As we prepare to play our roles in upcoming events, I’d like to take a look for a moment at a few communicational strategies that may help us express ourselves as effectively as possible while in a disagreement or other situation of potential conflict.
I’ve certainly relied on them and they’ve saved me in some situations where the going seemed rough and yet communication was still expected. Where I’ve failed, I’ve usually chosen not to follow one of them, to my regret.
So here are some suggestions from me. Any suggestions you care to share on the subject would be welcomed.
(1) Use Neutral Language
When we’re estimating the facets of another’s work that we don’t support, we seem to cause the least amount of damage, residue or fallout if we use neutral language. We always have choice in our selection of language. We can choose positive, negative, or neutral words. If we choose positive or negative, we’re actually biasing our communication (which is fine if that’s what we want to do), but if we want to leave readers free to choose for themselves, then the best choice may be neutral words.
Let’s see if I can give an example. I can say a person lies but the use of the word “lies” seems to rankle friend and foe. Foe because no one likes to be called a liar; friend because, I suppose, no friend wants to be dragged into a battle unnecessarily and calling someone a liar is at least likely to trigger a battle.
Or I can say that I personally don’t believe what the other person says, although I defend their right to say it. To say “I don’t believe you” seems to give far less offense. The second one is the neutral and less offensive way to say something that is pretty difficult to say and hear.
I actually observe myself these days when I write looking for the simplest (1) neutral word I can find when I write. I spend time over each sentence and watch for a little alarm bell going off as I read the construction. If I find a word that’s negative, I swap it for one that’s neutral. I personally think the investment pays off.
(2) Stay Away from Absolutes
Stay away from absolutes by making each statement as specific as possible. Is it specific to you? To a time or place? To a realm of discourse or a range of concepts? If it is, state the parameters. “In my opinion.” “If you live in the Western World.” “To a person of Christian background.” Etc.
To use the words “is” or “are” without modifiers or qualifiers often has our listeners or readers hear the statement as an absolute. And we tend to feel uncomfortable in the face of absolute statements, except from Jesus or Buddha (and most of us are not [yet] Jesus or Buddha). “Politicians are crooks.” Absolute statement. “The charge of corruption has been leveled against a large number of politicians lately.” The latter is more specific in terms of time, allegation, context, etc. There are other ways we can be as specific as possible, such as using words like “usually” or “around here” or whatever tends to give an idea of extent in time or place.
Thank you to my high-school science teacher who taught me to make relative statements wherever possible rather than absolutes – to leave room for doubt. He taught me to say “it seems” rather than “it is.” If we say “political debate today seems to bring little comfort” rather than “political debate brings little comfort,” somehow that makes the statement go down easier in the ears of listener or reader. In almost all [avoiding an absolute] situations, it seems [leaving room for doubt] to work better if we avoid absolutes.
(3) State the Status of Knowledge
I personally like to avoid statements that don’t give the status of my knowledge. I had the value of that shown to me when sitting on the refugee bench. If I made a statement that suggested I knew something when I’d only heard it or surmised it, I could be overturned by the courts that supervised our decision-making. So I always had to state the status of my knowledge and state it precisely and carefully.
Here are different statuses of knowledge: “I know,” “I heard,” “I feel,” “I think,” “I believe,” “I guess,” “I intuit,” “I sense.” The most common fight over anything arises because another person says “How do YOU know?” And off the argument goes. These arguments can be avoided by saying what the extent of our knowledge is, where it comes from, etc.
It also seems to lessen the impact of a statement, and I’m chiefly concerned here with so-called negative statements such as allegations and the like, to add “in my opinion,” “in my view,” “the way I see it.” That way we’re not only giving the status of our knowledge but we’re also showing that we’re not trying to state an absolute.
When we make negative allegations, as sometimes we must, it’s wise to remember that blame and shame create residue. Instead of blaming and shaming, we might want to state how a matter affects, impacts, or rests with us. We might want to share the difficulty it creates for us. Or share about ourselves, rather than about the other.
Blame can usually be detected by a “you” statement. Quite frankly, I do my best to eliminate the word “you” from my vocabulary (except where I’m talking to you, as here) because many if not most people automatically prepare themselves for blame when they hear “you.” I tend to use “we” instead.
Sharing increases transparency and really, in the last analysis, I think we want to make ourselves known rather than to stifle or harm another. So why not frame our communications transparently and make ourselves known by sharing ourselves? The first poem I ever wrote, which I’m sure was channeled, began with the line: “I want you to know me deeply, truly as I am.” I still share that same valuing of transparency.
Sharing is the alternative to blaming, shaming, fixing, counselling. The equivalent of sharing when you’re the receiving partner is listening. And again the unworkable alternative to listening is fixing, advising, counselling, etc. “You should do this.” “You need to look at that.” No, just listen. Get the other person. And then feed back what you think you heard to get confirmation and (2) to show you actually did hear the other. Don’t feed back so often that you’re interrupting, as I did with AA Michael, at which point he said, kindly: “Yes, I would like to respond to that.”
For me, listening is the most precious and the rarest commodity in the world of communication. It’s largely an undiscovered commodity and I’ve waited what seems like my whole life to hear that it has been discovered – but I haven’t heard or seen that yet. Hopefully in the New Age, listening and sharing will become the new order of the day, the new paradigm in communication.[By now, in this article, you should be able to pick out me using neutral language, avoiding absolutes, stating the status of my knowledge, and sharing.]
Talking and writing in these ways, to the best of my knowledge [status of knowledge, avoiding an absolute], seems [avoiding an absolute] to lower the temperature in our written and spoken communications. And I think [status of knowledge, sharing] we badly need to lower the temperature, whether speaking to friends and wanting to avoid being misunderstood or speaking to “foes” and wanting to avoid a nasty battle.
(1) On choosing the simplest word, I had a neighbour when I worked in a personnel department who would throw his banana peel over the divider if I used a Latinate word and say to me, “Steve, Peter Rabbit English!” Thank you, Don, for training me.