Communication is a two-way street

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 March, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 March, 2000, 12:00am

Our chief executive's spin doctor, Stephen Lam Sui-lung, seems to have a slight problem that may require a little remedial therapy.

In a letter to the editor (March 20) he protests that the Government places much importance on communicating its policies and goes to great lengths to make sure it gets its message across to the public. There is more of this and it is almost all about how much the Government talks.

Mr Lam, this correspondent suggests that you look closely at some other people one day. You may notice that on both sides of their heads they have fleshy protuberances with little curls that funnel into openings just below the hairline. These thing are called ears.

Now this may seem strange to you, sir, but it is a proven phenomenon that the air is always filled with unseen vibrations, some of them emanating from the vocal chords of other people. You definitely have these vocal chords.

These vibrations are picked up by the ears, transmitted through a complicated series of bones, tight skin and little hair-like structures to the nervous system which then transmits them to the brain, where they are sorted out and sense made of them, which people find useful.

When the vibrations come from other people's vocal chords the result is an understanding of the messages these other people wish to convey.

We call the making of this sort of vibration speech and the reception of it through the ears hearing or listening. It is the most common way that people communicate.

You have no problem with speech, sir, but you do seem to have a problem with understanding the concept of listening.

Try it some time. It may be a novel sensation to you but it comes highly recommended.

The point, you see, is that there are almost seven million people out there in our town who are not senior government officials but who understand quite well what is happening in their lives and are sometimes even more informed about the things to which they devote their working careers than are senior government officials.

This is, in fact, one of the reasons that many countries have adopted democracy as a form of government. It allows these people to express what they wish their society to be and encourages their governments to engage in the concept of listening.

We have still only a show democracy instead of the real thing (Martin Lee Chu-ming would be chief executive otherwise) but at least under the previous administration we had a governor who set an example of listening (if not always to Beijing).

Now it may be true that Tung Chee-hwa is not as inclined as Chris Patten to spend time with legislators or engage in regular public forums or walk the streets chatting to everyone who wants a word with him.

But let's not make the mistake of thinking that answering a few questions with control over the microphone on a radio chat show amounts to the same thing or that posting a tape on the Internet of government press conferences is the equivalent of talking to the public.

Talking to, yes, it certainly constitutes talking to. But the idea here is that when you talk to people you should also listen to them. Otherwise it is not talking to. It is only talking at and people tend to be put off when it is all one way like that.

And if you and your colleagues wish to scorn legislators as a pack of thickheads, sir, please remember that they are our thickheads. We elected them. They may indeed say silly things from time to time but then so do civil servants.

No-one has the complete solutions to all the complex issues facing us. We must feel our way forward as in a darkened room and the best way of doing that is to listen to other people who are doing it too. So stop thinking your job is only to tell us what your boss thinks, Mr Lam. Let's make this conduit of thought one that is open on both ends.