As a new professor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was sitting in my campus office when the administrative assistant asked if I could take a call from a radio station in Zeeland.

Seconds later a program producer with an interesting accent invited me to a radio interview the following day. I accepted.

The next day the host came on the line to introduce me to his audience. I couldn’t fully understand him. His accent plus the static reduced intelligibility. He frustratingly asked me, “Do you know anything about . . . Zealand?”

“Of course,” I responded, “it’s just down the road. I’ve spoken in Zeeland a couple of times.” “Huh?” he wondered aloud. “Aren’t you in Michigan, in the USA?” “Right,” I confirmed. “Grand Rapids. About 20 miles from Zeeland.”

I had assumed that the program was broadcast on a nearby station in Zeeland, Michigan, when in fact it was a national broadcast on Radio New Zealand. What I interpreted as a Dutch accent from my own geographic area was a Kiwi dialect.

Note: This essay is excerpted from my book Communicate Like a True Leader: 30 Days of Life-Changing Wisdom, available from Amazon.

Miscommunication knows few bounds. The basic problem is that we assume that there will be shared understanding even when we bring different assumptions and life experiences to our interactions.

The most essential part of any definition of communication is shared understanding. Human communication is first of all the art of establishing shared understanding. To understand someone is to “stand under” that unique person, to humble one’s self to his or her understanding of reality.

Communication is not merely the “effect” that we have on each other. How you interpret me—how you are “affected” by my words—is not necessarily communication. If you don’t understand what I am actually intending to say, we failed to communicate. Such lack of shared understanding is miscommunication, not communication.

This is critically important because we humans are not called merely to affect one another. We are creatures of meaning, trust, and, at our best, shared understanding. Which is to say we are designed for community.

We don’t have to agree with one another in order to understand one another. Mature persons can agree to disagree even when they deeply understand each other.

Shared understanding can begin when we honestly accept one another’s invitations to engagement. We are on the way when we accept such invitations gratefully, listen openly, and converse respectfully. We thereby foster shared understanding—understanding of each other’s intended meanings.

When I began the radio interview I didn’t know who my audience really was. New Zealand was beyond my frame of reference. As I wrapped up the interview, I was sweating profusely. I had no idea how well the audience understood me. I could barely remember the conversation. I had been swimming anxiously in a sea of miscommunication. Ironically, the interview was about communication.

Reflection
Do you see communication as shared understanding or mere impact? Do you routinely aim for shared understanding in your everyday interactions?

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I got my first regular job at 16 years of age, assisting a 45-ish man who ran a family-owned pharmacy in Chicago. Jerry was the pharmacist and manager. He was also a friend to locals who came in to buy newspapers, talk politics, and share jokes.

In addition to cleaning and restocking shelves, I washed pharmaceutical pill bottles and removed the manufacturers’ labels so Jerry could reuse them to fill prescriptions. I spent Saturday mornings soaking bottles and scraping off labels.

After months of Saturdays I asked Jerry why he didn’t just buy new bottles. He suggested that my work served him, the business, customers, and society. Why load up landfills with more glass (there was no recycling)? He added that all human work impacts others.

The importance of what we did, Jerry explained, included the greater meaning of the work, not merely the skill involved, however seemingly menial. He said that much of his pharmacy work was pretty routine. In the bigger picture, though, he was actually keeping people healthy, and I was helping him help them.

I believe that we humans are called to be stewards or, as Robert K. Greenleaf put it, trustees. We are all called to be caretakers of the world we’ve inherited. We don’t ultimately “own” the world even though we do acquire parts of it to use and enjoy. To put it differently, we’re all entrepreneurs who serve others by creating additional worth out of the value that was here long before we were even born.

Moreover, we conduct our caretaking in and through communication. Jerry’s store depended on in-person, written, and telephone communication to serve customers, staff, and the broader community.

Caretaking has two aspects. The first is caring for others. This caring is excellence in action. We become skilled at whatever specifically we’re called to do, including communication. We listen well, speak carefully, write clearly, and persuade effectively as needed to serve others.

The second aspect of caretaking is caring about others—engaging our heart in our work, with compassion. A true professional needs to care about those she is serving.

Jerry was not just called to be a pharmacist. He cared for and about his customers and employees.

Note: This essay is excerpted from my book Communicate Like a True Leader: 30 Days of Life-Changing Wisdom, available from Amazon.

Every leader as caretaker-trustee must be a skilled and caring communicator. These two aspects of caretaking—excellence and compassion—are twin anchors for servant leadership. We learn through communication what they are and how to practice them.

At the time I was too new to the world of work to recognize how fortunate I was to learn caretaking from a true leader like Jerry. Twenty years after he closed the Chicago store and moved to California, I visited him there to thank him personally for caring for and about me. Thanks to Jerry, I became wiser, freer, healthier, and a more autonomous communicator.

Reflection
Do you have a deep sense of your calling as a caretaker? Do you need more skill (excellence) or heart (compassion)—or both?

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Some years ago I met with former Herman Miller CEO Max DePree to discuss communication. I humbly wanted to confer about his splendid definition of leadership in The Art of Leadership:

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.”

I had concluded personally that DePree’s definition should begin with the right attitude: gratitude. Real leaders are grateful ones. They are a joy to follow. And they are more effective. So I asked DePree if he thought that maybe the attitude of gratitude should come before “defining reality” in his definition of leadership. I suggested that the amended definition of leadership begin something like this: “The first responsibility of a leader is to accept gratefully the call to serve others.” He quickly agreed. I was relieved. And grateful.

Note: This essay is excerpted from my book Communicate Like a True Leader: 30 Days of Life-Changing Wisdom, available from Amazon.

Why is such preliminary thankfulness important? Why not include gratitude just in the last part of DePree’s definition? Because gratitude gets to the basic demeanor of a servant-minded communicator. Being grateful is a heartfelt way of living and growing. It’s the soil from which the best communication grows. What should a leader give thanks for? Certainly for the opportunity to serve others. For a place and time and people to lead.

A leader should also be thankful for the gift of communication itself. We couldn’t lead or follow without it. We can give thanks for the many people who contributed to our own abilities to communicate. Consider the roles of grandparents and parents, siblings, teachers, colleagues, neighbors, book authors, and so on. To borrow from DePree, our debts are deep.

Finally, consider what the gift of communication has meant for our relationships. Because we can communicate (same root word as “commune”) with one another, we are not relegated to loneliness. We can play and work with others. We can share jokes and joys, trials and tragedies, hopes and dreams. We can encourage and forgive, plan and practice everything from weddings to strategy meetings. We can define leadership with others and then seek together to live out our definition in service of others. And we can revise the definition as we go along.

Communication is a spectacular gift that we inherit from generation to generation and from organization to organization—even from conversation to conversation. To be the kind of leader whose heart is bathed in gratitude is to accept the most fitting beginning for a daily life of service—giving thanks. We know this deep in our hearts. This is why we all seek, even unconsciously, to be around thankful persons. We sense they are grateful for good things, including us. We want to be like them.

So a servant leader communicates with a sense of what Robert K. Greenleaf, the founder of Servant Leadership, calls “awe and wonder.” The leader’s communication begins and ends with heart-opening gratitude. In fact, I believe that gratitude is the missing first chapter in books about leadership and communication.

Reflection
Does your communication reflect a grateful heart? Write down the names of two persons who passed along to you the gift of communication. Keep adding to the list as you review your notes in this book. Let your gratitude grow.

Click here to receive a free 35-page PDF excerpt of my latest book, Communicate Like a True Leader.

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In this audio I address candidly the four essential ways that we can reinvigorate our communication in the age of social media: (1) cultivate gratitude in our hearts in order to avoid cynical, critical, impatient discourse, (2) listen empathically and sympathetically with triage for the most important relationships, (3) play together as the context for open, kind, and spontaneous communication, and (4) model for others the kind of communication/relationships that we would wish for ourselves, without hypocrisy. Much of this is from one of my latest book: An Essential Guide to Interpersonal Communication (click on link to read more at Amazon).

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Why Is So Much Public Communication Nasty?

by Quentin Schultze

Public discourse is particularly unpleasant today. What’s going on? Rather than blame a political party, candidate, system, or ideology, I would like to suggest a new way of looking at our troubling state of affairs. I taught communication at the college level for four decades. In the last fifteen years I noticed a shift among students and across society. I repeatedly observed a […]

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How to Be a Real Listener

by Quentin Schultze

Listening isn’t easy. Listening is messy. Complicated. Counterintuitive. We can’t become good listeners unless we first acknowledge how difficult it is for each of us personally. Novelist Ernest Hemingway puts it squarely: “Most people never listen.” Do you? Listening is not just hearing. It’s not even just about sound. Listening is attending to reality—to the […]

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7 Signs of Poor Listening

by Quentin Schultze

Seven Signs of Poor Listening 1. Judging others too quickly and harshly 2. Jumping to premature conclusions 3. Responding thoughtlessly 4. Basing opinions of others on first impressions 5. Failing to set aside one’s biases and prejudices 6. Seeing reality solely from one’s own, limited perspective 7. Focusing on self-centered agendas

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6 Ways to Be a Great Communicator

by Quentin Schultze

1. Encourage—build up others 2. Advocate—speak up for others 3. Listen—care about others’ thoughts and feelings 4. Tell Stories—give others joy and delight 5. Forgive—make things right when you’re wrong 6. Challenge—gently ask appropriate questions to help others understand reality

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Are You Really a Grateful Communicator?

by Quentin Schultze

Our hearts can hold three basic attitudes toward others: displeasure, indifference, and gratitude.  These shape how we communicate with one another, and especially how others perceive us. Displeased communicators tire us with complaints and criticisms. Their hearts say to others, “You don’t live up to my standards” and “I’m better than you are.” We generally […]

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What to Say To Someone Who Loses Loved One to Suicide

by Quentin Schultze

This personal story is both heart wrenching and full of hope. When words fail, actions can speak compassionately. Thanks to the author of this article for writing it and publishing it.

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6 Tips for Great Interpersonal Communication in the Age of Social Media

by Quentin Schultze

This 35-minute presentation is from a speech I gave on my new, co-authored book, An Essential Guide to Interpersonal Communication: Building Great Relationships with Faith, Skill, and Virtue in the Age of Social Media. For more information about the book, please visit the Amazon page. Thanks. QS  

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Why RSVP Is Dying

by Quentin Schultze

I hate to admit it to myself after years of denial, but RSVP is nearly dead. Why? I’ve always been an RSVP fan. I appreciate it when someone invites me to an event and provides a way for me to indicate whether or not I expect to attend. When I get an invitation without an RSVP, I’m […]

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Listening with Childlike Curiosity and Wonder

by Quentin Schultze

A basic principle of servant communication is that listening is the most important communicative skill. Listening is how we become intimate with reality so that when we speak or write we know what we’re talking about and who we’re talking with. But listening is not easy. I believe it’s the hardest communication skill to learn. […]

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Communicate from Your Heart

by Quentin Schultze

Heart-to-heart communication is the most powerful. Facts and logical arguments have their places in our communication, but they are wooden without the heart of the speaker connecting with the hearts of the audience. We communicate with heart when we touch each other’s basic humanity—the deepest emotions that we all share, such as fear, hope, joy, […]

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The 2 Basic Problems in Our Communication

by Quentin Schultze

Two very basic, recurrent patterns cause most of our communication breakdowns. First, we emotionally cocoon ourselves. We’re not willing to open up. We’re afraid of what others will think—especially someone in authority, such as a boss, parent, or pastor. So we take the safe route of guarding our deeper feelings. In organizations where there is […]

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3 Reasons Not to Ask Questions

by Quentin Schultze

Contrary to common sense, asking questions isn’t always the best way to improve mutual understanding in our communication. Here’s why: #1 When we ask a question we set the agenda. We tell the other person what we want to know about and what he or she should speak about. What if the other person wants […]

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The New Power of a Handwritten Note

by Quentin Schultze

As email and texting are becoming forms of junk mail, handwritten thank-you notes are gaining renewed importance. When I went to a local printer to buy a few hundred personalized note cards, the proprietor told me that he doesn’t get many orders anymore. “People just order a couple dozen online if they need any,” he […]

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Use Your Body Instead of PowerPoint

by Quentin Schultze

I use PowerPoint, but very selectively. My body is more effective. So is yours. Here’s why. The most potent multimedia technology in the world is the human body, including our voices. We’re wondrously multisensory creatures. No humanly devised communication technology can compete with the body. The next time you’re at restaurant just watch and listen […]

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Tweets = New Bumper Snickers

by Quentin Schultze

Every medium has precedents. Social media came out of everything from bedroom sleepovers to water-cooler gab and social shopping. What about Twitter? Post-It notes gone public? Maybe. A better possibility is the bumper sticker. Especially the ones that reflect self-expression rather than just group identity. Especially slightly snarky ones—the bumper snickers. You can buy them […]

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Facebook—The New Front Porch

by Quentin Schultze

Facebook is the new front porch. In the suburbs, mostly unused rear decks have replaced the more neighborly front porches. Along came Facebook for the cyber-suburbs. It’s the new place for gathering, gossiping, and goofing around. It’s become a natural way to find out about friends, relatives, and peers. Used well, Facebook equips us to […]

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Listening as Hospitality

by Quentin Schultze

When we truly listen to others, we provide places in our minds and hearts for them. This is one of the most important forms of hospitality. Only then can we get to know them. Only then can we empathize and sympathize. Only then can we begin to love them as distinct persons. So listening gets […]

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Communication Theories Worsen Communication

by Quentin Schultze

Many communication theories are based on the idea of manipulating people. Just take a look at the titles of communication-related books at your local bookstore.  They’re all about how to get what we want from others. Even about verbally abusing people. The result is that we lose trust in one another. Real communication suffers. We […]

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Cross-Cultural Communication Requires Cultural Roots

by Quentin Schultze

We can’t communicate well across cultures unless we’re rooted in our own culture. Why? Because we need to know who we are before we can know who we aren’t. How ironic!  Today, we naively assume the opposite, namely, that we have to give up our own cultural roots in order to connect with those form […]

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Kind v. Snarky Tweets

by Quentin Schultze

Who doesn’t enjoy snarky retorts that put deserving folks in their places? They are a mainstay of situation comedies, especially when the stories can’t carry the humor. Snark = snide remark. Twitter has little space for narrative. It’s all about simple, direct expression. Including clever criticism. Lewis Carroll’s fictional “snarks” in his nonsensical poem “The […]

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Transmission Isn’t Communication

by Quentin Schultze

Sending messages is not the same as communication. Communication requires shared understanding. We live in a storm of mediated messages. Most supposed communication is just noise. Like ads that few people pay attention to. Bruce Springsteen once sung about “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).” Little did he know how many channels there would be in […]

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Authors Need Approval

by Quentin Schultze

We writers need approval. Putting our words online or in print opens us up to public criticism. To rejection. So we might want to say what others want to hear in order to gain flattery. Ears get tickled, but truth suffers. Although we’ll still suffer rejection, by speaking the truth kindly, winsomely, we’re more likely […]

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Mutual Communication v. Careerism

by Quentin Schultze

The Protestant Reformer John Calvin used the term “mutual communication” to refer to mutual service rather than selfish careerism.  “It is not enough when a man can say, ‘Oh, I labor, I have my craft,’ or ‘I have such a trade.’  That is not enough.  But we must see whether it is good and profitable […]

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Loving Strangers as Neighbors

by Quentin Schultze

SServant communication is all about loving our audience as our neighbor. It doesn’t make any difference how close we are to our audiences. Even strangers merit our goodness and kindness. Everyone we stumble upon is a special person. If nothing else, each person deserves respect. This means being slow to speak and quick to listen […]

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How to Write a Great Résumé

by Quentin Schultze
Thumbnail image for How to Write a Great Résumé

I have written a book primarily for recent college graduates on how to write great résumés and cover letters: Résumé 101: A Student and Recent Grad Guide to Crafting Resumes and Cover Letters that Land Jobs. Read reviews at Amazon. I have long worked closely with college students and graduates. I know how concerned they are about “looking […]

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Ethics in the Information Age

by Quentin Schultze

Michael Lotti interviewed me for this fine article about the need to apply age-old ethics to the new social contexts created by digital communications technologies.  You can find out more online about Mr. Lotti at the publisher’s (Effect Magazine, LarsonAllen) website.  Kudos to LarsonAllen for addressing ethics on behalf of society. Ethics and the Information […]

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