Judith Barnes is an educator, entrepreneur, speaker and writer who lives in the Capital Region and has had a national consulting practice in communication for over four decades.
When did my commitment to communication begin?
Maybe when I was ten years old and it saved my life.
Of course I didn’t recognize it at the time, but it was the only tool my father had to help us all get through a terrible time when Mom literally went crazy after having had a cancer scare and then both a hysterectomy and a thyroidectomy within only a few months.
With no governor on her emotions, life turned into what seemed to be a never-ending round of fights and yelling, even screaming. It was terrible for all of us: me, my younger sister – who was only eight at the time - and my father.
But he tried his best with what he had. And what he had was his ability to talk to the three of us – and, I’m sure, to himself at times.
This was the 1950s and good therapists were hard to find, as were good therapies. And since the screaming storms were physiological rather than psychological, that made it all the harder. And we weren’t rich. Far from it. My father was in production control on an assembly line and my mother didn’t work outside the home. So we had very little money and no real sophistication to understand all the variables causing such terrible turmoil.
But my father never stopped trying.
He talked with Mom, he talked with my sister and he talked with me – I was the one who fought back, my sister just ran. More than eighteen months later, when Mom was given medicine to help control her physiology and her volatility, she calmed down and life became far more bearable if not actually happy.
Over a decade later, when applying to graduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for a Masters degree in technical communication – which was more a vocational choice than a psychological choice – I learned a surprising lesson.
The phrase technical communication sounds quite cold and quite obviously technical. Yet as part of the degree work, I learned to translate things from being very scientific or technical to being understandable to a wide range of audiences, some having little or no understanding of the complicated processes.
That translation skill has been one of the most valuable things in my career and in my personal life because it has helped me think, speak and write with greater clarity and that skill has also been invaluable to me in helping my family, friends and clients be clearer both to themselves and to others.
So I learned what my father knew.
You’re not going anywhere if you can’t get people to go with you.
Then I went on to get a PhD – also from Rensselaer – and this was in Communication, with all the interpersonal and organizational tools and teachings one might need. Over the decades, my ability to communicate has not only been invaluable, it has, once again, saved me.
At the start of my career, back in the early 1970s, some men weren’t happy to see me working in their fields. My ability to get over those feelings and, frankly, create friends out of sometimes suspicious enemies, was due to my ability to communicate.
And as a consultant, I like to say you start from stupid every time you get a new client. You must learn about the business. But you don’t need to know everything, only the most important things.
Again, communication has been invaluable.
But its greatest value is in establishing rapport.
A story about my father illustrates this. When I worked on his assembly line back in the 1960s, race riots were tearing the country apart. One night on the line, the African American janitor came up to me and, in a soft voice, asked me if I was Bob Barnes’ daughter. I said I was. And what he said next has stayed with me to this day.
He said, “Your father is a great man. He treats me like I’m the president of the company.”
That is why I have such a commitment to good communication. And that is why I think of communication as the song of all.
It’s like bird song – beautiful when done beautifully, functional when done functionally and it bridges vast chasms, heals as well as helps.
And don’t we need more of that today!