I started by looking at the purpose of communication, suggesting we adopt the assertion of French essayist Joseph Joubert: “The aim of any argument or discussion should be not victory, but progress.”
I then put forward my two brilliant (ahem) rules:
First, when you speak, your aim should be not to convince, but to convey.
Second, when you listen, your aim should be not to agree, but to understand.
I confess to feeling a bit proud, a bit smug about the framework. Look how enlightened I am!
And then… I tried to put it into practice.
And I realized I had made a fateful error. The rules themselves are good ones. But they’re missing something profound, something without which a conversation on any contentious topic is likely to go awry.
They are missing any reference to feelings.
The reason it’s so difficult to discuss things we feel strongly about is… well, obviously, because we feel strongly about them. I have strong feelings about gun control, about abortion, about politics, about civil rights. If I want to have a constructive conversation about these things with anyone whose views don’t exactly align with my own, I have to be able to navigate my feelings -- and theirs.
So I’d like to upgrade my original two rules to three. For a moment, let’s hold off on the intellectual exercise of communicating to convey and listening to understand. Let’s begin instead with the most critical piece of the whole endeavor, the one without which all else will come to nought.
Let us begin with empathy.
Empathy is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot. A common misunderstanding is that empathy is about acknowledging someone else’s experience, seeing things through their eyes. But, as research professor Dr. Brené Brown says, empathy is not about connecting to someone’s experience; it’s about connecting to the emotion that underpins that experience.
And here’s the thing: We don’t have to agree with someone’s views to acknowledge their feelings as valid.
People who see things differently than us -- even dramatically differently -- likely feel just as strongly about their perspective as we do about ours. It costs us nothing to say, “Hey, I can see this is really hard for you,” when something is hard for them. Think about how it feels for you when someone acknowledges how you feel. When someone gets it.
When we write off the feelings of people we disagree with -- not the views, the feelings -- well, we have effectively written them off, as human beings. Certainly we haven’t left any room for the whole “let’s communicate not to convince but to convey” approach.
So, first: My apologies for the original omission, and my gratitude to you for allowing me to update the model.
Second: the updated model.
Starting with purpose, per Joseph Joubert: “The aim of any argument or discussion should be not victory, but progress.”
And the three rules for progress, for extraordinary communication:
First, connect with feelings. If you both find the topic hard, you’ll both be carrying feelings into the conversation. They need to be dealt with, attended to, heard. Acknowledge them.
Second, make sure that when you do speak, speak not to convince, but to convey.
Third, when you listen, listen not to agree, but to understand.
As for me, I’m going to go try again. Here’s hoping it works better this time.