Alan Ferdman | More to Communication than Words


Every now and then, I see a movie that appears to contain a metaphor describing a life-shaping event. Today, I am thinking of “Gran Torino” and the scene where Clint Eastwood’s character is in his basement, lending a tool to a young neighbor. 

The youngster remarks about the large collection of tools hanging on the wall, and Clint responds by telling him how his collection had been accumulated over a lifetime. The scene was a minor part of the plot, but it made me think about how as we grow older we experience situations in life, where if we pay attention, can produce an understanding that may be helpful getting us through difficult situations. It is the old story of good news and bad news. The good news is we have gained more of life’s tools to draw on, while the bad news is, we would have been a lot better off if we had acquired the knowledge earlier.

Just before 2000, I was recruited by a past supervisor to join him at JPL. The Mars 98 Orbiter and Lander had failed, due to the engineering team not performing two important process steps. NASA and JPL were looking for help in preventing recurrence of similar “process escapes” in the future. 

After joining the team, I learned management had decided not to implement a precise laboratory-wide software development process, but instead to have individual development projects apply computer maturity model behaviors. Yet, I was looking to take it one step further, and advised teams not to just add something to show CMM compliance, but to consider applying the behaviors in a way that would aid the team in completing their project.

One of the teams I was coordinating with was tasked with reimplementing the “navigation equations” using C++, and a new software architecture. The team was headed up by Bill Taber, with Steve Flanagan providing program management functions. Both gentlemen are highly intelligent and were a pleasure to work with. One day, we were discussing CMM behaviors related to implementing “audits,” and we were not making any progress. 

Finally, Steve recognized what was happening, and suggested we might be “talking past one another.” He requested Bill and I reveal our definition of audits and include where we acquired our information. As it turns out, Bill’s view came from the dictionary, while my definition came from the military standards I had been working with in the military development world. We realized we were discussing two different concepts, and as soon as we agreed on a definition we could all support, the discussion became productive, putting us on a path to a solution.

 Realize, part of the problem is the English language itself. If you asked a “computer scientist” to describe the English language, the engineer might tell you, English is weakly typed and contains overloaded operators. Translation, “English words may have different meanings, dependent on the context in which they are used.” For example, take the word “single.” If I tell you, “There is the single man,” it might mean there is only one male, or possibly there is an unmarried male, or I may have been referring to the only male in the group with manly attributes. Unless you know the context, you don’t know the meaning. 

Robert McCloskey could not have represented the issue better, when he said, “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” When you say something, you think you know the meaning, because you know the context in which you applied it. But when another individual receives your message, they may interpret it completely differently, because they hold different views. 

If you want to have a productive conversation, you need to recognize when a misunderstanding of this nature has occurred, and try to identify and resolve the perceptive differences before proceeding. 

Where I see this occurring regularly is during political discourse. In May, after George Floyd died during an arrest, we began hearing the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” but what I believe the spokesperson was intending to convey is, “You (the rest of the community) do not think Black lives matter.” 

Upon hearing about what happened, virtually every news organization, politician and community group condemned how the police officer restrained Floyd. 

Then, when the general population received the BLM message, they had already agreed Black lives matter. Wanting to be even more inclusive, they added concern for brown, red, yellow and white lives, by saying “all lives matter.” But unfortunately, when the community’s statement was received by BLM supporters, the community comments were interpreted as, “See, we were right, you (the rest of the community) do not think Black lives matter,” because Black lives were not specifically stated. Therefore, for almost the last six months there has been no real progress to reduce the anger and bring all groups together. 

So, even when we are mature enough to comprehend when the issue preventing progress is caused by individuals “talking past one another,” the problem cannot always be easily remedied. In those cases, it is the best strategy to walk away, and wait for both sides to realize we are not each other’s enemy and become willing to come together on their own.

Alan Ferdman is a Santa Clarita resident and a member of the Canyon Country Advisory Committee board.

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