Since communication is so important to any successful peer advisory group experience, let me retell a still painful anecdote that offers an invaluable communication lesson. Interestingly enough, it comes from an unfortunate chapter in my life as a student at Broad Meadows Junior High School. As a ninth grader, I ran track for one year. I actually hated track and the only reason I agreed to run at all was because our rather imposing phys-ed teacher at the time made me do it. (This was back in the day when teachers/coaches could cause you bodily harm if you didn’t do what they asked and when telling your parents to try to get out of it would only get you into more trouble). My stint with the team was just long enough, apparently, for me to learn a lesson that I never really understood until later in life.
My specialty, in my short-lived track career, was the one-mile run. Turns out that for the last meet of the year I was also charged with filling-in as the third leg on our undefeated one-mile relay team. No problem I thought. (You’re probably guessing where this is going.) Well, to make a long story short, I ran the third leg, starting slightly back in second place. By the time I was ready to pass the baton I had taken the lead. Our anchor leg was the fastest kid in the city. No way we could lose. As I passed the baton, I felt a brief moment of excitement – at least right up until the baton hit the ground. I’ll never forget the sound or the despair that accompanied it. So much for our undefeated season.
After the race, I was searching for answers as to how such a thing could have happened. As you may have guessed, my coach wasn’t bashful about offering me some clarity – telling me in no uncertain terms that it was my fault. The rule, he said, is that you don’t let go of the baton until you’re certain the receiver has grasped it. (He was pretty upset, so suffice it to say I’m paraphrasing).
Years later, as a communication professional, I’ve come to appreciate the value of this experience by seeing it as a lesson in who is responsible for making sure the message is received. Like it or not, the responsibility lies with the person delivering the message, not those receiving it. Just as it did with me on that day. We can’t just say, “it was in the e-mail” or “sure, it’s right there in paragraph 8.” Nor can we hide behind our message being “misinterpreted” by its recipients. We as leaders and communicators should never let go of the baton until we know that our target audiences have grasped the message. Only then can we let them run with it.