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What It Means When We Say…

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Better communication will occur if we can also more accurately say what we mean.

Active listening is not a natural behavior. We constantly project ahead in conversations to prepare our decisions and responses. When we focus on what applicants, staff, and the public are saying, we can better understand the meaning behind their words. Simultaneously, better communication will occur if we can also more accurately say what we mean.

Former Palm Springs, California, Planning Director Marvin Roos has been collecting public hearing “misspeaks” for several decades, including during Sonny Bono’s tenure as mayor. The working title of the collection is “They Have an Unlisted Number in the Phone Book” (a fairly typical type of misspeak). It includes such gems as Bono’s: “You have the horse before the cart,” “The Belardo Road Bridge was designed by the insultant,” “I’m hearing a head shake,” and “You’ll have people sunning themselves in the shade.” These characteristically are unintended malapropisms that are often unheard, and usually interpreted correctly.

Another kind of misspeak, if you will, is the willful obfuscation designed to get us off the “hot seat” and allow us to make a clean get-away before anyone notices. A second collection titled “What it Means When They Say” developed by Roos is a glossary of terms developed originally to educate (in a humorous way) a city council on the foibles of the design review process. The outcome was hoped to show how communication about subjective matters is difficult at best.

There is another, more important lesson to be learned: it’s easy as an individual to say when a project is well designed, but often very difficult to communicate why a solution doesn’t make the grade (let alone how to specifically change it). Add a committee, a commission, a board or council, or any group, and the chances of succinct communication often seem to diminish inversely to the number of minds.

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