I live in Pennsylvania, where a ridiculously stupid Republican majority has passed a most inane and dangerous law regarding the necessity for a photo ID in the upcoming general election. The Republicans obviously hate old people and minorities enough to take every opportunity to disenfranchise them and elect their corrupt cronies into office. Only a complete idiot who opposes the basic tenants of the freedom this country was established upon would support such a moronic law.
And just like that, I give every person who disagrees with the statement above a reason to not listen to what I have to say. The above statement is condescending, and insulting, and overly-generalized. I can always fall back on the mock-exasperated sigh of “I guess some people just won’t listen,” but when it comes down to it, it’s my own fault that they won’t.
Today I want to talk about communicating in such a way that communication can actually take place. I encounter breakdowns in communication on a daily basis both online and in the real world, in public arenas and in private, between two people or among twenty. There are key components to effective communication that are applicable in most of these situations. When we approach the method of delivery as mindfully and passionately as we do the content of our statements, our chances of being heard and understood increase dramatically.
As an aside, while I don’t agree with the PA Voter ID law, I’m not looking to discuss it here. I’d rather talk about the semantics of it than the issue itself at this point.
Anyway, here are some guidelines to follow when communicating ideas that are important to you:
1. Is it worth the time?
I don’t mean this in the sense that is the person going to come around to seeing things your way. Rather, why do you want to have this conversation? The reasons “because they got their information wrong,” “because they are misleading other people,” “because I have a lot of information that will prove that I’m right,” all actually are the same argument: I am wrong, you are right. As soon as you recognize that as your point of the conversation, take a step back and determine what this one person’s seeing things from your perspective means to you.
I have found that with few exceptions, it’s usually better to disengage from the discussion at that point. Starting a discussion with “I’m right,” rarely goes anywhere. If you feel adamantly about how you feel, and the other person feels similarly resolute, then the point of the conversation is just self-aggrandizement and conflict. As delightful as that is on reality television, in actuality it is unnecessarily stressful posturing. Learn how to recognize when you’re arguing for rightness (hint: even if you really think you are “right”) and instead, don’t have that unnecessary and pointless argument.
Also, pick the people you want to have these conversations with. If your goal is to do anything besides yell at each other, you should probably be talking to someone with whom you have some emotional investment. It may feel good to berate that random person who responded on a Facebook post, but it’s far from productive.
In order to have a dialogue, there has to be some sense of common ground; otherwise it’s less a conversation and more just a back-and-forth. The common ground you find comes in the form of empathy. The fact that you want to have this conversation should imply that this is a person whose beliefs you care about to some extent. With that said, get to know the person you’re talking with. Try starting your side of the conversation with a question rather than a rebuttal. Not a leading question, but a question out of pure curiosity. With as little judgment as possible, summarize what the other person said to you to see if you got it right. It’s so important to genuinely attempt to understand what they are saying rather than going through the motions, or coming up with a contradictory argument. For example, in answer to the statement:
Person A: I don’t see why you should have a problem with the Voter ID law. This will keep people without the legal right to vote from fraudulently doing so.
My impulse might be to talk about how voter fraud is not an issue and how this might keep legal citizens from casting their vote. But if it’s really a conversation, a better tack might be:
Person B (who is apparently Dan): I see, you’re concerned with people illegally taking your vote. It’s an interesting balance: If you make the voting process more restrictive, you can get more security, but you might prevent people from accessing it. If you had to choose between erring on the side of security versus access, which would you choose?
Notice it’s not a leading question, and in this case Person B is genuinely interested in Person A’s response.
It’s possible that the person you’re talking with is approaching the conversation from a right/wrong standpoint instead of an open discussion. Culturally, we’re primed and ready for the former. With patience and empathy, though, you can continue to steer the conversation back from a diatribe to a discussion. If you can’t, then re-evaluate whether this is an important conversation to have at this time or at all.
3. Don’t give a reason to switch off
In Kurt Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus, he refrains from using profanity throughout the book. The reason he gives: “profanity and obscenity entitle people who don’t want unpleasant information to close their ears and eyes to you.” When we are abrasive, we do the same thing to the people we are talking to.
As we get more passionate in a topic, our emotions can take over, and it becomes difficult to remain patient and compassionate. Try to screen your speech for hidden sarcasm and condescension before talking. The slightest inflection of negativity can cause your partner to clam up and the conversation to end; no one wants to have be berated. If you can’t filter for civility, either find a time when you can, or go back to step one and reconsider why you want to have this conversation in the first place. It probably has to do with your feeling that you are right and the other person is wrong.
So back to the “example” at the top. If I wanted to make that into more of a conversation than a missive, how might I phrase my beliefs and persuasive arguments? It’s actually a trick question, because I don’t believe the internet can function as a way for me to have that dialogue. Whether through design, or through its cultural adaptation, the internet is geared towards one-sided conversations and proving the “rightness” of an argument. If I really want to encourage dialogue, I need to start by getting to know people who feel differently, asking about their beliefs, and persuading them that a forum that uses respect and curiosity is better than what they currently use. It takes genuine compassion and empathy to have that sort of conversation, so it’s best held in-person. In our soundbyte laden society where we’re looking for the one quick argument to end the discussion, I find the idea of communicating face-to-face – actually having a mutually engaged conversation – absolutely refreshing.