Here’s the introduction to Enough with the…Talking Points: Doing More Good than Harm in Conversation. The book is in production now with a mid-/late-June anticipated release date. It went into production when the global COVID-19 number was approaching 5 million, and before George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. Without being overly dramatic or presumptuous, among many things we need as a species right now, doing more good than harm in conversation is one of them. And that’s a deliberately low bar.
The title of the series of sixteen blogs from which this book emerged was Guidelines for Adult Conversation. Perhaps clever (or not) when the blogs appeared from January through May, 2019, that title required an increasingly clear definition of “adult,” which, over time, proved problematic at best. Other prospective, serious and less serious titles for the blog and this book include:
- Disagreeing (and Agreeing) With Civility
- Blah, Blah, Blah: Just Another Talking Point
- Silence May Have Been Better
- Who (Do You Think) You Are, and What (in the World) Do You Mean by That?
- I’m Right and You’re Wrong
- You Can’t Be Serious
- Why Don’t You Shut Up?
The intention of this writing is for all of us who speak or write to become increasingly better able to deeply listen to others, and authentically express ourselves, in ways that foster understanding, appreciation and respect for everyone who is present, and everyone who is not. With some few exceptions, “we” seem to have lost the ability to disagree with each other without engaging in personal insult, labeling and sweeping generalizations. We also seem to have lost the ability to agree with each other without engaging in personal insult, labeling and sweeping generalizations directed toward those who are not present, with whom we disagree.
This loss of ability (or lack of skill, or chosen laziness, or (in)-vincible ignorance…) is evident with just about anyone who wishes the world were different, who knows who’s to blame for how the world is, and who’s sure that he or she is not part of the problem, but rather a victim, a prospective savior, or both. It is tempting to begin listing specific groups (elected officials, news commentators, pharmaceutical executives, billionaires, etc.) after “…is evident with…” above, but the list would be too long, inevitably incomplete, and in some ways contrary to this book’s intention. So, whether you believe that Conservative-Republican-Capitalist-Homophobic-Fascists, Liberal-Democrat-Socialist-LGBTQ-Bleeding Hearts, Independent Infidels or some combination of these is to blame for everything that’s wrong, YOU are part of the problem. That sentence is an example of what this book argues against saying or writing. If you’re interested in engaging what the book argues for, I invite you to keep reading.
Chapters One and Two explore the essential task of knowing ourselves, with Chapter One’s focus on the often invisible hand of culture and collective worldview, which is complemented by Chapter Two’s focus on the often just as invisible hand of individual genetics, direct experience (especially, but not only in childhood), personality, health, work, finance, friendship and other factors that further impact how each of us sees and experiences life. More simply, each of us sees through a worldview that is influenced and formed by both the larger cultural and our smaller individual characteristics. To the extent we are aware of this, we can be increasingly conscious and intentional with our thoughts, emotions, words and behaviors. To the extent we are unaware of these multiple influencers, they can, quite literally, run our lives. It comes down to whether we are aware that we have these influencers in our lives, or, unaware of them, they have us.
To the point of this book, it’s essential to get to know ourselves and our worldviews – our values, beliefs and biases, and the experiences and other learnings that inform them, and to commit to this learning and knowing as an ongoing, lifelong process – especially, but not only, if we want to engage in meaningful conversation with others.
Directly related to our awareness of worldview or lack thereof, Chapter Three explores our ability to recognize and suspend our preconceptions, judgments and assumptions in order to better differentiate what is truly ours and what belongs to the other(s) in conversation.
Chapter Four zeroes in on that example of what not to do (above, page ii, first full paragraph) and provides both the why and some of the how we need in order to avoid insults, labels and sweeping generalizations in both our disagreements and our agreements.
In Chapter Five we’ll work on getting clear on and honoring the difference between opinion and fact, where fact refers to an event or characteristic that reasonable, competent individuals, regardless of their beliefs or opinions, agree on, and opinion refers to the meaning(s) an individual ascribes to a fact or another opinion. This room is too cold! is an opinion. The thermometer reads 68 degrees is a fact (even if the thermometer is broken). And yes, it’s often more complicated than that.
Chapter Six follows and deepens the preceding two chapters’ explorations of insults, labels, generalizations, facts and opinions and makes the argument for providing specific, factual and whenever possible, personal examples to support our opinions – as opposed to characterizing, generalizing and interpreting the opinions of others.
Chapter Seven revisits the first two chapters’ work with worldview and explores the rationale for and possible ramifications of getting and staying genuinely curious about ourselves, others and the world – and engaging and embracing the at-times paradoxical gift of ‘not knowing’ as we learn in our attempts to ‘know’.
Chapter Eight explores conversational intention – what it is we intend in conversation with others, and recommends listening and speaking in order to learn, understand and clarify, rather than to teach, persuade or discredit (unless teaching or persuasion has been agreed upon by participating parties in, or is the explicit purpose of, the conversation). For example: in the “expert model” in medicine, in which doctors have knowledge and expertise, they explore and address patients’ symptoms, and try to cure them – curing is the explicit intention. A different intention invites doctors to actually listen to their patients and their stories and see them as fully human beings, rather than symptom carriers that need to be fixed – not to ignore or minimize the doctors’ expertise, but to orient the conversation in a different way – toward ongoing, intentional, integrated health and wellbeing, rather than waiting and then fixing what is perceived as broken.
Chapter Nine invites us to commit to finding those places where we actually agree with the other, and not just where we disagree. Seeking and acknowledging similarities as well as differences can be a remarkably simple step toward healing in a difficult conversation.
In Chapter Ten we’re asked to agree to, and actually stay focused on, the specific content of the current conversation. Creating conversational boundaries allows us to avoid the traditional political debate perversion: a moderator asks a specific question (which is often a ‘gotcha’ aimed at one or more candidates), and the candidates ignore the question and spew forth their prepared talking points about whatever they want. Success with this work relies heavily on the conversational parties’ intention (Chapter Eight). We are more likely to agree to and stay focused on a particular topic if our intention is to understand, learn and clarify.
Chapter Eleven invites us to feel into and listen for the emotion(s) behind our own and others’ words. Much has been written and said about the importance of “emotional intelligence” since the 1990’s. The abilities to recognize, differentiate, name and regulate our emotions, as with our stories, assumptions and biases, allows us to have emotions rather than being had by them – a crucial skill amid a disagreement.
While the work in chapters one through eleven is not particularly easy to engage, Chapter Twelve asks us to significantly up our game by learning to understand, feel, embody and tell the other’s story as if it were our own, which challenges us to move beyond the idea of walking in another’s shoes – which is a good place to start and useful, and which has limitations that we’ll explore.
Chapter Thirteen, in the spirit of the late Neal Postman and others, asks us to honestly explore and assess how what we promote and what we protest impacts others, especially others who are “not like us” – in the broadest meaning of those last three words. Put differently, “Who stands to lose, and how and what will they lose, and who stands to win, and how and what will they win, if what we promote truly manifests and what we protest truly disappears?”
Chapter Fourteen complements Chapter Five’s differentiation of fact and opinion, and engages our navigation of “the truth,” all of it, with no additional additives, or as the traditional oath puts it, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Chapter Fifteen steps back and reflects on what has preceded it in an attempt to honestly assess what might be both relevant and beyond the scope of this book.
Finally, as the final draft of this book was coming into view in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to make itself known on the planet. As I type this sentence this morning here in Connecticut, about 90 miles from New York City, the death toll on the planet is over 300,000 and the number of confirmed cases is approaching 5 million. Those statistics will be different and higher, unfortunately, by the time you hold this book in your hands.
The pandemic is bringing out both the best and the worst of our species at the same time it confirms, validates and reminds us that we really do share this planet and rely on each other in many ways. We get to see in real time the diversity of responses to both the virus and the attempts to contain and treat it – responses that are grounded in diverse levels of awareness that include “it’s about me,” “it’s about us,” – to whomever “us” might refer; “it’s about all of us,” and “it’s about all that is” – each of which has a unique impact on those who see that way, and on how they see others.
It’s not too late to learn how to listen to and speak with each other.