Communication lessons from my daughter

Road Closed Detour sign

I’ve mentioned my special needs daughter here before. I don’t talk about her here a lot, although in many ways she is the center of my life, because the focus of this blog is on communication skills. But every once in awhile these major areas of my life intersect. Today is one of them. Here are some things Hannah is reminding me of today.

Make your plans, but hold them lightly

I had other things planned this afternoon. I need to give feedback to students on their topics. I need to grade material in another class. But Hannah’s day nurse became ill, and the agency did not have a backup for us. So unexpectedly, I am filling in for nursing duties.

Please understand: I don’t mind this. Well, a little bit. Because I am the caregiver of last resort, there is nobody to step in beyond me, which means that I have let go of something very important to me: I have for the most part stopped scheduling speaking gigs. I rarely go out of town anymore. If I am gone, and a nurse gets sick and can’t cover a shift, it is essential I be immediately available. This section could be titled, “Decide on your priorities.” Though it is true that I miss speaking, and almost as much I miss finding out what my potential was, I have no regrets. Hannah’s situation definitely clarified my priorities.

When you speak, get used to this: seldom will things go the way you planned. Your success does not depend on doing exactly what you meant to do. If you achieved your purpose, but through some other means than you had planned, then take satisfaction in that. You made a difference. So what if you forgot a particular story, or you left out a point, or you took things in a different order?

Decide on your priorities

What the heck, let’s go there. When her medical issues first manifested, I had completed all the course work for a doctorate of education. The university told me I could take up to a year’s leave of absence, and start right back on my dissertation with all my credits, no problem. I took the year, and when I tried to come back they told me I would have to reapply, the degree program had changed in the meantime, I would have to take a different admission test, and I would need to take about another 24 hours of classes. When I pointed out this was different than what they told me a year ago (including spending the year trying to keep my daughter alive), they said, “Do you have that in writing?”

I’m not going to mention the name of the university, but when I mentioned something about the Big Orange Screw, the bureaucrat on the other end of the phone started lecturing me. Since I had just got finished telling her about the angst-ridden year I had spent, and she had no interest in it, I interrupted to say, “You know what? I have a full-time job I intend to stay in until I retire or they fire me. I don’t need your fuddling degree, and I certainly don’t need to listen to you on your high horse. So fuddle you and your whole school.” And I hung up.

OK, I didn’t say fuddle. But you get the idea.

Do I regret not getting my doctorate? Sure. My dad dreamed of being able to call me “Doctor” and though he died just before Hannah was born, I feel like I let him down. But I also think he would approve of my priorities. Hannah comes first.

You can’t do everything there is to do. You don’t have enough time, enough energy. What matters most to you? What message do you want to communicate the most? It’s not a matter of cutting out the fat (although you probably need to do that); it’s a matter of cutting out good stuff so you can focus on the best. As Craig Valentine would say, don’t let the good get in the way of the great.

Little things can make a big difference

Hannah can’t talk (or sit up or swallow or use her hands to scratch where it itches or any number of things you and I take for granted), but she can communicate. She has been suffering seizures for months, and though medication brings them mostly under control, she still has them (she has gone from having over 100 during a 12-hour shift to sometimes only having two). When she has them, she looks really scared. At those times, it is a blessing to me to be able to just stand there with her and stroke her temple and cheek. I can’t prove it, but it seems that doing so shortens the duration of the seizure, and it certainly seems to comfort her.

I don’t know, but I feel like I make more of an impact on the world with something like that than with all the speeches I have given put together.

That doesn’t mean you’re wasting your time wanting to improve your speaking skills. It does mean to notice where you actually make a difference, and don’t underestimate the impact you have on someone.

There’s more than one way

There’s a lot more, but right now I’m not completely sure how to relate the need to change diapers to communication skills. You see, it has been over a month since I had a chance to post, and I was determined that I was going to get something posted today, no matter what. Then the changed plans cropped up. Honestly, I considered putting it off again.

For the record, I haven’t been goofing off. I’m teaching two classes in four weeks in June that normally take 15 weeks, plus another project that covers the whole summer, AND working with a client to do some in-depth communication skills training for a group of people. I’m grateful for the work, and I’m loving making a difference to all these audiences. I’m handling it, but I had to let something go, and one of those things was posting blog posts. Nothing has let up in those areas yet, but I was starting to feel the effects of not writing.

So, I could have blown it off. But instead, I’m incorporating the situation. Even as I’m writing this, I’m jumping up every few minutes to take care of Hannah. It’s not my preferred mode of writing (I like to have long periods of unbroken concentration, but when do I get that anymore? Answer: never), but it’s better than not writing.

Don’t wait until conditions are perfect to speak, to write, to create. It will never happen. I have chosen to not go out on the road, but I’m writing (blogging and taking on projects that aren’t too deadline-driven), and I’m speaking locally whenever I can. I may not be doing it the way I had planned all those years ago, but I’m still pursuing the things that matter to me. It’s not either-or; it’s both-and. It takes adapting, but that’s what humans do.

What have you let go by the wayside that matters to you? Do you have a message that you have let get shut down? How could you find another way?

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with individuals and organizations who want to forge top-notch communication skills to increase their influence and impact. He is associate professor of speech and journalism at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.