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  • Writer's pictureH. Rick Goff

Teaching Without Talking

I recently attended a memorial service where the Eulogist spoke eloquently on how the deceased had the uncanny ability to teach without talking. By her example, she taught her family and all that had the privilege of being in her space, valuable life lessons and encouraged them to reach their highest potential. As an educator, she knew the classroom was everywhere, and let everyone know with her; class was always in session! She fulfilled her purpose in life while touching many lives and left a powerful legacy of excellence. I was deeply moved at the service and inspired to expand upon the theme of "Teaching Without Talking".

Early in my USAF career, I was a weapons controller. The best way to describe my job was that as air traffic controllers use their radar to keep aircraft apart, weapons controllers use their radar to run aircraft together. I was controlling a training mission with two marine corps pilots flying A-4 Skyhawk aircraft that had limited to no air-to-air radar (fighter pilots will know I am really dating myself here), this meant I was their "eyes in the sky". During the mission, I did a horrible job of providing them the critical information they needed, and they were promptly "shot down" by the other aircraft during the aerial dogfight. In the de-briefing after the mission, the wingman who was a young Captain, chewed me up one side and down the other. To be honest, I knew I screwed up and after the first few swear words, I didn't hear anything else he said (I stopped listening and learning). But the real teacher in the room was the flight lead, a Major, who sat in the debrief and didn't say a word. He gave me a look that said he knew I was better than that mission and knew I had learned from the experience. Yes, I got all that from his look!! His silence told me I had to do and be better in a way that the young Captains swearing at me never could. This was a great example of teaching without talking. As we left the debriefing room, the Major got up, shook my hand and casually said, "we'll get'em tomorrow".

The most effective leaders I worked with in the public and private sectors were men of few words and were excellent at teaching without talking! They could say more with a look or silence than most could say in a commencement speech. Of course, they were highly effective verbal communicators, but they didn't waste words on the obvious. They spoke volumes by the way they carried and conducted themselves, and most importantly, how they treated others (peers and subordinates). They led by example and their expectations were clearly understood because they set the standard by their actions. They knew they were being watched just as much (or more) than they were being heard! These leaders had mastered the art of listening and seemed to have a natural ability to recognize and react to the core of an issue versus the chatter on the fringes. They were extremely transparent and allowed me to look and learn as they calmly navigated through challenging issues and scenarios. These leaders not only helped me to be the best Officer/employee I could be, but they helped me become the best version of myself!

As a Father, I quickly realized that my young Sons reacted just as much or more to what I did than to what I said. I learned that my actions and reactions were just as much a part of my lexicon as my words. My sons learned just as many life lessons from a stern look, a firm grip, or a gentle touch as they did from my wordy lectures. Talking can be a bit over-rated (okay highly over-rated at times), if for no other reason, when you talk you assume your intended audience is actively listening and trying to understand what you are saying. But your actions are hard to ignore and are more of a true indicator of what you are really about. So, the next time you see a frustrated Mother in the grocery store give an unruly child the "death stare", know that class is in session!

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