Dr Bev Smallwood

Articles Library: Communication

The Great Communicator: Lessons Learned

Ronald Reagan, who was born February 6, 1911, died on June 5, 2004, after a ten-year ordeal with Alzheimer’s Disease. Reagan will be remembered for so many things...being 40th President of the United States; ending a long, cold, fearsome war; changing politics and culture. I honor him for all that and more.

I also honor his wife Nancy, who remained loving and devoted through all the experiences of their 52 years. I personally know the heartbreak and stress of being the primary caretaker of an Alzheimer’s patient.

Ronald Reagan would want us to focus on the positive aspects of his life, and we’ll zero in on something he modeled that all of us need to apply daily. I am fascinated by the name given to him by friends and opponents alike...THE GREAT COMMUNICATOR. (How many of us would qualify for such a nickname?)

I've watched the interviews of the many people who knew him and read the news accounts. I’ve been trying to discover what it was about his communication style that earned such praise, cooperation, and results. Here are a few of the insights I’ve gleaned for us. As you read these examples, let’s ask ourselves, “To what extent do I apply these principles on a daily basis?”

1. He treated people in every station of life as valuable

George Bush, Sr., said, “He was kind, courteous, and thoughtful to all staff. He would no more walk by the guy in the elevator without asking how his family was than to fall off a cliff.”

A six-year-old African-American boy wrote Reagan a letter. Not only did the President write a thoughtful, handwritten letter in response, he wrote dozens, becoming this little boy’s pen pal. When the boy invited the President and Ms. Reagan to come to his house for dinner (writing, much to his mother’s mortification, “but give us some notice so my mom can get the laundry picked up off the floor”), they did just that.

An adolescent named Rachel Pierce from Tupelo, Mississippi, had the same experience. He answered her letters personally. On her sixteenth birthday, he not only sent her a personal birthday letter, he addressed it to her mother, requesting that she hold it and deliver it to Rachel exactly on her birthday. Later, he invited her to visit with him. She did so, and was invited to return on two more occasions.

According to “Time,” Ronald Reagan seemed untouched by the arrogance and self-regard common to actors and politicians. On the eve of the election when a young reporter asked Reagan what the American people saw in him, he responded, “Would you laugh if I told you that I think, maybe, they see themselves, and that I’m one of them?”

2. He not only cared, he could articulate it

One of the most powerful examples of this came when Reagan postponed his State of the Union address to talk to the people about the Challenger disaster. Speaking of the shuttle’s crew, he said, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

It’s one thing to care…another to be able to skillfully express it.

3. He handled disagreements with team members in private, being willing to compromise, but not on principles

George Bush, Sr., shared his minor “disagreement with Reagan” experiences on the Today Show. He described their regular private lunches in which the President welcomed opposing viewpoints. According to Bush, Reagan was willing to compromise on methods, but not on principles.

From his hospital room after the assassination attempt, Reagan was calling Democractic Congressmen, asking for support of his tax cut. One quoted the President as saying, “I’d rather get 80 percent of what I want than to go over the cliff with my flag flying.” He was a master negotiator.

4. He used humor to communicate and to manage stress

Humor is the quality most often mentioned in describing Reagan’s communication style. Here are a few examples.

By the time he was inaugurated in 1981, Reagan was almost 70 years old. He quipped, “Middle age is when you’re faced with two temptations, and you choose the one that will get you home at 9 o’clock.”

Reagan survived the assassination attempt by John Hinckley. Right after the shooting, with a bullet lodged just inches from his heart, Reagan told Nancy, “Nancy, honey, I forgot to duck.”

His use of humor to deal with a very stressful situation was also seen at the hospital. He said to his doctors as he entered surgery, “Please tell me you’re Republicans.”

oming out of anesthesia, he paraphrased W.C. Fields: “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” He added, “If I had this much attention in Hollywood, I would have stayed.”

5. His communication was full of optimism

Time Magazine summed it up: “Hope is an infectious disease, and Reagan was a carrier.”

True to his reputation as a great, direct communicator, in 1994 Reagan chose to reveal his battle with Alzheimer’s Disease by writing a letter to the American people. Even on this sad occasion, his optimism thrived.

Reagan wrote, “At the moment I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this Earth doing the things I have always done. I will continue to share life’s journey with my beloved Nancy and my family… When the Lord calls me home, whenever that day may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this county of ours, and eternal optimism for its future. I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”

May these glimpses into the life of Ronald Reagan challenge you and me to become our best at work and home, rising ever higher to the next levels in “great communication.”

Dr. Bev Smallwood is a psychologist and professional speaker who is the author of “This Wasn’t Supposed to Happen to Me.” Visit her website, www.DrBevSmallwood.com; or contact Bev at 601.264.0890 or by email, Bev@DrBevSmallwood.com. Also connect with Bev on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, and her blogs, Shrink Rap and New Morning Devotionals.

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