Communication Is the Response You Get

Excerpt from Chapter Eleven of “No Excuses” by David Neenan.

By David Neenan

We’re all familiar with the idea that most communication is non-verbal. Talking is simply making words out loud, presenting information. Information is important, but it’s only a small part of communication. The bigger portion is what I call “essence”—your true nature, your core, the inborn character you had when you arrived in the world. Babies have it, and the process of growing up complicates it. When we’re born, we depart an environment of perfect comfort and security for the cacophony and challenge of life outside the womb. Every time we are bruised or hurt, we protect that vulnerable essence; and, by the time we’re adults, after hearing that barrage of 385,000 negative messages (according to child development researchers, that’s the average), we are all walking around in a suit of body armor. This is nothing new. “For man has closed himself up,” wrote William Blake, “till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

But we can change that. Leaders who do so, who free their essence and convey it to others, have what is known as “charisma.” Just imagine a convenience store clerk saying: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask instead what you can do for your country.” Now, recall John Kennedy stirring a nation with those famous words. JFK was issuing a challenge, a huge one, and he got his message across. I know, because when I heard it, I signed up for the U.S. Army. I was on the University of Mississippi campus, attached to the 101st Airborne, keeping order when James Meredith, the first-ever black student, enrolled.

Since all communication is a two-way event, learning the art of real communication requires that we learn to hear, as well. This happens to be a crucial aspect of accepting love and support: seeking outside perspectives about ourselves. No one can tell you your truth. But other people, especially those closest to us, have extremely valuable feedback to offer. Are you really patient enough to become a kindergarten teacher? Your spouse knows. Do I really remain respectful, even when I’m angry? The people who work for me can say. When I need an unvarnished opinion about something in my life, I often rely on my wife, Sharon.

Recovering addicts and alcoholics rely on such outside perspectives to straighten out their lives. These “sponsors” follow the longstanding custom of passing on their experience and hope to those just starting out, a relationship that benefits both participants. They practice “tough love”: A sponsor tells the unvarnished truth.

My friend, Bob Bender, describes three levels of communication:

Mouth-to-ear communication is simply words that carry information. Need directions to the hotel from the airport? Got a list of things for your husband to pick up at the store? This type of conversation has its place, but it’s superficial. If this is the level at which you communicate something that challenges others, it often will be received as an attack.

Thought-to-thought communication represents a deeper level, an exchange of ideas. In a philosophical debate between colleagues about which computer system to buy, both brains are engaged. Intellectual interaction takes place, but not emotional or spiritual interaction. Once again, at this level, challenging information often is considered an attack.

Heart-to-heart communication takes place when each individual’s essence comes into play. Bender says when it happens, you can feel it on both sides, and that’s exactly right. This is the level of communication essential to conveying a challenge to others. If you achieve it, you are making a transformational offer. Uncovering and revealing your essence is a vast personal enterprise in which many people invest years and, in the case of psychotherapy, huge amounts of money. Sufficed it to say that the more willing you are to risk exposing your real self to someone else, the more likely they are to free their own. It’s one more paradox: The more you give away, the more you will get.

Communicating your essence does not mean unleashing raw anger and aiming it at someone else like a gun. The rules of human courtesy apply. And if you are compelled to offer a challenge to someone, it’s usually best to ask permission beforehand.

Imposition of challenge—intervention—is justified only when a problem is severe: for instance, when your husband has just been arrested for drunk driving.

At The Neenan Company, we endeavor to follow the rules of verbal interaction propounded by Ben Franklin and Native American medicine man Rolling Thunder.

• Speak with good purpose; if it does not serve, do not say it.

• When you disagree or do not understand, ask clarifying questions.

I’m not saying these principles should be the foundation of all interactions. Such “good” communication, as Harvard business theorist Chris Argyris wryly calls it, is unlikely to produce any of the perturbation that leads to learning and growth. But it’s up to each individual to decide when he or she is ready to have a learning experience. Good leaders use their essence to inspire others to make exactly that decision.

Excerpt from Chapter Eleven of “No Excuses” by David Neenan. For more information, visit

Author of “No Excuses,” David Neenan is the founder, chairman, and CEO of The Neenan Company, a design/build construction company that currently surpasses $150 million in sales. Neenan is one of the originators of Archistruction, a design and construction innovation that allows the different professional disciplines to merge. He is also a keynote and seminar speaker, having created and taught hundreds of Business and You seminars, a workshop dedicated to life improvement that he has conducted in the Pacific Rim, Sweden, Russia, Eastern Europe, and Africa. Neenan has directed training seminars for companies such as Hewlett Packard, Hilton Hotels, The Walt Disney Company, and AT&T.

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