Surely There’s a Better Way to Say That!

All day long people everywhere say the wrong thing, or they say the right thing, but in the wrong way. Hazard pay should be offered to people whose jobs require frequent interpersonal contact, because there’s nothing safe about it. No two people think alike, and yet most of us communicate each day — contrary to extensive evidence — as if others should understand us regardless of how well or poorly we express ourselves.


“If only they’d listen,” we reason or, “If only there were fewer idiots where I work, my ideas would get through.” And, indeed, sometimes those are the obstacles that prevent effective discussions. But, more often than not, the problem lies in the erroneous assumption so many of us harbor — that we’re making ourselves perfectly clear, and therefore anyone with half a brain should "get" what we’re saying.

But we need to remember that slippage occurs between what we think and how we translate it to the spoken word. When you think about it, the human capacity to so quickly speak what we’re thinking is an anatomical miracle. And yet it’s also a potential detriment to getting our ideas across so they’re accurately understood. In such cases, speed sacrifices accuracy. 

Perhaps if we’d been built in such a way that pauses were required between thinking and speaking, this problem wouldn’t occur nearly as often. Thought pauses, however, are rare. Why? Mainly because they give others an opportunity to interrupt and they can imply limited knowledge, slowness of thought, lack of leadership, or even deception. So we babble on, neglecting to learn ways to reflect before and while we speak.

The most accomplished communicators give themselves adequate opportunity to think of the best ways to express their ideas. They consider potential denotative and connotative interpretations of what they may say. Often this comes from listening to others talk for a while before interjecting their own ideas. 

The easiest way to get into trouble in especially sensitive or contentious conversations is to speak too early — to commit to a position before you understand how others see it. Yet, as a communication consultant and coach, I’ve found that knowing this does not tend to help people who feel they simply must have the first or early word in such situations.

Think of it this way. Who in their right mind would traverse dangerous terrain without learning as much about it as possible — without, for instance, studying a map and considering various routes? What exceptional basketball team blithely takes the court without having studied the competition? 

Along their journeys, astute explorers recheck their maps against current conditions to determine whether their expectations were off or something significant might have changed. And yet, so many of us plow into important conversations — affecting our careers and social lives — as if our first impressions of what’s about to occur will perfectly suit all conditions along the way.

So what differentiates competent communications from the rest in this regard? Do they listen for long periods to be sure they understand all pertinent facts and opinions before speaking? Sometimes. They certainly listen longer than most people, but they also involve themselves in the conversation without committing to a position until they’ve adequately explored the ones that are available. They use such phrases as, “I was thinking that what you said makes a lot of sense. I’m wondering, however, what we’d do if ‘ x’ or ‘y’ happens.” In short, they’re inquisitive. They might tentatively commit to a position, rather than remain quiet too long, by saying, “I’m leaning toward doing what you suggest, but do you have some thoughts about how we’ll deal with ‘z’?”

Both timing and sincerity are important here. It’s not enough to memorize such comments. The idea is to observe, think, and then comment, but don’t commit early unless circumstances absolutely require it. 

Think, too, of ways to avoid offending people who’ve already committed to a position. Nobody likes to look ignorant. In the majority of conversations, self-esteem is on the line. So, rather than deliver your idea like blessed rain to an arid desert, consider saying, “What I’ve heard from Al and Eileen has me thinking that we may have another option as well.”

Even people with whom we intensely disagree often provide insights that contribute to the formulation of our better ideas. Giving them credit helps avoid getting their backs up and lowers the chances of resistance. Just as important, it also gives credit where credit is due. And few things leave people feeling better about what others have to say than simple appreciation.

More on this topic here.

Photo: Keng Guan Toh/Shutterstock.com

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.