By Mei Lan Ho-Walker
I must confess I thought a communications class would be a piece of cake. I would read some books, practice public speaking and viola! instantly emerge as an ‘effective communicator’.
I was dead wrong. The class LiveE was a mental bootcamp that turned my world upside down. It rocked my core – in a good way. I often questioned what we were doing, from the paper airplane exercises, to writing about energy leaks, to reading a book called Difficult Conversations. I went through the motions because I was unsure of where we were going. There was a level of ambiguity that made me very uncomfortable, and I couldn’t see the big picture.
The moment of clarity came when I realized there was no predetermined end result. I essentially surrendered myself to myself and making this shift made all the difference. I embraced the ambiguity as an opportunity to define what I wanted to learn. It wasn’t about the professor, getting good grades, or coming up with the right answer, it was about me.
This class became a personal journey in developing my own sense of self to help me navigate, communicate and succeed in the situations I found myself in. I was and still am building this self-knowledge or what I call the ‘me muscle’.
I had this idea of what a good communicator was supposed to be based on expectation of others. But this experience revealed that effective communication begins from within. This ‘me muscle’ represents the driving force helping me make decisions, build confidence and gain control. Through practice and reflection, we can all develop our own sense of style.
To help keep my ‘me muscle’ in shape, I’ve compiled a list of daily exercises. It’s hard work, but remember some pain is good. It means you’re building muscle.
Exercise 1: Slow down.
The book Difficult Conversations introduced the term ‘identity conversation’. I have felt this entire semester has been an identity conversation; the real lesson for me was grounding my identity internally and externally. The line “The conversation has the potential to disrupt our sense of who we are in the world, or to highlight what we hope we are but fear we are not.” reminded me that if we don’t do things, ask questions, and confront issues because of fear, it affects our ability to grow.
So my advice is slow down. Take time to have conversations with yourself. I talk in front of the mirror all the time. By taking time to reflect on your ideas and what you think is important, you can gain a better understanding of your personal identity and beliefs. Understanding yourself also enables you to more easily share your ideas with others. Build a foundation so that when people question you, you can hold their statements against something. With a foundation, you can ground assessments other people make. If you can effectively articulate your thoughts and decisions, then you can work with others more productively and build stronger relationships. You can take out the personal, constructively learn and move forward.
Exercise 2: Stop thinking in terms of right and wrong.
One of my professor’s memorable statements for me was “There are no right or wrong answers”. Simple right? Acknowledging those words is simple, but accepting them takes hard work.
In the beginning of the semester, I fretted over assignments and ran around in circles. I put pressure on myself to have the ‘perfect’ answer when being in school is more about the process than the outcome. Although we’re not always in school, we should always be learning. You’ll probably discover, as I did, no one is going to tell you all the things you need to do or how to do them. And certainly, no one is ever going to have all the answers. If you generally stop wasting time agonizing if your answer is right or not, you’ll break down mental blocks, and be able to dig deeper. This also goes along with stop wasting time thinking about what other people might want. Decide what you think is important. Put your stake in the ground and run with it.
Exercise 3: Ask for what you need.
Frustrated by the lack of clarity on some projects, I blamed our professors, the class schedule, the system, anything but me. I complained but I never asked a professor to explain an assignment or for feedback; I never asked for what I needed. My coach (LiveE had a peer coaching component) helped me recognize this tendency. When I began listening to my emotions, I became more aware of certain issues and then I was able to take action. In this case, I was better able to make requests once I knew what I needed.
You can’t blame someone for not helping you if they don’t know you need help. Don’t be afraid. Make requests and ask for what you need. You’ll be happier that you did, and you’ll be able to move forward more productively.
Exercise 4: Share.
Being part of a four-person team the past few months, I learned that I worked better alone in some situations, but I often felt guilty about leaving my group to work on my own.
I like to think of myself as a strong, independent person so I try not to complain but I realized that doesn’t mean to ignore or brush my feelings aside. I didn’t always think about why I should share my feelings and Difficult Conversations helped show me that sharing feelings isn’t for feelings sake. Feelings can slip in and infect other aspects of your life — your relationships, your listening skills. It is important to release feelings, learn where they hide and tie up loose ends. Otherwise they will unconsciously steer your actions and you will feel out of control. I shared my feelings with my group. They understood immediately and my guilt went away.
Don’t apologize for doing what works for you. But share it with others. Share your feelings so they can better understand where you are coming from and can adjust accordingly.
Exercise 5: Pick a theme song.
Picking a theme song happened almost by accident. I noticed this one particular song always helped me refocus my energies. I continue to listen to it whenever I need a pick me up and it’s made my late nights a whole lot more fun.
Pick a theme song that pumps you up or helps you focus. Play it whenever you need motivation.
Exercise 6: Own it!
One of my personal goals for going back to school was to gain self-confidence in my ideas, thought process and decision-making. Building my sense of self has helped. Learning to have faith in myself and in the process has also played a significant role. It may sound funny, but I physically feel stronger. I am able to say no thank you, talk about my feelings without being embarrassed and perform in front of a large audience. “Own it” really represents the culmination of everything I have learned and has now become my motto. My last words of encouragement are cheesy but true – believe in yourself. Make it your own and you will succeed.
Ms. Ho-Walker’s theme song for this semester was “Kids” by MGMT.