Silence is golden.
It also allows space for people to talk.
And for you to listen.
The thing that’s on offer—the thing that’s being negotiated—is rarely the thing that we are fighting over.
Our conflicts rarely get close to the core truth of the issues needing to be resolved, which is why management of a recurring conflict situation is a better posture toward conflict than one of trying to persist in getting to a resolution.
The thing that we are fighting over—the thing that should be on offer—must be sold, managed, persuaded, and packaged for other people’s consumption in the way that they want it to be addressed.
Not the way you want it to be addressed.
This core truth is what unites marketing and conflict management. Human beings like being persuaded, marketed to, and talked to, in very specific ways, and if you violate conventions in the pursuit of getting to a deeper truth, you run several risks, but the biggest ones are as follows:
Human beings like being persuaded, marketed to, and talked to, in very specific ways. And if you violate stated (and unstated) social, moral, ethical, and philosophical conventions in the pursuit of getting to a deeper truth, you run several risks, but the biggest ones are as follows:
Being unfairly (or fairly) maligned.
Being marginalized when another more persuasive party comes along.
The answer to the question of “What’s on offer?” is the equally compelling question “What’s the truth of what we are fighting over?”
Very often, during a conversation, an email exchange, or following a workshop, the question of “Now what?” comes to the forefront.
Usually in talking about motivation, morale, or in creating the conditions that will make our workplaces better, a participant in the conversation will desire advice on how to get people to care more.
The response is that the magic bullet store is out of business.
And it has been for a while.
The real issue is that the current systems we have for education of our children (school), getting money to adults in an exchange for labor (work), and in taking care of both the Earth (capitalism) and the people on it (healthcare), grew up over the last 100, 200 or 500 years.
And no amount of hand-wringing (“It’s just terrible that this is happening?”), or desiring it to be better (“Can’t we all just ‘get along’?”) is going to change those systems in real, meaningful ways in the world we are currently living in.
The systems as designed are the problem.
Who organized the systems and what they believed is a problem.
The outcomes that benefit a few people philosophically, emotionally, and even spiritually is the problem.
The response to this is not to get mad, give up, or just ignore the problems in the systems and hope that they go away.
Or that someone else will come along and save us from ourselves and put everything “right.”
The response is to act to put your own hands to the levers of the systems in the sphere of influence that you can control (family, work, community, finances, social life, etc.), and begin to intentionally, purposefully, and deliberately push the levers of change.
And to do so with winsomeness, kindness, and grace.
But to do it tenaciously.
Persuasion, conflict management, active listening, responding to advance the conversation rather than to advance yourself, engaging without judgment to pull allies to your side—these are all skills that can be learned, taught, and passed on hand-to-heart, generation-to-generation.
Until we are thriving in the systems that we want to have, individually and corporately.
If the prospect of doing even 1% of that is too daunting for you as an individual inside of your sphere of influence, then you should be asking not “Now what?” but “What is it that I really want to accomplish in this limited life I have now?”
Fortunately for all of us, we were born at the beginning of a revolution in human affairs, human systems, and human motivations.
And all revolutions are scary and destructive before they are enlightening and hopeful.
Look for work first, and the hope will come.
On any curve of distribution, at the beginning of the curve and at the end of the curve are outliers.
At the beginning, these outliers are known as “pioneers.”
At the end, these outliers are known as “laggards.”
And in the middle of the curve (where the bulge is) this space is a cluster known as “the masses,” or the “average” or the “median.”
This truth of distribution stands for anything that can be mathematically measured, from the number of tall people in a room all the way to the number of CDs that people own who you may stop on the street.
This truth of distribution applies to my words (and the words of any other blog writer) as well.
On one end (at the beginning of the distribution curve) I’ve written blog posts with 50 to 100 words.
On the other end (at the end of the distribution curve), I’ve written blog posts with 1000 to 2500 words.
And in the middle, on average, I’ve written posts with 300 to 500 words.
Some math before I make my larger point: In the last four years, I’ve published 848 blog posts. If on average I’ve written 500 words per post, which comes to 424,000 words I’ve published in total since starting in 2013. And it might even be a little higher than that, due to posts not published.
In all that time, I haven’t collected as many email subscribers as I would like.
I also haven’t collected as many engaged readers as I would like.
And this is the trouble with the Internet in general and blog writing in particular.
It begs the questions:
I’ve been thinking about these two corollary questions a lot lately, because people often get excited when I talk about the blog, but then, when I point out that it requires you to be engaged with me, in order for it to work at the emotional and psychological level, I get…
…well, I get the responses that you would think I would get.
I’ve been thinking about these questions as I’ve been watching shared, walled, social media gardens devolve into spaces of short-form thinking, and long-form hubris.
I’ve been thinking about these questions as I build a platform that may not be for everyone–but that just might be for YOU.
Responses, engagement, critical thinking, emotional intelligence: These are the things that matter, and whether writing, teaching, video making, or podcast recording, I hope that you will stay in the meaty part of the distributions curve of listening, engaging and responding.
Wisdom is a skill.
In our modern era, that values speed over taking time, and that values the new over the old, wisdom is viewed, not as a skill, but as something unattainable.
This intellectual and cultural state of affairs has not always been the case.
As a matter of fact, when information moved slower (although from an individual’s perception, information has always moved faster than comprehension) wisdom was valued both as a skill and as an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual state.
Getting wisdom is more than about getting knowledge (which we can get from Google) or about debating about the “owning” of facts (which we now battle over publicly) or even about truth claims (which continue to be divisive); getting wisdom is about having the skill to know when to talk, and when to listen.
Be slow to speak.
Be quick to listen.
Be mindful of the power of knowledge.
Be engaged with things that are difficult.
Be a source of memory.
Wisdom is a skill, and the massively existential struggle of modernity is the tension between accepting the immediately available knowledge of the now, and the seemingly obscure wisdom of the past.
In that tension, there are a few critical questions we have to answer:
The strategy is leveraging past wisdom to determine the answers to these questions.
And it’s not a strategy that we can outsource to our technological tools anytime soon.
Most of the time, in conflicts, we engage in listening to the other party long enough to create a counter-argument that supports the narrative we already have in our heads.
This is not active listening, it’s passive consumption of content while idly waiting for a turn to speak.
This passivity in listening is particularly acute when, in the middle of a statement (or idea) being expressed that we have already dismissed as irrelevant, uninteresting, or not fitting our narrative structure, we pull out the computer in our pockets and start surfing for distractions.
Or our eyes cease to focus on the person making the statement and we begin to look around the room.
Or we begin to fidget and move around, impatiently awaiting the end of whatever is being said.
Children tend to behave like this, and one of the functions of parenting is to curb such ADD-like behavior and channel the energy devoted to not listening to active listening.
And to hearing.
When adults behave like this (as increasingly we are seeing) it leads to the top three cause of conflict: miscommunication, poor communication, and fumbled communication.
There are some ways out of this, and the researcher in listening, Jim MacNamara, offers seven canons of listening (go and check out his talk with the London School of Economics and Political Science. It’s fascinating):
To get to appropriate responding in a way that acknowledges what was said by another party, listening (which is an active, and transactional act) must become part of the listeners’ conversational DNA.
And in a communication world that rewards impatience, inattention, passive (or little) recognition, endless noise, a lack of consideration, poor interpretation, and inattentive responding, what are we as individuals to do to increase our listening, and decrease our speaking?
Confrontation is the beginning of conflicts, but confrontation can only come about if we have the courage to have a conversation in the first place.
Conversation is not confrontation, though conversation may make parties in conflict uncomfortable.
Uncomfortable conversations must happen in fierce ways for those conversations to have value, meaning, and to move parties from where they are comfortable to where they are uncomfortable.
Part of this means moving away from banalities, and talking about the things that aren’t worth talking about, and moving toward talking about the truths we don’t talk about.
It means discussing philosophy, not religion.
It means discussing strategies, not tactics.
It means moving past listicles, and the regular “hey, how are you doing?” of the day and directly addressing the things that are making us uncomfortable, unproductive, and uncourageous.
When we act to move toward discussing ground truths, we must take the step with courage. We don’t move in that direction because its infinitely more comfortable to just avoid the whole thing, complain about a situation to others, or to continue to escalate the uncomfortableness of the situation through ambiguous and misleading nonverbal communication.
When we have the courage to move toward ground truths, we must eliminate three things from our thinking that hold us back:
Our need to be liked. This doesn’t mean that we act impolitely, impolitically, or speak out of turn. What it does mean is that we must acknowledge that the emotional reactions of the other person may lead them to not like us. And we must be ok with that.
Our need to be right. When we open the door to discussing ground truths, we also open the door to being told that we a wrong; that we have misinterpreted the situation or the responses of the people; that our framing might not match the reality as other people see it.
Our need to be heard. The person who opens a ground truth conversation should probably speak last. There is an epidemic of noise in our work, family, and school cultures. This noise serves as a constant distraction, designed to keep us responding and reacting to the wrong things. We tend to respond to the impact of all this noise by ratcheting up our own voices. In a ground truth conversation, our voices should be silent, and out need to be heard put on hold.
Confrontation precedes conflict. But only by a little. And when we need to be liked, to be right, or to be heard, we miss the opportunities inherent in confrontation, replacing them instead with negative escalation, continued conflict, and unmanaged outcomes.
Three points need to be emphasized at the beginning of any training, workshop, or seminar.
Your way of thinking about conflict, communication, and persuasion must shift before anything else can happen.
Your way of consuming information, your attention span, and your level of caring about the content you are about to hear, must shift before any deep learning can happen.
Your way of listening to the delivered content must shift from passive to active, for without that shift, nothing else can happen.
The desire, of course, from some of the participants is for these three things to happen. And these points being made out loud makes those participants relieved.
But there are other desires in the room.
The desire to get the tools, get the skills, get the listicle version of the information, and then to leave.
The desire to get the lecture, get the knowledge, but to not engage in any deeper change. After all, such change is challenging, and if there’s no support in the environment from which you came for change that needs to happen, well then it’s easier to ignore the calls to change.
The desire to not care. This is reflected in the phrases, the questions, the statements, and the observations that spring forth from the participants. Typically framed by some participants as “I hope that you can keep me awake,” or “You kept me awake more than any other facilitator I’ve ever sat through.”
The desire for the listicle version, the shorthand, the summary, the 30-second point, is seductive. But ultimately, changing the philosophy about how we think, matters more than applying shortcut tactics to achieve an outcome we might not enjoy.
The skills required to facilitate training for an audience with content that wasn’t developed by the facilitator, are the same skills sale people practice every day:
Persuasion: Since a facilitator doesn’t create the presentation content (or product) they are facilitating (just like the sales person doesn’t create the product they sell door-to-door), the skills of persuasion through using influence in the room, is critical for success. The facilitator must use all the skills of persuasion their fingertips to get the “customer” to buy the product. Yes, the audience already “bought” the product by being there physically. But just like children in school, you have to “re-earn” their attention caring and awareness, rather than taking it for granted.
Body language: Sales people know that confidence, body language, and silence combined with active listening (more on this one below), can help close the sale in a face-to-face encounter. Facilitators need to keep this in mind. Particularly, when facilitating content with which they are not familiar. A facilitator with none of those traits, just like a sale person with none of those traits, can stumble and fall in the room.
Active listening: Facilitators should listen more that they talk. This is easy when the facilitator has developed the product they are facilitating. It’s hard when facilitators haven’t developed the product they are facilitating. The problems compound when they don’t believe the content itself. The first person to listen and react to the content should be the facilitator. But not in the room. Not in front of the audience. And not when the audience pushes back and disagrees, asserts themselves, or engages in conflict with the content.
With all this being said, the facilitator should remember, above all else, that the work is on the line in the room, not the facilitator as a sales person.