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Helping others learn about ham radio or work on their radio equipment and antennas has always been an important part of amateur radio. Indeed, being a mentor, one who helps other operators succeed in reaching their amateur radio goals, is a long-cherished tradition. Sometimes we hear this kind of helper called an "Elmer". If you are curious about how that came to be, you can find an excellent explanation on the ARRL website.
But that's not exactly what I'm thinking about today. This is something that's a little bit more subtle, and it has to do with figuring out when people might need help, and in how best to communicate with them.
Okay, so here's the deal: It is easy to make mistakes by assuming that others know the things that you know. Of course sometimes we also assume that we know something, when in fact we really don't have the whole story or even have the facts completely wrong. Furthermore, people perceive things differently, so I might look at a situation and come to one conclusion while you look at that very same situation and come to another conclusion. Mistakes, sometimes huge ones, happen all the time because of such misunderstandings. They happen everywhere, too. Government, industry, educational institutions, engineering projects, public safety… You name it; mistakes can happen anywhere when people fail to communicate clearly and make assumptions that perhaps we shouldn't be making quite so readily!
Consider these points:
Common sense is relative. Odd as it sounds, so-called "common sense" can be quite different from person-to-person, culture to culture, age to age… In fact, I am almost tempted to think there really is no such thing as "common sense". I can remember being told one time that I was lacking in common sense and yet another time that I had an exceptional amount of common sense! How can both of those statements possibly be true? Of course what really happened was that a person who understood something in a certain way and discovered that I did not understand or perceive the situation in the same way he did then felt that I didn't have any common sense. In his universe, everyone would understand that situation or concept exactly as he did. Naturally the opposite happened when another guy told me that I had lots of common sense, but what he really meant was that I was pretty smart because I understood the situation or concept exactly the same way that he did. Common sense is determined by life experience. People will have different life experiences because they have been born and raised in different geographical areas at different times and in different cultures. When you are talking about electricity and electronics, you cannot simply assume a "common sense" understanding of even the most basic underlying concepts. Yes, we might assume that everyone understands basic electrical safety, such as never putting one's body between a voltage source and ground, but does a person from a culture where electricity isn't common understand that? Does a small child? How about an elderly person visiting the ham shack? Or even your neighbor from down the block? The fact of the matter is that you simply cannot assume that everyone has the same common knowledge that you do or that you yourself necessarily have the common knowledge that might be considered very basic in the world of academia or engineering. In other words, you have to be cautious and thoughtful when communicating amateur radio concepts as a mentor. The person with whom you're working does not necessarily understand things – even basic things – about electricity and electrical concepts the same way you do.
When people say that they understand, it isn't necessarily so. I'll bet all of us have been in the situation where we have been sitting in a classroom listening to the teacher telling us all about a concept that is complicated and new to us. The other people in the classroom seem to be following along with the lecture and understanding the concepts, so a person who doesn't quite get what is going on can feel self-conscious about asking a question. Even if the teacher stops to ask if there are any questions, a self-conscious person might simply nod their understanding and hope whatever the teacher talked about doesn't show up on the final exam! You can't always assume that people are following along with your brilliant explanation of the FCC rules and regulations during that Technician licensing class you are teaching for the club. An experienced mentor will be watching for signs of puzzlement or misunderstanding and ask if perhaps there is another way that they can explain the concept. By the way, this goes for projects outside the classroom, too. If you are directing the organization of Field Day for your radio club, you cannot necessarily assume that everyone understands their roles exactly the same way that you do. You have to be flexible and willing to spend some extra time making sure that such a project runs smoothly and safely even though it may mean checking back twice with your other volunteers, just to make sure that everyone is "on the same page".
You have to make some assumptions, but be careful! One of the worst bosses I ever had in my working career was a grumpy old sourpuss who always insisted that you should NEVER assume anything. I always felt that that was ridiculous advice because no one could ever get through their day without making hundreds of assumptions. For example, when I get out of bed in the morning, I place my feet on the floor. I have assumed that the floor is there and that I will not fall into a hole into the basement. I assume that when I turn on the water tap that water will flow. And – when it comes to electricity – I assume that when I flip on a switch or plug in a power cord that the circuit will be live and that electricity will flow. Sometimes assumptions are pretty sure things. I have never gotten out of bed and fallen through a hole in the floor to the basement, so I feel very safe indeed in assuming that the floor will be there. On the other hand, I have flipped on electrical switches and found that there was no power. Power outages happen for one reason or another, and we have all experienced them. The point here is that there are assumptions that a person can make with a high degree of confidence and others with perhaps only what we will call a high expectation. Other assumptions may be so wild and crazy as to be downright silly. An example would be to assume that you will win the lottery, so there's no point in putting any money away for retirement. Making careless assumptions can get you into trouble when dealing with amateur radio and electricity. You should ALWAYS assume that an electrical circuit is live until you have disabled it with certainty so that you can safely work on it. When acting as a project leader for your radio club, you cannot necessarily assume that others will show up to participate, or that the right tools will be carried to the project site by other volunteers. You have to have a plan! Spelling things out carefully for those who will be helping you can be a huge timesaver when you actually get on site and ready to put up that big antenna.
What I am getting at here is that when you are acting as an Elmer and mentoring new amateur radio operators or when you are leading a project for your radio club, you have to keep an open mind. Even though I have been an amateur radio operator for decades and have worked with many other ham radio operators in many capacities, I am still surprised sometimes by how we can fail to communicate simply because we assume that others know what we know or that we know something that we really don't know! There is no single way to overcome this failure in communication, but we can minimize its effects by remembering to really press people to let us know that they truly understand what we are talking about. Be patient. Listen! Observe. Repeat: Go over the plan or concept again if it is important. Assume what seems most reasonable up to a point, but check to be sure thereafter.
As you might expect, this is not an exact science. The best mentors are those who are willing to learn as well as to teach.
For Handiham World, I'm...