Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The best communication tool I ever learned was in math class

And of course, it wasn't about math at all.

Now, I love math. I love its elegance. I love its clean form. I love that there is one right answer, and I love that there's not much room for opinion. It's either right or wrong.  (That tells you a lot about me of course, but nothing I didn't already know to my rueful dismay--but I digress)

The best teacher I ever had was a math teacher in college. He was a graduate student. Most likely he hated us undergraduates who were there to get our science requirements satisfied.  He was teaching the second term, geometry, of a three term, year long sequence.

Here's why he was great: he'd write a problem on the board. Then he'd show us how to solve it. He'd explain the guiding principle of the solution.

Then he'd ask us if we understood.

All you had to do, IF you understood, was nod your head.

The trick was, if you DIDN'T understand you could just sit there, looking befuddled.
Or confused.

And he'd explain it again. In a different way. Sometimes with a different problem, or a different graph or drawing.

Then he'd ask us again if we understood, and again, all we had to do was nod.

Most of the easy stuff we got right away. More complicated stuff took two, or even three explanations.  And even if I thought I understood on the first pass, those second times usually helped cement the concept.

I learned a lot of geometry that term.  But I learned something more important: If what I was saying didn't make sense to people listening it wasn't their fault. It wasn't my fault either, exactly, but as the teacher, my job was to explain it, not make people feel stupid for not getting it.

I was reminded of this recently when, in a fit of madness, I replied to a query letter about a non-fiction book. I explained  I needed a couple of things to evaluate a proposal (things not included in his initial query.) One key thing was how to reach the market (platform.)

The query writer wrote back telling me about the size of the market.
I wrote back explaining it wasn't the size of the market, but how to reach the market that I was concerned with.

At this point the querier dropped the ball. He wrote back telling me my assistant should read the query so as to explain it to me.  The implication was that clearly I was too stupid to see what he had explained so clearly.

Well, OK, my assistant IS very bright, and I do depend on her to explain a lot of bewildering things to me (most recent explanations:  famous tattoo artists, and drummers) but generally I do know what I'm talking about when the subject is query letters and platform.

This query writer made the same mistake a lot of people do: if I didn't understand what he was writing, I was stupid.

I failed in my effort to communicate what I needed to this querier, but in dismissing me as stupid he ended my willingness to explain a third time using a different example.  Don't close down communication by dismissing the person who doesn't get what you're saying until you've tried at least three times.

That applies to your beta readers, your query critiquers and anyone else giving you feedback.  "You're wrong" shuts down the process.  "Let me try again" gives you another shot.

Be smart. Don't assume I'm stupid.


Hart Johnson said...

This is such a great point. By day I work in academia, and I've learned over the years that the smartest people can put the same ideas into the language of multiple audiences, and more importantly, streamline what they're saying to a relatively simple form. If they CAN'T do that, I suspect they don't quite understand it themselves.

Lydia Sharp said...

I love everything in this post and agree with your point, but I have nothing to say except that this paragraph is downright poetic:

I love math. I love its elegance. I love its clean form. I love that there is one right answer, and I love that there's not much room for opinion. It's either right or wrong.

For a second there I thought I was reading a novel, not a blog. Beautiful.

Ali Trotta said...

I suspect that if I had a geometry teacher likes yours, I wouldn't have spent most of that time staring at the window, trying to figure out how a frisbee got on the roof of the other building. A lot of people make that mistake, of explaining something ONE way, and then implying that it's the failing of the student if he or she doesn't get it. That is a dangerous method, for teaching and communication.

If someone says, "I need this and this" from you, it's wise to take that at face value. Especially if someone is experienced in their field. The querier's attitude was dismissive and disrespectful. It didn't serve anyone's benefit, because (as you said) he dropped the ball.

Great post. Thank you for writing this.

Brenda Buchanan said...

Ah, Janet. Such a good lesson to start the day. Thank you.

I had an algebra teacher in high school whose communication style was the opposite of your grad student instructor's. Whenever a student admitted to being lost in a sea of proofs, he'd say "I can't understand why you can't understand."

Needless to say, algebra never became my strong suit.

annievictory said...

Loved the post. I have a 16 year old driver and I've been telling him that driving is like math for the last six months, it's forced attentiveness.
Probably we could judge good writing with something that measures sound.
The more that needs to be "explained" the less the reader likes it.
It was really nice of you to give someone a third try!

Jared X said...

My kids taught me this lesson, first as babies by screaming with ever-increasing urgency until I came up with what they needed, but later by forcing me to patiently re-explain something when my initial explanation went over their heads. Peace and growth in my house depended on getting this right and I'm far stronger in my adult dealings for having learned this lesson.

@Ali Trotta: I think that might've been my frisbee on the roof of the other building.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

This is one of the gentlest and most mindful posts I have read on your blog. The fact that new age music is playing in the background, and that my house is warm, and I don’t have to rush off to work, just yet, might have helped.
I won’t assume you are stupid, if you don’t assume the same of me, because sometimes, just sometimes, (theorem # one is moot); the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line, sometimes, just sometimes it reaches around the world and to the heart.

Shaunna said...

Having followed your blog for years, I am pleased to hear how much you love math, Janet. I majored in English and minored in math, and I always felt like a bit of an oddity at school. Language is very mathematical, however, and I think the disciplines are more directly related than we like to admit.

Alyssa Everett said...

I so agree that "Let me try again" is the only way to keep feedback flowing, and the only way to teach. My oldest son has autism, which gives him a very literal, non-intuitive style of communication. I've learned that if at first we don't connect, it's best to try an entirely different approach.

May I ask, though--what does "how to reach the market (platform)" mean? Were you asking for the author's promotional plan, or something else? (I confess this is the kind of question from agents that tends to throw me for a loop.)

Ali Trotta said...

@Jared X -- Then I owe you a debt of gratitude, because that frisbee saved me for going completely bonkers during math. ;-)

Janet Reid said...

alyssa, Look for an upcoming blog post to answer that question about platform. (there are others in the archives too)

Josin L. McQuein said...

I hate it when people take the position that when there's a communication error, it's automatically the receiver that's not working right. It's just as likely that it's the person sending who's got issues (and when you're talking about writing, this is especially true.)

And I wish I'd had your Geometry teacher. Mine wasn't nearly so accommodating. Her method (and, sadly, this isn't fiction...) was to tell us that once we crossed the threshold of her room, a small, invisible blue man would hop onto our shoulders and whisper the answers when we needed them.

It was not a fun class considering "rule 2" was that a teachers job was to try and fail her students while a student's job not to let her.

ryan field said...

This sort of thing happens a lot during the editing process, especially with copy editors who are bright but young and not always in tune with certain things.

I once wrote a scene with "chocolate ganache" and tried to explain it twice. The third time I just told them to replace it with "chocolate frosting," and filed the experience under life's too damn short.

TC Avey said...

Excellent advice!

I hope that if I had an agent asking me for something I would have a teachable demeanor, I wouldn't want to blow my chances!

"Wise men store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool invites ruin." Proverbs 10:14 NIV

Jodi R. said...

That sounds fabulous, Ryan Field - I think I'm going to write a scene with chocolate ganache now!

On second thought, I think I'll eat the ganache instead...

(Yet more proof that there's more than one way to say/hear/read it! :)

SBJones said...

I know where you are coming from. For four years, I taught new-hires how to troubleshoot computers for Dell. The amount of computer knowledge people had were from "I can turn it on" to "I can make it cook me breakfast".

I remember telling them to ask questions over and over if they didn't understand. Finally when I added the phrase: "We're here for eight hours. If we get through this in four, you still don't get to go home early." they started to get into it.

S. D. Grimm said...

First of all, "Be smart. Don't assume I'm stupid" will be repeated by me many times in my life. I'm not yet sure when, but It's in my mental filing cabinet under "versatile verbiage" so it's sure to be picked.

Second, I love this post. I am a dog trainer, and I've learned to do this in my classes automatically: first explain the exercise, then demonstrate it with a dog, then recap with different words.

This concept has become so engrained that I do it often and every time I want to make sure someone understands something (no, I don't ALWAYS pick a random dog and go through the example, but I think you get me). And this repetitive explaining has occasionally gotten me in trouble with my husband. Read:

Me: "You know what I mean?"

My husband: "I'm not stupid, I got it the first time."

So, I guess it pays to make sure I notice the nodders as much as the blank-starers. :)

Loretta Ross said...

Josin, how can an invisible man be blue? Or any other color?

My algebra teacher stood with her back to us and tried to talk through burps, so that her voice was always going weird. My chemistry teacher pointed with her middle finger. My English teacher wore a tweed jacket over a flowered dress and bright blue rain boots and occasionally broke into song.

Ah! Academia!

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

Reminds me of the best interview I ever did. I'm a science illiterate and I was assigned to interview a Nobel prize winning chemist. God bless him, he was determined to make me understand his work and why it mattered. An hour later, I did. But what I learned about chemistry was nothing compared to what I learned about communicating.

jesse said...

I learned this lesson twice by my parents. Not from them, mind you, but by them.
I noticed while watching them argue at the dinner table, they were shouting at each other over a dissagreement, but essentially saying the same thing with different word choices. More out of a desire to return to normal volume than peacemaking, I was able to bridge this gap by pointing it out.
I learned it again, from the inside, while trying to explain Twitter to them.

Sarah said...

This is why Interpersonal Communications is a class that should be offered to high schoolers. I didn't take it until university and so many things became clear that could have helped me in previous years.

As a teacher I have to develop at least three different explanations for every concept I try to impart. People's learning styles are all so different that there's no other way to do it. Generally, by the time I'm rounding the third explanation, everyone gets it.

Sarah said...

I'm writing a YA novel- and I'm a high school math teacher.

I love that I don't use up my words during the day. And I love that math has a real, concrete answer- unlike revisions. (Although I love revision as well.)

I've always though teaching was similar to writing. It's all about communicating.

Loretta, I have, alas, occasionally pointed with my middle finger, and I fear I am becoming that kinda crazy teacher. Recently, after two weeks of a crazy schedule, I fell asleep while grading quizzes- and left a partial lip print on a kid's quiz.

I told my class I was considering a new grading scale: I kiss correct problems and drool on bad ones...

Kristin Laughtin said...

I find it's always best to assume the problem is with your explanation/writing/whatever and look for a new way to present that information. In a few cases, yeah, your audience might be too stupid to ever get it, but if you can make them understand, isn't that worth sacrificing a little style/a few big words/whatever?

Tara Tyler said...

a) thank you for getting math! (love answers that are right or wrong)

b) excellent point and i hope the grad student is teaching. (dont burst my bubble)

c) i wish writing were that easy to learn! (or just the query letter) a few corrections and voila! perfect novel.

Unknown said...

I can't imagine why the writer wouldn't think of a new way to present the information, no one could be that desperate.

Heidi the Hick said...

Sigh... the world needs more math teachers like that guy.

(Your assistant is trying to explain Travis Barker and Tommy Lee to you???)

farfromgruntled said...

As a graduate student teaching literature and creative writing to undergrads, this post made me smile. I believe that every student I have can understand even the toughest poems--it is just a matter of working together and them feeling free to ask even "stupid" questions. Also, if I told them, well, your dumb, too bad for you, they would leave my class hating poetry and fiction. And that would be a real shame.

Laina said...

I love math. I love its elegance. I love its clean form. I love that there is one right answer, and I love that there's not much room for opinion. It's either right or wrong.

*mutters* Unless someone decides your 1s are Ls and thus incorrect and marks every answer with a 1 in it as incorrect in an attempt to get rid of any last shred of individuality. *mutters*

Botanist said...

"I love math. I love its elegance. I love its clean form." Words to gladden my heart, Janet.

And as for "Be smart. Don't assume I'm stupid," I've taken this principle to heart for many years, in the rather cryptic form: "Don't flip the Bozo bit." Yes, it makes sense, honest, when you know the explanation.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

I learned both engineering and law by the Socratic Method.

The teacher would ask a BIG question and skewer a student on a pin. If you couldn't answer the big question, he'd start patiently peeling back the layers until he got to a question you could answer. Sometimes it took 15 squirming minutes, but nobody got out of the spotlight until they had answered a question. No one was castigated. No one was insulted. He just kept drilling until he hit your well of knowledge. It was brutal, enlightening, and educating. Oh yeah, and a lesson in being prepared.

I graduated with my degree in Civil Engineering in 1989 and I still remember my question from my hardest class. I got it on the first try and was absurdly pleased with myself for the rest of the day. Same with law school. That is the effect it had on me. Brilliant teachers are a national treasure.

Lemur said...

My particular trad (of Wicca) teaches 20 arts and sciences. One of the "first five" - the most important ones, upon which all others are built - is Rhetoric. (Communication.) The absolute first principle we teach is the fact that if someone doesn't understand or isn't persuaded by your argument, then it's YOUR fault as a communicator. You don't understand me? That's my fault, and I need to look at how I can be clearer, how my style of communication doesn't match yours, where I might be skipping over the fact that I took something as "obvious" but it wasn't obvious to you.

I would NEVER suggest that my students (or anyone else I need to interact with) is stupid. Bullets in my feet are not something I enjoy.

Then again, I've seen you kindly trying to help folks on Query Shark, and despite the fact that there are many lessons you try to teach again and again...some folks just refuse to follow the darn instructions. Not sure what would help them, short of a quick tail strike to the brain. And maybe quick decapitation by razor sharp jaws.