FOR SOMEONE WHO pays the bills by working with words, I have been terrible at crossword puzzles for most of my life. And as a professional communicator, I’ve not always communicated well in my private life. But recently I began to get a bit of a hang of the word games, while recognizing some lessons in personal communication along the way.
Styles vary. Some puzzle makers are cryptic while others prefer more straight-ahead challenges to knowledge about history or current affairs. Only when you start to understand their rhythm and reference points can you begin to get inside their heads. Similarly, though you and I may be using the same words, if our interpretation or experience of them varies, we’re likely to miss what’s really being said. Example: as a transatlantic transplant, I can affirm the truth of the old saying that England and America are two nations divided by a common language.
Use pencil. Jumping to conclusions can be dangerous. I have learned that if in doubt about an answer, it’s not good to rush to ink. If you’re carelessly definite too early, you just end up making a mess, as you have to overwrite and then it all gets ugly. At the same time, it can be helpful to have something down on paper to work with, so I’ll scribble lightly. Same with conversations; sometimes it helps to throw out something cautiously to see if you’ve understood what the other person is saying. Or, to measure their response to your contribution. There’s always time later to be more emphatic, when you’re sure the lines are clearly open.
Go around. Not every clue gets answered head-on. If I am stumped by a particular question, I’ll see if I can instead tackle some of the others that dissect that missing word’s line, either parallel or horizontal. If I can fill in a few blanks that way, I may come up with enough letters to enable me to work out what the elusive word is. Conversationally, there may be times when you learn more about someone by talking around the edges of something rather than tackling it head-on in a “yes-no” exchange. Like the way that New Journalism pioneer Gay Talese told readers more about the famous singer in his celebrated profile, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” by interviewing, not the star, but everyone in his orbit.
Leave it. You can’t always come up with a solution through sheer willpower. Sure, sometimes patient persistence will lead to a breakthrough, but often as not just starting at the empty squares only ends up causing frustration. The trick then is to put it down and come back to it later. By taking a break, you may return and see the clue in a whole different light. The proverbial “aha” moment. In the same way, it may not be possible to satisfactorily resolve every contentious discussion by simply keeping at it. Putting it aside may let you come back to it with fresh ears—and eyes.
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