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Windows vs. Mirrors

Updated: Dec 19, 2020

When I taught children’s music, one cringe-causing comment I would hear from parents was, “Plug your ears. He can’t sing.”

I’d want to scream out (most un-musically): “Hey parent, you’re missing the point!”

“Mommy & Me” classes were not about performance. They were about growing little bodies and souls – about raising voices in communal celebration. Does the tiny wren worry that his voice will offend? No! He sings out boldly, adding his unique color to the chorus of other birds. Singing is natural. It feels good, and it’s meant to be shared…not judged.

When did sharing morph into performing?

Today’s culture is infused with competitive triggers that inhibit, rather than encourage, personal connection. As a communications consultant, I call it “looking into mirrors instead of through windows.” And I see it all the time.

Consider the recent college student — I’ll call her Megan — who needed help with her graduate school application essay. Megan is bright. A physics major, she was applying to a doctoral program at a top university. Megan is also creative and talented. Her paintings could sell at any number of local galleries. In other words, Megan’s got game. To be selected into the program, she simply needed to learn what the panel was looking for and share her robust credentials.

But the first paragraph of Megan’s essay put me to sleep. She opened with an obscure quote stuffed with unwieldy words about physics. Her racehorse was stumbling at the starting gate.

Subsequent paragraphs had phrases like “affording me the opportunity,” and “the unique depth and breadth of your department,” followed by “physics” words, like chromodynamics, dark matter, and quantum field theory.

Where was Megan in all this bloated language?

Professional writers typically target reading levels between the third and eighth grade. I ran Megan’s paper through Microsoft Word’s readability program; she scored grade 14.1, more than six years beyond the target. This score did not reflect the essay’s intellectual content as much as its pompous words and rambling sentences. The result? A message that was unclear and uninteresting.

“So why the big words, Megan?” I asked.

“I just thought they would impress the panel,” she said.

Trying to impress vs. trying to communicate. I see it in resumes, corporate emails, and, of course, public speaking. After all, what is speech anxiety, but the tendency to scrutinize ourselves in a metaphorical mirror, rather than looking through the window at our audience. Megan needed to ignore any negative self-talk in favor of standing at the window, considering members of her audience on the other side. What were their interests, expectations and backgrounds? What message would appeal to them?

Granted, focusing on the message isn’t easy to do while standing in a spotlight. Intentional communication can elicit feelings of vulnerability, especially when communicating with strangers. In her book, Relational-Cultural Therapy, Judith V. Jordan writes about a psychological concept called the “Strategy of Disconnection”: “Although we deeply desire and need connection,” she writes, “we are terrified of what will happen if we move into the vulnerability necessary to make deep connection.”

Five-syllable words may seem like nice buffers between a writer and the possibly negative consequences of her message. But once Megan replaced hollow, pretentious words with simpler, more heartfelt stories of her life, she liked what she saw. She realized how effective authentic communication could be.

Photo by Eyitayo Adekoya

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