Do You Practice What You Preach about Communications?

by | May 15, 2010 | Blog | 7 comments

stapleless stapler

First the preaching: “Conversations are the key to communication!” “We all need to work on building stronger relationships.” “Leaders need to be chief learners and listeners.”

Several speakers hammered home these points at conferences I’ve recently attended.

Next the practice: For the most part, the bully pulpit most of them used was the traditional stage or front of the room. Their session format was conventional too. They generally spoke for 58 minutes and left the last two minutes for questions and answers.

Now the comparison. Is it just me or is this contradictory? If you’re speaking 97% of your allocated time, you’re not conversing. And you’re certainly not listening to those in the room.

Also, from a LEAN COMMUNICATIONS and traditional lean perspective, you’re not practicing the important principles of coaching and guiding others as they act.

These recent events reminded me of work experiences I had early on in my career—unique situations that influence me still today.

As a college freshman at Northwestern University, I worked as a research assistant for a social psychology professor, Dr. Philip Brickman. Phil—as everyone called him—hated to speak to groups, including classrooms.

So long before anyone was talking about “edutainment,” Phil designed his classes to be interactive. Gone was the “expert/idiot” model with the authority figure at the front of the class. Also eliminated was any pressure for him to perform.

Instead, he recruited graduate students and upperclassmen to serve as facilitators to help him lead small group discussions in class.

Not surprisingly, students rated him one of the best professors. And his classes were always full.

His office was also always lively, with students and professors stopping by to participate in yet another research project, chat with one another, or check on the latest events happening in the department.

One of those research projects was the groundbreaking “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?” which was one of the first studies about happiness.

My role was minor, primarily reading and coding interview comments, photocopying and stapling and re-stapling as necessary. (Straight corners were a must!) Yet, what a heady experience to be a team member!

Alas, the joy didn’t last. Phil got what he thought was a better job offer and moved to another university. However, the new job was more than teaching. He also served as the director of a research institute, which required him to speak in front of groups. A few years later, at the age of 38, he killed himself.

When I heard the news, I was overcome with sadness. To this day, I think of him often, thankful for all the contributions he made yet wistful about what could have been.

He and his work influenced me in so many ways. Early on, I experienced the value of interactivity, which is why I always build some type of involvement in my presentations. And, I respect the importance of being true to yourself. Yes, we should push ourselves to develop, but how far should we travel outside of our comfort zone?

Thanks, Phil. I’ll never forget you. And I’ll continue to promote the value of precise stapling (even now with staple-less staplers as pictured above), involvement, and happiness.

Are you able to practice what you preach?


  1. Paula

    I’m very sorry to hear about what happened to your professor, Liz.

    I agree with you! I think the main objection to replacing lectures with interactive sessions is twofold:
    1. the speaker IS supposed to be the expert you’re learning from
    2. Is it possible to get value from a discussion group if you’re talking to people who don’t know any more than you.

    In my opinion, this rationale underestimates the importance of the engagement and thinking made possible by presenting a subject in an interactive way.

    I’ve been researching how people learn lately as I have a Second Grader – we want to help him succeed not just in school but succeed as a thinking human being. Good grades do not equal a love of learning or an ability to solve problems. A vast portion of understanding and knowledge acquisition happens when he’s reading the cereal box, playing monopoly/chess with us, finding a better way to share with his sisters – learning by rote (in school) is merely a foundation.

    The same applies to grown ups. The more we interact with the information being presented, the more we’ll make it our own and be able to use it in our own lives/situations. And frankly, it’s so much more fun that way!

  2. Ian Blei

    Really great post, Liz!

    The Conversation has almost been lost to us as the most effective form of communication; partially due to the digitalization of so much of it. We have traded Dialogue for Dueling Monologues. You say your piece and send it to me. I try to absorb with all my filters and lenses, misunderstanding probably a hefty chunk, and then respond back, a monologue filled with errors and misunderstandings. You then throw your response back, trying to fix and correct and straighten me out, and we continue this farce, pretending we’re communicating.

    If we just went “old school” and talked, it would be fast, effective, enjoyable, and dare I say it? LEAN!! :->

  3. Liz

    Thanks, Paula and Ian! Great comments…even if we’re doing dueling monologues rather than true dialogue. (Super phrase, Ian!)

  4. Patricia Walsh

    I too think of Phil Brickman from time to time. Especially when I have done a sloppy job of labeling a file folder! (Re-do it!) What would Phil have thought of the preciseness and orderliness of electronic files and attachments that are not stapled? I wish I could email Phil today to tell him how influential he was in his interactive teaching model. Thanks, Liz, for bringing forward these memories.

  5. Howard Prager

    Thanks Liz for two things. As another one of Phil’s disciples, I fondly remember his warmth, charm, and precision. We learned so much we didn’t realize it! Including this. Throughout my career, I have advocated for interactive sessions. I never like to lecture. I always include activities – even online or on the phone!
    The key is engagement. Making sure you are engaged with the people you are relating to. If so, then you will be much more successful at both imparting information and making the connection so people actually learn.

    Second, his suicide was more than one thing, and I think we’ll never know all the reasons. So ironic from a man who studied and researched about suicide. There’s a saying I have heard often in my career, “Watch out what you ask for, you may get it.” I think Phil got what he thought he wanted, but if not the public speaking, the administration was far more than he bargained for, especially following in the steps of his gurus. Life can be so ironic – the dream job that was a nightmare. Readers beware, and be happy with what you are most comfortable with.

  6. Dave Robinson

    Though I am four years too late on this thread I am going to post anyways in hopes one of you may read this. I am researching my entire extended family line and Dr Brickman is a part of this line, distant, yet a part. Was not aware that he took his own life, but finding surprises like this do occur when researching family history.
    Phillip’s grandmother, Celia Rogers Calof- wrote a book, to her children, in 1950 entitled “This Reason For My Life”. Though it is an intimate family history, if any of you are interested, I would be happy to share it.(pdf format) It may shed some light on who he was and where he came from? Dave

  7. Liz Guthridge

    It’s not too late to join this conversation! Thanks for joining it, Dave. I’m definitely reaching out to you separately.

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