lesson for those willing to learn. Reflecting on this experience years later, I recalled an admonition, itself paradoxically stated, from my Grandfather Stafford: “Always remember, Ken, that sometimes you’re finished long before you stop!”
No wonder the congregation was smiling – their experience with many previous pastors provided them with a powerful patience undisturbed by passion. They waited tolerantly for me to stop even though they had finished listening long before. The lesson I learned was that when your audience finishes listening, you’re finished, too, and would be wise to stop talking. Otherwise, you become guilty of using speech as Alexander Holmes, brother to Oliver Wendell Holmes, defined it: “speech is conveniently located midway between thought and action, where it often substitutes for both.”
In the many years I’ve been an organizational consultant and executive coach, I’ve found that, at the base of any problem within any organization, is poor, ambiguous, incomplete, inaccurate, untimely, inconsistent or entirely lacking communication processes, skills and techniques. The paradox of communication is that it occurs at all.
True communication is the life-blood of any individual and group of individuals because it can provide life for otherwise inert, passive and dormant words. It is the task of effective communication to bring words to life so that they effect some change within the listener. Why doesn’t this happen every time we speak to others? Here’s a hint: just because we can speak doesn’t mean we can communicate what we want to say in a way that brings our message to life within the mind of the listener. In order to do this, you need to ask yourself . . .
Just What Am I Trying to Accomplish?
Effective communication can create the desire to alter one’s current state of being. Every formal communication should have the goal of causing thought in the mind of the listener to the degree that some physiological and psychological change occurs. Each message can contribute to the overall level of desire to change that the listener experiences. In order to achieve this, you must be clear not just in your communication to others but also in their understanding of your intended message.
Checking for understanding in the minds of your audience is vital to accomplishing any change in attitude, behavior and outcome in both others and yourself. If I had only checked for my congregation’s understanding of the word, “paradox,” without assuming they knew what I was talking about, I’m sure the smiles and nods would have meant what I thought they meant before I knew better.
Eventually, with a well-designed communication strategy any speaker or writer can shape the emotional environment of the hearer and reader to the point of causing actual physical movement. Without physical movement, there can be no real and lasting change in the way life is lived.
This is why a call to action is a necessary part of any communication. It is actually counter-productive to put your thoughts into words without issuing a call for the listener to act on what you are saying, even if it is to reject it’s meaning and significance. By issuing a call to action you are inviting the hearer to mentally engage your message and to use it as a means to move beyond it to an outcome that is better than the present situation.
Even a subtle shift in attitude, or a habit of thought or a way of thinking, is a physical movement within the brain cells that eventually results in the physical movement of the entire body in an altered direction toward a different destination in life. A call to action is a call to the listener to decide to be moved in some way by the message.
Thoughts translated into language mean nothing if there is no response to them. Think about the messages you send in your attempts to communicate your thoughts to others. What are you really trying to accomplish by uttering or writing them? Aren’t you really seeking to move people to do something that is beneficial for you and/or for them, hopefully for both?
Every message you send contributes either to clarity of the hearers’ thoughts and their desire to act on them or to ambiguity as to what they really think and how they should act. When you get clear on your intended message and the outcomes it should engender, you will find yourself communicating with power, passion, purpose and persuasiveness. When you reach this point, your communication will result surprisingly quickly in practical and positive change in your life and in the lives of those who read your words and who hear you speak.
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