Julie Walker
Nathan Anderson
Teaching Communication
6 Questions for Communicators
Linda (Elle) Yaven
I. Who Speaks? 

Here it is: the runway to start of class. In person this time.

Understanding only now, how once it was taken for granted. Back then, I liked walking through campus at the close of the semester, just after finals.

The studios, recently a rich mess of students cramming, jamming or asleep on couches, are empty. Back then, patterns, architectural renderings, canvas, balsa wood, foam core, paper, drawing tools and fabric spill over all available surfaces. Tables, walls, floor - everything is covered.

Walking through after, the ginormous push has all come to quiet and order. Things have been displayed, put away or tossed.

The sun shines. A soft bound book, the lone object on a long wooden table, catches my eye. Moving closer, it's a literary magazine with the words “Qui Parle?” written across the cover.
“Who Speaks”?

                               1. Where does this question send you?

Teaching communication in an MBA program the question was so on point.

My graduate students and I had just spent a dynamic semester developing the play of their communicative/leadership/creative identities in the lived world. We are who, and what, we are able to voice. And what we don’t, won’t or cannot yet say.

An intention for class is trading knee-jerk communication habits for ones serving identified priorities.

                 2. What communication habits would you love to delete?

A driving ethos for the course is linking mental health and relational well-being to our daily conversational repertoires. And, given business is a contact sport, practicing backwards design by observing the resonance or aftereffect of everyday communications.

                            3. What mood do you leave others in? 

II. A sensibility of HUMOR

I love what I do. In designing this communication course, a question insisted itself.
I wondered:

4. What shall we call the one engaged in sense making
as they speak, listen, lead or collaborate? 

I’d been wanting to name the persona apprenticing to their own communicative life. Willing to become a participant/shaper of communication. Willing to wear the shoes of a choreographer, crafting strategic and relational communication.

Willing to design pockets of equanimity - safe spaces to reflect together, then test new communication practices in the real world, along with peers engaged in same.

Willing to check if their sense of humor hat is on (never needs to be on straight).  

The night before I ever taught this course I saw Jerry Seinfeld interviewed. He told how before going onstage to do standup, he prayed to The Gods of Comedy. It sounded right.

So meeting my students in a few days, I will share how The Gods of Comedy and The Gods of Communication are in cahoots.


                    communicant |kəˈmyoōnikənt|

 .                  1 archaic a person who imparts information. 
                     2 21st century a persona apprenticed to their communicative life

                    ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: from Latin communicant- ‘sharing,’
from the verb communicare.

I told a friend from Argentina a joke. It brought no smile. What we find funny is personal.

So too with words. Words emanating from us work best when specifically our own.
Meaningful communication challenges are like that too - we're more likely to execute on matters mattering to us.

Housed in a design strategy program, my course takes a close look the communication eco-systems we each inhabit.

It will require building peer-to-peer connection in non B.S. ways and rapidly.

Students' test out class concepts in daily professional and personal life - nothing fancy. They will set communication challenges for themselves within the difficult, pivotal and creative conversations happening at work, home and play. It's all about learning-by-doing.

As Design Strategists, my students will facilitate transformation in the face of wicked challenges. They build a narrative toolkit for change making, advocating, collaborating and leading.  

It will require agility standing ground, despite push back, while having the moxie
to create rapport. 

From speaking up to listening, from asking hidden questions, to declaring what is not working, from facilitating conflict, to giving and receiving feedback – our work together holds self-leadership as the precursor to organizational leadership.  

Simply put, an intention for the course is to steward everyday conversations. Including that pesky/tender one with yourself. It will require building peer-to-peer connection in non B.S. ways and rapidly.

The word “Communicant” arose as a descriptor for this conversant being. Sharing it with a student they were less than thrilled. “It has the word “can’t” in it”, they said.

They were right. Even so. Though I don't say it much out loud, it stuck around.

                5. Where in your communicative life are you testing yourself?

Photo by Linda Yaven

A study of what leaders and managers seek in new hires revealed human capital - people skills - to be a priority. Yet research shows these are areas young entrepreneurs and perspective MBA students are least interested in.  

It confirmed what many MBA students tell me the first day of class. A communication course on interpersonal dynamics made them more nervous
than finance or managerial accounting class. They are onto something, given public speaking is our number one fear.

                     6. How can the term "public speaking" be updated?


Photo by Linda Yaven

Nowadays there's appreciation of what a community of people can build.
It’s also easy to see, in these new times, how anxiety narratives permeate.

Design thinking is such an overused term. And yet.

It relies on strategic stories of possibility deep div complex problems. Its’ generative narratives make well-being operational and positive change real.

Without having met them, I appreciate my students' back stories. I respect them for getting to class in hybrid times.

Can’t wait be in the same studio again, rolling up our sleeves. Beginning.

Linda (Elle) Yaven, Founder, Ellevateyou, coaches Leadership/Communication/Creativity.

Elle is a Founding Faculty of MBA Design Strategy at California College of the Arts teaching "Live Exchange", her original take on generative communication from the POV of creative agency.

Clients include IDEO, Stanford University, Google, Pixar, de Young Museum,
Oru Kayak, Full Circle Fund, OKcoin, Strong Brew and Teall Sports & Entertainment.


Give those with whom you find yourself
every consideration.

- Tea Master Rikyu (1520 -1591)

As a long time meditator I respect the Zen concept of “Beginner’s Mind”. This is a practice in recurrent release of already-in-place judgements so we may approach things in fresh ways. A gift of learning unasked is choosing to be where we happen to find ourselves.

We proactively choose to situate inside the humility and curiosity of a beginner. This often happens against a background of client or student expertise and hard-won proficiency. Working with young professionals I know gravitas has less to do with age than our stage of understanding.

Trying on a learner’s shoes is a practice within the domain of ethics. When someone trusts you with their “I don’t know” this is an honor. Calling it “a learning curve” brings dignity to declaring yourself a beginner in any domain of learning.

Unless we take the reins in our lives, the world makes decisions for us. While this has always been so, in sobering times, we are called to inhabit learning curves. Pre 2020 we may have lived in answers to questions we never really dwelled in.

III. The upside of DWELLing

Along with simplicity and sincerity,
immaturity is taken as a virtue in this country.

- James Baldwin, Author (1924 - 1987)

Baldwin, a sage, cautions us to befriend the stranger within as preventative care against “othering”.

Someone said maturity is being able to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. Now we are at a juncture where knee jerk insistence on quick answers may infantilize. This, in the context of the utter, utter urgency to resolve unprecedented challenges at lightening speed.

It’s as if we have collectively been sent to our rooms to figure out what works and what requires revision. However uncomfortable at first, updating trajectories, conversations, relationships - by design - is a sign of health.

The challenge of not having ready, easy or efficient answers is a creative force. Respecting ambiguity as a driver for creative action predisposes us to alternate solutions. The opportunity is to develop the grit to dwell in inquiries producing behavioral change. As the grown-ups in the room there is a deciphering to be done, on this road we’ve never taken.

" Mirroring is something so many creative people do,
this idea of shadow dancing – we’re touching the exterior world,
but ultimately we’re defining the contours of our own interiority.”

- Kehinde Wiley, Artist
One day towards the close of her life, I sat with my sister in her bedroom. She told me how she had come to value “kindness” above all other emotions.

Developing a respectful relationship with the quality of our individual ambiguity -however paradoxical it seems – we become kinder witnesses of another's experience. A client said "This makes me nicer to be around and brings integrity to my leadership." In this global reset an ethos of equivalency, listening and healing surface as leading edge markers.

A neighbor walking her dog shared she felt lost and unmoored. I thought of a friend who’d sailed from San Francisco to Tahiti with his brother. “It’s like sailing when you hit the doldrums in the Pacific” I replied.

In this moment of learning unasked we puzzle through framing the challenge in ways to suggest alternate routes.

How do you experience the difference between learning asked & unasked?
How does learning asked & unasked show up in your daily life?
How could this distinction empower your everyday life?

Your feedback appreciated.

Copyright 2020 All rights reserved Linda Yaven