Elicit the Best from Sun. December 4 by Loren Kreher

Good morning!

Thank you for your time and for putting up with me instead of my husband, who was originally scheduled to speak this morning. Like roughly half of St. Louis at this point, the flu has ploughed through our house, and his voice is in a much rougher state than mine.

To give you a little background about me, I work as a speech-language pathologist in a local high school. This means that I work with students roughly ages 14 to up to 21, including those who have an invisible disability and those for whom every aspect of their life is affected by their differences. My job, roughly speaking, is to ensure that they are able to express whatever message they want to express in the way they want to express it. Language is a finicky medium, after all, and there is so much fine-tuning involved in making sure we are understood, no matter what your capabilities.

So I feel like I do have some small ideas to offer on the theme of eliciting the best. What I think is so often overlooked is that our best is never in a vacuum. When I am in the process of assessing a student’s skills, it is always against a backdrop of factors: who is the person talking to? What is the activity? Are there rules for the interaction, or is it unstructured? How is the student feeling? What is their motivation? We live connected to the invisible net of others around us, and that net can hold us up or pin us down. Sometimes my work feels like being a spider, trying to strengthen these webs and find where they are weakest. Sometimes it is because a student needs help communicating. Sometimes the listener benefits from an education as well.

One other feature of working with students of varying abilities is that others are constantly trying to define “best” for others. It’s a general pifall of education, to be sure, because we have to set goals, but I find the question of “best” worth wrestling with. Is it better to teach students a “proper” way of talking like everyone else, or teaching them to talk about their communication style to bridge a gap, or do we, as relatively boring communicators, need to do most of the work to understand others? What is best for whom? I often find that the most effective method is a little bit of all of three options. When we try too hard to define what someone else should be able to say, we trap them in a net that can create a terrible silence.

The other piece of working in communication that I love is that when I am at my best, I am at my most compassionate. Communicating effectively requires empathy and compassion. Every behavior is communicating something, and the best communicators are the best observers. If I can recommend anything, I would urge you to take the most difficult people in your life and watch how they communicate, because it can tell you about what they need.

Covid has broken so many nets and exposed so many weaknesses in how we communicate and understand others. It is my firm belief that everyone deserves a voice, and that when we are the listeners we can do the work to provide the support, and to hold the metaphorical ends of the web so others can be lifted up and heard. It is a difficult process, and I won’t pretend that I am not exhausted sometimes. But I think there is a great potential for beauty when we try, and I hope my message has reached you. I hope to talk with you soon!

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.