Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Shushing Stereotype and Communicating with Heart

As part of my MLIS ePortfolio work, I am now writing about Competency C: "Demonstrate oral and written communication skills necessary for professional work including collaboration and presentations." My post that follows is adapted from my competency reflection.

When thinking about this competency related to communication, I reflected on how ironic it is that the stereotype of the shushing librarian is so common since it conveys the very shutting down of communication. With a ghostly apparition shushing in Ghostbusters and a gargantuan tentacled librarian in Monsters University hunting down mischief-makers, one might think that librarians are downright scary when it comes to enforcing silence.

However, let us consider the case of the Nancy Pearl librarian action figure. First released in 2003, the product description includes the following marketed feature: "Pull her arm down, then press the button on her back and the arm will move up to her lips with 'amazing shushing action!'"(Archie McPhee, 2017). Amazing shushing action! The thing is, the toy's producer Archie McPhee highlights the story of the librarian that the toy is modeled after: Nancy Pearl. Looking at Pearl's work, it is clear that she is far from obsessed with shushing. Perhaps best known for launching the first One City One Book program in Seattle in 1998 (S., 2005), Pearl is so busy communicating - whether writing books, teaching classes, or speaking on NPR - that "to use a singularly appropriate word, this woman is booked" (Broom, 2005).

Source: slgckgc
Worth noting, Pearl did address opposition to the figure's shushing action: "There are too many other things in the world to be shocked and outraged about...As librarians, we need to take our work seriously, but we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously" (Broom, 2005). My philosophy is similar in terms of simply combatting stereotypes through the work that I do. In addressing this competency, this means consistently communicating in effective ways, whether the communication is oral or written, and whether I am helping an individual person or addressing a large audience. And, in terms of effectiveness, I want to emphasize the importance of communication being greater than just the message and the messenger. As we can learn by looking at communication theory, communication is dependent upon the receiver, as well.

When thinking about ways to account for the receivers of messages, I love to learn from the field of User Experience (UX) and an article that has inspired me this past year is "Good Design is Humble" by Austin Knight (2016) who writes:
If there’s anything that design has taught me, it’s that my assumptions, while generally well-founded, are almost always wrong. No matter how much of an expert I become, I will never be able to represent the collective mass that is a user base. This is why humility in the design process is so important...the designer is not designing for themselves; they’re designing for the user. It’s simply in the nature of design: whenever you’re creating for someone else, the creation can’t be about you. And as such, designers must take a humble approach to design, or risk being handicapped by their own egos.
Knight uses terminology related to design, but his ideas are helpful when applied to communication in general. When communicating, it cannot be about me as the messenger, but about the users I am trying to communicate with. If the majority of my users do not receive messages the way I intend for them to, I cannot blame them. Instead, I must reflect on ways to improve how I am communicating. For instance, over time, I have learned to improve my library signage by using fewer words and more visuals. With printing in my library, I started off by creating detailed step-by-step instructions about how to print. The instructions were accurate, but students never read them and so they failed to effectively relay information. Rather than berating students to read the instructions, though, I have experimented with making new versions of guidance that are much simpler. While I have omitted details, I have left the markers that are most essential and highlighted those with visuals. Through trial and error and by observing the way that users interact with information, I constantly seek to refine my delivery to ensure messages are being received as I hope they will be.

Finally, since the example about printing instructions is unidirectional with information flowing from me as the messenger to my students as receivers, I want to insert that my most powerful communication experiences are actually those that are multidirectional. More than lecturing, I thrive on conversation. More than leading alone, I gain strength from collaboration. Along these lines, I think the most effective communicators are those who observe, listen, and are open to receiving from others as much as they are to delivering to others. Activities such as listening may be assumed to be passive by some people, but as expressed with the Listen With Intent slide from Elgan (2013) below, listening is more than hearing and involves considering our own personal biases and seeking to understand others. Effective communication requires being present with undivided attention and heart, and this is how I aim to show up as a communicator in my work.

Source: Anthony Elgan

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