The One and the Many

How do you change your words or message depending on your audience?

Weeks ago I read an article sharply criticizing public health messaging throughout the pandemic, and took a hard look at my own communication over the past year.  A year ago I wrote a series of posts on COVID, which were generally well received.  I have consistently taken a very conservative approach to mitigation, admonishing people to avoid gatherings and travel, mask up, and be patient.  In my public messaging, I have not directly addressed the mental, emotional, economic, and social costs of all of these measures. 

But what about in my private conversations?  How are they/am I different?

I thought of two groups with whom I interact:  Those whom I know personally, who trust me, and who think similarly to me, and those whom I don’t know, who may not trust me, and who think/believe differently from how I do.  Okay so six groups, not two—and they can overlap—I have patients who trust me and think very differently—but I think my messaging generally takes one of two approaches depending on my audience.  And in the end, I think it comes down to trust.

The One

When speaking to one person whom I know, or someone who agrees with me, two assumptions are at play: 1) they trust me, and 2) I trust that they trust me.  It sounds semantic, but I think it matters.

In this situation, I’m probably much more willing to admit uncertainty, and to ‘negotiate’ my position because I trust that my counterpart understands and respects my concerns.  So I’m willing to show vulnerability in my expertise because I trust that they know I will incorporate new information and update my recommendations.  I also trust them to know that it’s not because I’m stupid or gullible or on some kind of power trip—we’re all just learning and trying to balance everything that matters in a rock vs hard place situation.  When engaging in mutually trusting conversation, even in disagreement, openness, curiosity, and ambivalence can be taken as humility and seeking truth rather than weakness and lack of conviction, and both parties may be more likely to walk away with broader, more nuanced perspectives.  And best of all, the relationship can be strengthened, allowing for continued engagement, learning, and growth.

The Many

Posting to the blog or on Facebook, I think I run a much higher risk of being misunderstood.  I am responsible for providing clear and concise context for any expression or opinion.  My audience is diverse, and depending on any reader’s mood or context themselves, my words may be interpreted very differently one day or one moment to the next—and I have no control over that.  Do they trust me?  Can I trust them to assume my humility and good intentions?  Unclear.

In this space, depending on my mood, perhaps, I may feel defensive, and/or a deep desire to prove myself right.  I may be much less willing to admit to gaps in my knowledge or flaws in my reasoning, for fear that my expertise will be wholly discounted if one aspect of my interpretations or recommendations is imperfect.  If I assume my audience does not trust me, then I’m less likely to trust them to receive my intended message, to take my advice, and achieve my primary goals.  I get preachy, narrowing my perspective and failing to see more than my own point of view.  I ask fewer questions—that is always a red flag.  I make more assumptions, defensiveness increases, and my mind closes further.  It’s an emotional hijack of sorts, resulting in further disconnect and polarization.  Yikes.

Or maybe, just because I don’t know how my message will be perceived, I qualify and hedge, and lob ideas much more passively, inadvertently conveying that I don’t really believe what I’m saying, that I’m actually not trustworthy, just wishy-washy. 

So what should I do?

I think one solution is mindful attunement and differentiation.  As a communicator in relationship of any kind, but especially when I’m the expert, it is my responsibility to manage this dynamic polarity intentionally.  Face to face, I can make sure the other person feels seen and heard, by asking more questions, paraphrasing, reflecting their values and goals back to them.  When writing for an audience I cannot see or hear, I can respectfully acknowledge opposing opinions and their validity, before presenting my own arguments.  Above all, I can hold a larger space for everyone’s values, concerns, and objectives.  I see you.  Please see me.  What do we both care about?  What trade-offs are we willing and not willing to make to achieve our shared goals?

Results from my Think Again quiz, March, 2021

Adam Grant’s new book, Think Again, will be my personal and professional bible for a while, I think.  Its central tenets are intellectual humility and cognitive flexibility.  I may speak and write like a preacher about things that matter deeply to me.  But I will strive to think more like a scientist, seeking truth and connection above winning arguments and/or proving other people wrong.

In the end, as I practice myself, I will observe and apply these principles in other arenas.  Can we keep attunement and differentiation in mind when we hear leaders and politicians speak?  When a constituency is diverse, and an issue complex, can/should we expect a public figure/expression to convey nuance in generalized statements?  I say yes, absolutely.  I think we should hold leaders, as ourselves, to a much higher standard for acknowledging complexity and uncertainty.  Oversimplified sound bites divide and incite, and we should all reject them, strongly.  We can address complexity and uncertainty without inciting mass panic if our statements also clearly convey conviction to core values, and what we are for more than what we are against. 

We can all/each elevate the quality of both private and public discourse if we help one another feel connected throughout.  That means earning trust, and there is no substitute for the work it takes to do this.

What Do You Mean By That?

http://www.cherrypointmarket.net/lavender-labyrinth.html

“When we go to a foreign country, we know acutely when we don’t share a common language.  Not so in US political discussions.”

I paraphrase Sharon, my Braver Angels pal.  I had just described what I mean when I say “liberal,” and why I prefer to identify myself as “progressive.”  And though we both consider ourselves to be “Blue,” it turns out that our definitions of these words diverge widely.  I think neither of us uses the words interchangeably (do you?), and I wonder if it has ever caused us to misunderstand each other.  What comes to mind and body for you when you hear these labels?  What about “conservative,” “right wing,” or “Red?”

When I read/hear “liberal,” I cringe a little and feel defensive.  Maybe that’s because it’s used so often as a pejorative term anymore by “the right,” like when they jeer people of my ilk (which is what, exactly, though?) as “libtards,” (a dual pejorative against both “liberals” and people with developmental disabilities).  I resist labels, especially when people apply them to me without knowing anything about me.  I suspect we all dislike this, no?  To me, “liberal” means loose, without boundaries or limits, mindless, uncontrolled—as in suntan oil—“apply liberally.”  Maybe I have internalized the contempt of the other side?

Google search

I prefer to identify as progressive because it feels more intentional.  When we progress, it is toward something.  We have a goal.  We serve a purpose, and we walk with conviction to values.  Those values, for me, include equity, compassion, integrity, fairness, and the infinite, dynamic balance between what serves the individual and what serves the collective.  And I absolutely value meeting my political opposition on common ground, looking for shared values and goals to manifest in collaboration, rather than in competition.  This is the opposite of the prevailing idea of the word, I think?

Google search

I think Sharon’s definitions of the two words are more commonly shared.  She sees “liberal” as the general term that defines those who identify as “Blue,” who share and advocate for values attributed to “the left,” such as environmental protection, climate change action, antiracism, social justice, financial regulation, social safety nets, public healthcare, gun control, police reform, etc.  In her mind, “progressive” defines folks on “far left” of the spectrum, whose rhetoric and tactics are more aggressive, and who express much less willingness to negotiate or compromise on their goals and policies.

Tonight I invite you to participate in an experiment.

Sit down, relax; take some deep breaths.  Free your mind and unwind your body.  Feel safe to be totally honest and vulnerable with yourself.  Choose a few words from the list below and free associate for a minute or two.  Notice the images, words, emotions, and physical sensations that emerge when you read, say, and hear each word.  Don’t judge your reactions; they are neither right nor wrong, good nor bad.  They are simply your personal associations.  Write down what emerges for each word.  Take your time.

When you come across an opportunity (or seek it next—or maybe it will find you), invite someone you trust to do the same for the words you chose.   Assure them that you will not judge or criticize their associations (and then don’t).  Maybe offer them to choose some words for you both to associate.

Then compare notes—share.  Consider setting some ground rules, such as mutual non-judgment and respect, before starting.

What does the idea of this personal exercise and exchange bring up for you, in mind, body, and spirit?  What do you make of your reaction?  How might this exercise help you in political conversations, perhaps the way a translator might help you in a foreign country?  How might it also help you in other relationships and domains of life? 

Please feel free to share your associations and exchanges in the comments.

Onward in curiosity, humility, generosity, and connection, my friends.

Word list:

Right

Left

Conservative

Liberal

Progressive

Democrat

Republican

Red

Blue

Democracy

Democratic

Republic

Right wing

Left wing

Negotiate

Compromise

Regulation

Pro-Life

Pro-Choice

Climate Change

Pandemic

Public Health

Healthcare

Social Justice

Racism

Antiracism

Police reform

Gun control

Immigrant

Dreamer

Elite

Conspiracy

Insurrection

Coup

Riot

Patriot

Loyalty

Hypocrisy

Integrity

Bias

Prejudice

Discrimination

Tribe

Party

What else?

What We Would Give

“I would eat less myself so that you may be full.” 

It’s much more poetic and beautiful spoken in Chinese.  My mom said these words to me as she pretreated a pile of clothes, ‘Asian squatting’ on the floor in front of the washer.  I was in middle school, perhaps.  We were talking casually about parents and children.  She always had, and continues to have, the most efficiently poignant ways to express how infinitely parents love their children—how much they are willing to sacrifice in service of their kids’ health, well-being, and success—all without any residue of shame, guilt, or obligation.  As a parent myself, I totally get it now.

“What I would(n’t) give for…”

When have you thought or uttered these words?  What was it for, a hot dog?  A drink of water?  Your loved one not to have cancer?  Reconciliation with and estranged friend?  An end to systemic racism?

What are we willing to give for what we really care about?  Where is the evidence in action for the values we profess? 

I’m listening to Barack Obama’s memoir, savoring it now in the last few hours.  What I really appreciate is the inside look at the rationale, the complexity, and the reality of policy making.  He explains why he chose to push certain policies through legislation rather than executive order, knowing it was the harder and politically higher risk path.  He describes the personal, relational, legal, and procedural struggles that made legislative losses so frustrating and wins so satisfying.  This was an easy ‘read’ because he is my hero.  I relate to his motivations and understand his rationale easily—I know him as a fellow tribe member.  Next I will attempt Mitch McConnell’s The Long Game, in an honest effort to see the other side’s perspective.  I will buckle down and grit my teeth, and try my best to listen with presence and openness… and also critical, respectful skepticism.

I want tell the story about our elected officials that they entered public life in pursuit of ideals greater than themselves, what Simon Sinek names ‘a just cause’.  According to Sinek a truly just cause is 1) for something—protagonistic and visionary; 2) inclusive—anybody can join; 3) service oriented—benefits others; 4) resilient—endures in the face of change; and 5) idealistic—impossible to actually achieve, but inspires us to pursue anyway.  I see pursuit of just causes so clearly in President Obama’s words and actions.  I have trouble with some others’.   I know many have the opposite experience—how fascinating!

I also want to tell the story that our politicians are people of integrity, who negotiate and compromise with both short term outcomes and long term strategy in mind, all in service of their just cause.  But even knowing that we citizens never see the whole picture, even giving them the benefit of the doubt, it’s a hard story to believe much of the time.  …So if it’s not a true story, what are we citizens willing to give to make it so?

When does compromise constitute hypocrisy?  When does calling out hypocrisy amount just to whining?  When is it better to let this one go and wait for next time, or to go for broke now, lest we miss our only opportunity?  How much are we willing to spend/invest/lose/fail/sacrifice, in order to achieve our ultimate goals?

What are we each really willing to give?  What does this tell us about our values?

And in the end, how will we be at peace with the consequences of our in/actions?