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Slow Down for Learning Curves

September 25, 2011
Mary Jane Copps

This past week I was humbled to discover that something I thought I understood, I didn’t really understand at all. I feel a bit chastised by my experience and have been reminded that daily life is filled with opportunities for improvement and growth if I take the time to acknowledge the learning curves.

It’s all because of a short-term project that I’m doing calling organizations in Belfast. There were so many things to consider – the time zone, the overseas calling codes, the cost of the calls, the inability to use my toll free number in messages and … my accent.

Only a few times in my career have I had to make calls outside of North America. I know, I know, calling Northern Ireland doesn’t pose the same difficulty as calling Italy or Russia or Poland but, regardless, I knew my voice was going to be an issue. I got a bit stressed out!

“Really?,” you’re asking. Yes, really. Before I picked up the phone to make the first call my stomach was in knots. I almost convinced myself I had the flu or food poisoning. It took me back to my childhood when I had to play the piano in the Kiwanis Music Festival. Much to both my mother’s and my piano teacher’s disappointment, nerves destroyed my performance every time.

But I did pick up the phone and the first three calls were a bit shaky, contained some awkward pauses on my end and had a few “uhmms” and “ahhhs” – and then the lesson started to appear.

The sound of my voice, the very way I spoke, had the potential to overshadow my message. In some of the calls when the person on the other end of the phone listened to me speak, they were so surprised they became very focused on the sound and not on the words. In those first three calls, I did the same – became self-conscious about how I sounded; let the message become secondary.

For some reason that at the moment I’ll label naïve, I wasn’t expecting this – that my ability to communicate would be impeded by the very sound of my voice, not the words I used or how I pronounced them. Quite a challenge since changing the sound of my voice isn’t really an option.

Now while I was moving through this learning curve I received a call from someone who wanted to elicit my excitement about something. But the sound of their voice was, well, like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh – full of hard luck and burdens. It didn’t matter what words she used, she wasn’t going to get me excited!

So the key revealed itself – confidence, energy, enthusiasm. In all circumstances these things should be part of your phone voice but they are absolutely essential when you are wanting to communicate with a different culture, a different country, a different language. When the sound of your voice is what people are going to focus on first, make sure they hear excitement, warmth, confidence. These characteristics will create the bridge that will move them from sound to content.

This made me start thinking more about voices in other ways too, about my desire to improve my ability to hear and listen. I remembered that many (many) years ago I had a friend that loved watching Coronation Street. We often got together for Sunday brunch and the television would be on and they’d be nodding and laughing and pointing things out to me and … I didn’t understand one single word! I knew they were speaking English but I was completely lost to the sound, couldn’t get past it to identify the words.

Because the program was so important to my friend, I kept trying to understand and, while I know this will sound foolish to many of you, I’ve now been a dedicated fan for about 20 years. There’s still some words and phrases I don’t understand, but compared to the first dozen times I watched the show, my ears are fully open!

These thoughts led me to start to looking for other opportunities to improve my listening skills, like on the radio when there are interviews with individuals from other countries. Television has taken to running text on the screen for even the slightest accent, but not the radio. All you can do is listen, get past the sound to the words.

And there must be other ways to do this as well. What method would you use to improve your ability to hear other voices?

And one last thought:

The highest result of education is tolerance. -Helen Keller, author and lecturer (1880-1968)

Happy dialing everyone!

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