Argyle Public Relationships

Communication across cultures: Listening to the quiet voices

By Daniel Tisch

/ Posted in Leadership

President Daniel Tisch delivering speech to the forum.

On May 30, 2016, at the World Public Relations Forum, the Canadian Public Relations Society recognized Argyle CEO Daniel Tisch for career achievement with its highest honour, the Philip A. Novikoff Award. This is an abridged version of his remarks to the Forum.


Way back in kindergarten, there was a boy in my class who never spoke. His family was new to Canada, and although we were told he could understand, speak, read and even write in English, he didn’t speak to the other kids.


The first time this caused a problem was when we were playing a game called duck duck goose.


Perhaps you know the game: the kids all sit in a circle. One child is the hunter, who walks around the perimeter touching each classmate on the head, saying duck.. duck… duck… and eventually, ‘goose.’ The ‘goose’ then has to chase the hunter around the circle to tag them. If the goose fails to catch the hunter, he or she becomes the new hunter.


Naturally, the game relies on communication – on speaking out loud. But what would happen if the silent boy became the hunter?


Sure enough, that’s what happened. A girl’s hand landed on the boy’s head. ‘Goose!’ she called out. The boy chased her around the circle, but didn’t quite catch her.


He was now the hunter. And so, he walked around the circle silently, touching all the children’s heads, never saying “duck,” never saying “goose.”


The teacher intervened: “You have to speak: just say goose,” she told him.


He was silent — but stubborn. He wouldn’t yield. And neither would she.


And so she let the boy keep walking tearfully around and around the circle, silently touching heads, until the bell rang to end the class.


This story makes me reflect on the nature of communication: of empathy, of relationships, of trust, of mutual understanding.


I think of the boy. His story – from a very different and less diverse Toronto — reminds us that communication across cultures is not easy.


I think of our clients. How many are reticent about speaking up – or speaking out? How many are silent in a crisis – worried about guilt or shame, about owning up to their flaws?


I think of our stakeholders. Yesterday, Jim Macnamara reminded us about the importance of truly listening to them; but often listening means hearing and heeding the voices that are loudest, most organized or most articulate. How often do we work to draw out the voices we do not hear at all?


I think of the teacher. Her job was a bit like ours is sometimes: she had to get someone to communicate – when they didn’t want to do so. But communication can’t happen through coercion. That will fail each of us, just as it surely as it failed that teacher more than four decades ago.


As you may have guessed, I was that boy.


Every day, this experience reminds me that communication across cultures is incredibly hard; that it’s incredibly important; and most of all, that it’s an incredible gift.


It means being guided by values such as curiosity; respect for those who disagree; accountability to the society around us. It means not just an appreciation for diversity, but also a concern for equity.


It means giving leaders not just the skill of delivering a message, but also a sense of context that creates empathy.


It means helping them become more adaptable to different situations — being open to challenge and constructive conflict; to compromise; to collaboration. And to co-creation.


In the early days of the public internet, there was a wave of great optimism. We thought technology would solve our problems — that the prospect of connecting every person on the planet would make organizations more transparent, leaders more accountable, and people more understanding.


We didn’t fully realize that technology is value-neutral. It can be used not just for connection and cohesion, but also for distortion and division.


We need only look at the Donald Trumps, the Rob Fords, the anti-immigrant parties of Europe, or the nominally democratic autocrats in places such as Russia, Venezuela or Egypt.


Fortunately, there’s a force in this world that can stand up to them. That is people like you and me — blessed with the gift of communication – practised with ethics and standards.


I am so lucky to know so many who have helped give me that gift. My early mentors in government included great Canadians such as Perrin Beatty and Joe Clark, who showed me how it’s possible to lead with integrity. My nominators, Derrick Pieters and Jean Valin, represent my friends and colleagues in the Canadian Public Relations Society and the Global Alliance – a professional labour of love that has paid us nothing, but given us experiences and relationships that money can’t buy.


I was blessed with brilliant early colleagues in public relations consulting – people like Bruce MacLellan and Bob Pickard. And now, every day, my colleagues at Argyle give me the joy of loving not just what I do but also the people with whom I do it.


My best friends and advisors are my wife, Kerri, and my sister, Karen. And of course, my parents are here – which has the fringe benefit of helping them figure out what I do.


In 1995, after I left government and came to Toronto to work in a PR firm, I once heard my dad try to describe what I did to a relative in South America. He said: “It’s sort of like advertising… but with no money.” Years later, his description became more pithy: “Dan helps people say the right things.”


But public relations isn’t just about saying the right things. Most of one’s reputation – whether it’s an institution, a business or a person – is determined by what we do.


For this profession to prosper, we must not just define the character and values of organizations; we must also hold those organizations accountable to them.


We must not just speak and act with ethics and responsibility; we must also be the conscience of our organizations.


We must not just build cultures that listen; we must also seek out those silent voices we would not otherwise hear.


At its finest, communication is more than a gift. It’s a social good – a force that breaks down barriers, one relationship at a time.


And because the barriers — within and between people, organizations, cultures and societies — remain dauntingly high — our professional journey remains unfinished.


We still have far to go. But go far we must.


And to quote a proverb I have learned from my African friends: If you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.


Thank you for this great honour, and for letting me be part of our profession’s global journey.


About the Author:
Daniel Tisch is the President and CEO for Argyle Public Relationships. He is one of Canada’s best-known communicators, having worked at senior levels in government before embarking on a 20-year consulting career in which he has advised CEOs, boards, government leaders and marketers for some of the world’s biggest brands.

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