Five Things I Learnt About Communication
I am having breakfast when my phone receives an email notification. It is Tay Tong, who wants me to share about my life as an arts freelancer for this article. His email puts a smile on my face. Other than communicating a clear intention, the email also states the essay’s word count, deadline and honorarium amount. I am not left wondering if this is another pro bono request. I have all the information I need to consider the invitation.
Just like managing expectations and creativity, good communication skills make a freelancer’s life more tolerable. I hope my list of tips here – gathered from some of my experiences – offers a guide, or at least, some consolation.
1. Take care of yourself.
Meeting people who could give you a museum show is an important opportunity. But when you get so stressed out and start to sound incoherent during the meeting, you become someone even you do not want to hear from again. The key is not to try so hard to be someone else. Know yourself towards and through self-care. Know when you are nervous and speaking too fast, and slow down. Know when you are rambling, and consciously pause or ask if your listener is following. Self-care is about protecting yourself and creating optimal conditions where you can shine.
2. Try and try again.
If you struggle with communicating in a certain way, try a different way. Try all ways. Try your own way. And if all of that does not work, there is one thing you should never forget…
3. We are imperfect, but a strong work ethic is still important.
We must recognise our own flaws, some of which could be hindering our development while others are actually blessings. A fellow artist shared with me that a collector bought his work because she found his anxiety during his artist talk to be a sign of authenticity.
Yet, using the ‘imperfect’ card too often is not sustainable. If you know you won’t be able to meet a deadline, request for a slight extension of time before the deadline looms too close, not after. Alerting issues ahead of time spells maturity. Apologising for unpunctuality is bad excuse.
4. Don’t get too personal.
There is a running joke that the best way to start a meeting is to gossip or engage in small talk, and there is some truth to that; asking “How’s your day?” is a good way to gauge the other person’s current frame of mind. However, overdoing it can complicate matters. Saying negative things about someone who is not present to defend himself or herself is unfair and risky, and your listener may turn out to be a fan of the subject of your rant! Base your opinions on facts, and strike a balance between acknowledging strengths and weaknesses if asked to opine on works you did not create. Not getting too personal at work does not mean stopping your personality and unique visions from coming through. It simply means you need to prioritise the task at hand rather than allow personal issues like self-doubt and prejudices to overwhelm the work. You are hired to solve problems, not add to them.
5. Keep the communication channel open.
In a committee situation, there will be disagreements. You know some things are wrong, or you realise someone in the team is free-riding, not pulling his weight, or being malicious. You feel obliged to call this person out. Yet, as soon as you raise your concerns, you get screamed at for telling the expert how to do his job. And you thought you were saving the day! When the truth must be told, there are ways to do so, such as to agree first and then to disagree, for example, “I get where you’re coming from, but—” This way, you keep the communication channel open and avoid turning it into a battlefield.
I half-suspect that the one reason I still get to do freelance gigs is that I am able to deliver them as competently and truthfully as I can without leaving a trail of burnt bridges.
(photo courtesy of Singapore Art Museum)