BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Sit down and shut up ...

There's a program that's been happening in Chicago for a number of years, where speakers (usually bearing newly released books) are featured in an early-morning event, called the Big Frontier. Sadly, today was the last of these ... at least in their original format. When I signed up to attend this, I sent a note to the good folks at McGraw Hill, asking if I could get a review copy of the speaker's book, and they managed to get that right out to me, and I managed to get it read in time for today's presentation. I had been torn between getting the review written last night, so that it would be out there for this morning's talk, and having the added context of the event for writing this … which I opted for.

As one can tell from the sub-titles, Geoffrey Tumlin's Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Play Dumb, Be Boring, Blow Things Off, Lose Your Friends, and Other Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life isn't your run of the mill communications book. The key concept here is the difference between what he defines as Higher-Order Communication (characterized by thoughtfulness and deliberation) and Lower-Order Communications (characterized by speed and convenience), with much of modern technology favoring the latter at the expense of the former.

Frankly, much of the book reads like a “weak Luddite” (to borrow a construction from “anthropic” classifications) plea for a return to lost values, despite the occasional insistence that the author really really likes all the tech that's making communications “bad”. Here's a bit from early on in the book:
Today, most of us struggle to have meaningful interactions because of the power, allure, and distractions of our digital devices. … As personal and mass communication exploded in the digital age, essential interpersonal communications skills were left behind.
The skills of which he speaks sound like a fairly big order: “listen like every sentence matters”, “talk like every word counts”, and “act like every interaction is important”

Now, Tumlin is a “communications consultant”, and much of what he's called to do is to “fix” things that are broken in various situations (often corporate, but also in other relationships), and there is a lot about Stop Talking that is in the touchy-feely zone of a “relationship” self-help book … encouraging the reader to “expect less from our devices” and “expect more from each other” … looking at how communications can be misconstrued and how they can be managed. A key concept in this is “restraint and containment”, where he suggests the “ABCs” of “Always Be Containing”, and puts forth a list to “strengthen your restraint and build your communications conscience”:

  • Practice not talking.

  • Delay your responses.

  • Resist the urge to prove someone wrong.

  • Eliminate witty comebacks, put-downs, and insults.

  • Give yourself credit for the things you don't say.

Being a bit of a “bull in a china shop” (and a veteran of years of AOL chat room “flame wars” back in the day), this sounds like a recipe for taking all the fun out of the Internet to me … but I suppose it is a guide for kid-glove handling of those with delicate sensitivities.

Speaking of the Internet … Tumlin sorts things out into three realms of communication: Personal (“What do I want to say?”), Interpersonal (“How will my message impact him/her?”), and Mass (no control on individual impact). With the advent of the Internet (and escalated by Social Media) “personal” communications get blasted out as “mass” communications, creating chaos (if preserving a degree of “authenticity” - the author notes the fastest way for him to lose half of his client base would be to post items of a political nature on his social media channels … although for many of us who have been on the web “forever”, that's a horse that's long since left the barn, and I wonder where the self-editing stops, as it seems to be a constant spiral down towards a totally bland, sanitized, inauthentic public persona focused only on never making anybody uncomfortable!)*.

One thing that I wish the book included was a “cheat sheet” of the various lists … there are a LOT of them in there, covering points for major elements such as deescalation tactics, types of questions, tendencies leading to “communications inflation”, “conversational shock absorbers”, how to “play dumb”, how to quit communicating with difficult people, how to suss out “identity issues” (before they blow up in your face), how to give negative feedback, etc., etc., etc., … as well as the assorted acronymic bits and pieces. Stop Talking is set up with sixteen “counterintutive” statements (like “Be Boring”) as chapter themes, each addressing some specific aspect of this approach to gaining control on communications. At times it feels like it's trying to be a “workbook” (with all the lists, etc.), but it doesn't quite get there, leaving the reader stuck between the stories of communications gone wrong, and the prescriptions on how to fix/prevent those sorts of problems.

Regarding stories, there are two types in here … ones from the author's life in the military (he's a West Point graduate who served as a Ranger) and ones from his consulting work. The former are, generally speaking, charming, and bring a good focus on real-world communications issues (like when he scrubbed an exercise rather than expose his men to the potential danger of an unexploded claymore mine – and was initially berated for the decision), and the latter tend to be fairly horrific, with tales of really out-of-control situations (that call into question advice like “assume good intentions”!).

I realize that much of the above sounds like I didn't think much of Stop Talking, but it was an interesting read, with numerous clever turns of phrase that I wish I'd found a way to include in this review. I suspect that a lot of my problems with the book were reactive, being personally rather given to “verbal aggression” and other no-no's listed here (let alone thirty years of less-than-discreet Internet communications), and not anything particularly reflective of it. I suspect that those who are more “PC” in their interactions would not have the sort of issues with the book that I was encountering.

This has only been out a couple of months at this point, so is likely to be on the shelves of your better-stocked local book vendors, but the on-line guys have it for about a quarter off of cover price. If you have an interest in the dynamics of inter-personal communications, you'd certainly find a lot in this … but you may also find it a mirror that can be somewhat aggravating!

*At the talk this morning, Tumlin noted: “Usually authenticity is an excuse for bad behavior.”, so it's clear where he comes down on that issue.

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Tags: book review
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