W&A Monthly Newsletter, Feb 2018: What Dementia Taught Me about Communication

By: John Wilson   

My wife has Frontotemporal Dementia with an emphasis on language.  Her vocabulary is steadily decreasing.  It has gotten to the point that most of our communication involves her repeating a few phrases couched within sentence structures that sound perfectly normal.  To see them written down, however, there would be no way to understand what she is telling me.   

Fortunately, there is context. I know what she expects to happen at certain times of the day and week, and when she starts talking and pointing, I know what she would like to see happen. Even when it involves more complicated ideas, I can decipher her meaning just by having her take me to the area under discussion and pointing. There is also the voice; I can tell if she’s asking a question, making a statement, or reminding me of something. Yesterday, we had just such a conversation; I had no idea what she wanted until we went to the back porch and she pointed at a little tree growing the garden. I knew she wanted it removed.

This experience has re-enforced something I’ve always believed. Email is a lousy communication tool in business because it has replaced face-to-face communication. It strips all context from the conversation. There is no human face to read and no voice to hear. I have encountered countless examples over the years of endless emails exchanges that took days to conclude that could have been foreshortened by either a phone call or a face-to-face meeting.

This is particularly true when the email is viewed as unpleasant. Everyone has seen someone rip out a reply to an email that made you wonder, what got into him/her? A lot of this could be avoided if the writer of the first email had talked with the party in question and sent out a summary, and conversely, if the person replying had gone and talked to the writer of the initial email to figure out what they intended. This is always a great idea because none of us are mind readers, and divining people’s intentions is a recipe for disaster.

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