It feels like discovering a treasure when you pick up a book to read about a particular subject and end up learning a lot about something else in the process. I love finding gems about Communication in unexpected places.
The latest book I read is “Tunnel and the Light: Essential Insights on Living and Dying” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross M.D.
The book is a collection of lectures the author gave on death and features a lot of anecdotes. My first encounter with her writing took place shortly after my best friend passed away three years ago. This woman has the most thorough understanding of all the emotions felt by the grieving and the dying and the most gentle style to write about them. Not sure why I impulsively decided to read another of her books a few days ago – it was really random. Here’s the quote that has stuck with me:
There is no one dying, whether he is five or ninety-five, who does not know that he is dying. And the question is not: do I tell him that he is dying? The question is: can I hear him?
Words of stomach-punching force. Shows that:
- we’re all equals in the face of death – being older doesn’t prepare one more for it,
- some human experiences are absolute,
- one should never underestimate the interlocutor/audience,
- mastering the art of listening is key to being a good communicator.
A significant portion of the book is a lesson on the importance of non-verbal communication. Kubler-Ross interacted with so many children who were facing death in some way and who did not have the vocabulary or ability to express freely how they felt. So she gave them paper and pencils; and they drew. These drawings told her everything she needed to know to help them.
The limitation of the written word is notably what prompted information designers like Edward Tufte or Sunni Brown (former classmate and leader of the “Doodle Revolution” ) to create work that is becoming increasingly relevant and important.
Another memorable part of the book warned against trying to make small talk with people who are suffering and to avoid telling them that everything will be just fine. The dying know what’s coming and feel censored and even more lonely when their loved ones refuse to acknowledge the painful situation. This warning is also key to corporate communication – nobody in their right mind would tell employees everything is fine and dandy while the ship is sinking. Trying to protect people from painful information is not only futile, it also generates a lot more harm than good.
Here’s my second favorite quote from the book, great advice to help the next generation communicate – and live – better than we do:
Do not protect your children! Share your anguish and your pain with them. Otherwise they will develop into cripples. Because sooner or later the plants have to come out of the greenhouse anyway and then they cannot withstand the cold and the winds.