The Fifth Voice

The Mamas and the Papas were a singing group in the 1960s. They had hit songs like Monday Monday, I Saw Her Again Last Night and California Dreaming during their brief time together. Infidelity with members, drug use and other rock and roll habits made peace love and understanding among its members an impossible goal.

Four part harmony was a hallmark of their recordings. John Phillips, the chief song writer of the band, would talk about the beauty of the four voices coming together in the studio. Sometimes the harmony was so balanced and exquisite he swore you could hear a fifth voice in the room. That fifth voice was a magical representation of four voices perfectly united, achieving an almost ghostly form of synthesis with mutual appreciation and understanding.

Harmony is a good metaphor when discussing the principles of communication. A seesaw is even a better metaphor when talking about effective two way conversations. The problem is many people have childhood memories of playing on a teeter totter, not a see saw at the local park. These two titles for the exact same thing leads to hours of arguments and its proper name. Combatants argue with loud voices hoping the increasing volume leads to a victory with the seesaw – teeter totter debate. Like too many conversations, fixation on the wrong thing, leads to unfulfilled outcomes, where participants stomp away promising to themselves, never to talk to that idiot again.

The teeter totter metaphor could be the ideal visual of a model conversation as both participants go up and down speaking and listening to each other. It could be but it can’t work because of strong cultural differences of that children’s simple ride. Don’t get me started on the proper name for the never ending Supper / Dinner debate!

We will have to return to the less appropriate Harmony metaphor to help define effective communication today.

The first challenge with communication is the intent of speaking. Far too many times we approach a conversation with a mantra playing in our head for weeks, “Boy next time I see him I am going to give him a piece of my mind!” Well the meeting and the telling occurs, and you walk away all puffy chested, knowing you communicated your thoughts with pristine precision. Three weeks later the recipient delivers their peace of mind back to you and the cycle of regular communication continues.

It is that beginning of “I can’t wait to tell…” somebody something, that can often lead the the monologue, not the dialogue of conversation. In my 30 year career in the health care industry I have participated and delivered far too many communication skill seminars. It is now even part of the courses I teach at Sheridan College helping students achieve their business degrees at my institution. Since every participant begins each session believing they are wonderful communicators, and it’s always the other person who has the problem, the lessons fall flat in spite of the incredible volume of information on every table’s flip charts.

Speaking of flip charts, flipping the goal of communication might be the only way to get closer to that fifth voice. If we can align to a reverse intent of conversation there might’ve be a change in the final result. Regardless of your eloquence, your vocabulary, your listening skills or your tone of voice the end result skilled interactions are trying to achieve is mutual understanding. Yes it is that simple. “ I get your point, you get my point, Let’s have another beer.” It is not agreement, it is understanding that is the satisfying conclusion of vibrant dialogue. This is the Fifth Voice in the room.

As a child, Dr. Anderson would make regular house calls to our family of eight in Oakville. For younger disbelievers, ask your parents or grandparents what a house call is? Measles, Mumps, and other contagious disease spread around the three bedroom bungalow with little resistance from the family. During flu season, Dr. Anderson visited our front door more often than the milkman. For young disbelievers ask you parents and grandparents what a milkman is?

Dr Anderson had his obligatory medical degree, which forced others to call him doctor, but he had one other thing that was not taught in medical school. He had bedside manner. This was the ultimate measure of his high level communication skills. He could sit with a 7 year old child, and explain not in medical terms, but with words a 7 year old could understand what he was doing and why he was doing it. That skill came in handy when I was vomiting blood after he took my defenceless tonsils out. His ability to reach mutual understanding, not agreement was the best example I ever experienced.

Returning to my poor harmony metaphor, let me conclude my written communication on oral communication with an abhorrent musical thought. When speaking, discussing, arguing, whispering, yelling or even chatting to another friend, who is standing at your bbq making numerous suggestions on how to improve your grilling technique, pause for a moment as you flip your burgers. Speaking of flipping, flip the purpose of that conversation to ensure both opinions of bbq expertise are heard and you will slowly find the Fifth Voice. It’s always there, waiting to be heard. When voices achieve a mutual, simpatico comprehension of other voices you will surprise yourself and others with your harmonious approach to conversation.

Trusting that all good conversation will have its up and downs, embrace the contrasting ideas, listen and respond in a balanced back and forth rhythm, kind of like a teeter totter… never mind.

Cue the Blong. Harnessing the ghost of Sinatra…

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