Talk is Cheap: Use Words Wisely

How often have you heard someone say that "…talk is cheap?" Literally scores of times would be my guess. Usually you will hear this when someone is speaking about an individual who would much rather talk than listen or work to solve a problem. They just want to go on yapping and listening to themselves speak. Let me suggest to you that I am going to go in a different direction with this piece. 

It seems to me that there are far too many people who tend to act emotionally rather than rationally. These people act in the absence of speaking with those people who will be most directly affected by their actions. Whether the lack of interaction comes from a sense of fear, greed, anger or some other contingent emotion, the result is the same. A problem which did not exist is created or an existing problem which could have been solved is made much worse. Think about it my friends. If words are so darned cheap, why not spend a few extra to create a valid communications equation. 

One of my favorite lines of movie dialogue comes from my enjoyment of movies. In the 1967 black comedy "Cool Hand Luke," a classic communications interaction occurs between the star, the late Paul Newman (Luke) and the late Strother Martin (The Walking Boss). It seems that Luke is just too stubborn to bend to the rules of the prison where he is incarcerated. As the Walking Boss attempts to convince to obey the rules, he states, "…what we have here is failure to communicate." How painfully true is this statement as it pertains to your life and mine?

Whether it is a new rule, a possible operational change, or a modification to a general operating guideline, can a few words with the people who will carry things out the change really hurt? I learned a long time ago that people like to be asked what they think. People like it even more if what they say is actually heard, weighed, and valued. How many times has an action taken by a person in a leadership position been undertaken in the absence of any discussion with the people doing the work? These are the people who will have to live with the results of the decision. Why not just ask them how the feel? It isn't that hard.

In the early years of my fire service career I subscribed to the silly idea that any problem would go away if you simply ignored it long enough. Being a slow learner, it took me a long time to understand that things ignored never go away. Lesson one in my life involves my weight control issues. Things ignored can spiral out of control. It was truly a hard lesson for me to learn.

As a matter of fact it almost cost me my job once. And it did cost me a little vacation time to find out that it is better to talk to the boss when you have a problem that to attempt to create a false or deceitful story. Had I come clean with the boss from the start, he may well have worked with me to solve my problem. But since I failed to spend a few of those cheap words, it cost me a number of expensive days in the penalty box of life. 

In another instance, two opposing factions fought bitterly over a particular series of table of organization changes in their agency. As it turned out, they were both working for the good of the fire department. However, while their approaches were different, they were not diametrically opposed. Had they simply sat down and talked things over, sharing a few of the inexpensive words to which I am referring, they might have arrived at a mutually-acceptable solution. However, these two folks chose to fix bayonets and attack from opposing trenches of silence. The end result was not worth the effort that a few cheap words would probably have had. 

My friends, it has long been my belief that the best way to interact is in a face-to-face, one-on-one basis. It has been my experience that the best way to iron out differences is to sit down over a cup of coffee (herbal tea or bottled water) and just start talking. Let me warn you that it is never good to start out with any sort of hidden agenda or vested interest.

As they are so fond of saying in the movie business, "…cut to the chase." You will accomplish far more in a face-to-face confrontation than through emails, tweets, phone calls and intermediaries. Stop with the "he said/she said" nonsense. Be sincere, be firm, when necessary, and conciliatory as needed. 

Let me urge you to understand just how important the choice of words is in any such interaction. What you say is at least as important as how you say it. Here are some words which I have found to be extremely effective: 

  • Thank you.
  • I don't know.
  • I really value your opinion.
  • I need your help.
  • What can we do to make this work?

Words may be cheap, but the communications process is not easy. Let me suggest that you work on it every chance you get. Whatever you do in your fire service career, be sure to exploit every opportunity to spend some time and some words with your fellow travelers.

I am fairly certain that the results will be worth the effort. Let me suggest that you will find a world of solutions on the opposite side of a little well-chosen and well-place verbiage. As I said in the title of this commentary, talk is cheap, so spend as much as you want. Just be polite and respectful. The dividends will be great and tax free to boot.