I’m delighted that there’s so much discussion at the moment about communication. It’s my passion and my trade, and I’ve long been worried about the tone of public and private debate. We seem to have forgotten how to ‘disagree agreeably’, as John Bercow put it after that shameful evening in the House of Commons. He talked of a toxic culture, and beseeched members to treat each other as opponents not enemies.
Let me also, with a little help from some even wiser friends, offer three simple tools we can all use to achieve more measured and civilised interactions.
- RESPECT the other person’s entitlement to have a different opinion to yours. As Sheryl Sandberg put it in Lean In, “There’s my point of view (my truth) and someone else’s point of view (their truth). Rarely is there one absolute truth, so people who believe that they speak the truth are very silencing of others”. If we can take a split second to change our mindset (and therefore the tone of our response) to one of curiosity rather than resentment or anger, everything will flow differently. It doesn’t mean we’re caving in and abandoning our truth. It means we’re trying to understand why they feel that way. Aristotle – “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” It may also encourage us to criticise the idea rather than the person.
- LISTEN to the other person. Actually listen. We know there’s a difference between listening and waiting to speak! We might even hear something of value. We almost certainly will hear something that helps us to comprehend (and maybe even empathise with) their point of view. Stephen Covey –“Seek first to understand and then to be understood”. Buddha: “If your mouth is open, you’re not learning”.
- SLOW DOWN. Our technology-dominated world (especially the cut and paste environment of social media) trains us to communicate briefly and fast, often publicly and anonymously. We are therefore losing the habit of properly considering a response before clicking ‘send’; we’re losing nuance in favour of brevity and schoolyard name-calling. Can the leader of the free world really do no better than ‘nasty woman’! But then Twitter doesn’t really encourage comment such as ‘I understand her point of view is based on her experience of the financial crisis of 2008 but I think the figures she’s quoting are inaccurate’. And I wonder if public online forums embolden us to play to the audience – to show off our outrage, heighten our vitriol and amplify offence.
So, as we enter the next phase of the comedy of errors that is British politics at the moment, let’s hope those in the public eye and in the private space can learn to disagree agreeably.