by Steve Adubato, PhD
Consider the communication debacle surrounding Shirley Sherrod. She is the Department of Agriculture Administrator who was fired after the release of a highly-edited 2-minute and 45-second video clip of a 45-minute speech she gave before the NAACP in March, presents a variety of valuable lessons.
The clip, released online and then by national cable media organizations, showed Sherrod, who is black, saying that she might not help a white farmer to the same degree she would help a black farmer 24 years ago when she was working for a nonprofit rural farm aid group. The clip appeared to communicate that Sherrod was acting in a less than fair capacity to certain farmers based on color. For this, she was fired by the Secretary of Agriculture and criticized by many, including the NAACP.
But, in the communication game, there’s usually a catch. When seen in its entirety, the 45-minute speech demonstrated a deep and powerful shift in Sherrod’s thinking in which she ultimately came to the conclusion that everyone—all farmers—needed help in one way or another and should be treated equally. In fact, the white farmer in question later went public to talk about how much Sherrod did for him in helping him keep his farm. Once the entire video was made public, the blame game began.
Simply put, by taking this brief and out of context video clip and presenting it as representative of a larger reality demonstrates numerous communication lessons for all of us. They include the following:
--Don’t be so quick to judge if you haven’t heard the entire story. Too many of us take a slice of the pie and are convinced that it represents what the rest of the pie tastes like. That may work for pies, but it doesn’t work for people. Be more patient and listen just a little longer before you are convinced of what you believe is being communicated.
--When it comes to communication, due diligence is critical. Get more facts, ask more questions. Listen to the answers. Sure, it takes more time, but it is much more likely that the message sent and the message received will then be in sync.
--Realize how dangerous it is to assume. When it comes to communication, and in this case, leadership, understand that when you make decisions based on a sliver of information, you are likely to create a series of mistakes, bad will and innocent people being hurt. Great leaders understand the ripple effect their decisions have and, therefore, take just a little more time before they reach a conclusion.
--Did you ever notice how often we finish other people’s sentences? We cut them off and we interrupt because we are convinced of what they are going to say. That’s the same thing that happened here. The tape was interrupted and we finished the rest of what we thought Shirley Sherrod said in our own minds. This is the product of many factors, including our obsession with Blackberrys, Twitter and remote controls for television. Communication has to be faster to keep our attention. I’m all about being concise, but sometimes it takes just a little longer to complete a more complex thought or discussion. That’s what happened to Shirley Sherrod. Since she couldn’t say it in the 140 characters needed for Twitter, certain people decided which 140 characters they were going to take out of a much longer presentation and used it for their own purposes.
Remember that next time you take someone’s communication out of context or someone does it to you.