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.