Professional communicators consider themselves part of a noble profession.
We feel we are usually on the side of the angels. Because we are the ones who must explain and justify decisions to others, we are more sensitive. Our heritage is journalism, and so we have idealism in our blood. We are writers first, and writers live on truth. And empathy. And curiosity. And love — at least love enough to try to share our thoughts and feelings with our fellow human beings.
Communicators also think we know something that others do not. We are forever referring to leaders or others in our organization in one of two ways: They get it. Or, They don’t get it.
What, exactly, is this “it” that we think we know — this essential communicator’s wisdom we can so confidently diagnose others as either having or not having?
More importantly, can communicators find a way to help others “get it” — at a moment of deep discord around the world — so enough people might find common ground to solve some of the terrible social, economic and environmental dilemmas of our time, before it’s too late?
That’s what I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to figure out, after spending my whole life as the son of two writers, the friend of dozens of journalists, oral historians and psychologists, and the chronicler and convener of thousands of communication professionals.
Finally I have collected their wisdom — our wisdom — in a book, titled, “An Effort to Understand: Hearing One Another (and Ourselves) in a Nation Cracked in Half.”
I’m trying to teach the ideas that communicators take for granted to my fellow American citizens and others around the world. Ideas like these:
You communicate with others no more honestly or effectively than you communicate with yourself. Through my research, I’ve learned that communication is not just a way of persuading others to our way of thinking. It’s a way of thinking all its own — and one that requires great introspection before any persuasion can be done.
Words are mere captions to actions or inactions. Everything you do — and everything you never do — speaks not just loudly but constantly and convincingly about what you really believe and value. What you say and write can help to explain those beliefs and values — but over the long haul it can never, ever paper them over.
Communication must be nonviolent. The biggest lie we heard as children was “sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you.” The biggest lie we tell as adults is, “I don’t care what other people say about me.” As my speechwriter friend Mike Long says, “No one ever won an argument by starting with, ‘Hey stupid.’” Online and in conversation, we have got to stop saying dismissive and hurtful things to one another, and about whole swaths of our fellow human beings.
Every expression must have a purpose, because every expression will have consequences. (And “I had to vent” doesn’t cut it.) Professional communicators seek to achieve measurable results with their work. Amateur communicators should think more intentionally about the results of their words, too.
Communication is never done. In fact, it has usually only just begun. Leaders especially resist repeating a message, because “I said that last month.” But what do they say about their own mentors (and teachers and parents)? “So and so always said …” Not once. Not twice. Not five times. Always said. Leaders lead by what they always say.
Communication is an effort to understand. Trying to see the world from another person’s point of view, even if that view seems dark or dangerous, does not mean acquiescing to that view. Making that effort — over and over — is an absolute requirement in a global society. The most misplaced form of self-righteousness shaking is one’s head and boasting, “I will never understand how a person could think that way.” And there is a lot of that going on around the world these days.
My book’s title is taken from a line that Robert F. Kennedy repeated several times in a speech he delivered at another shattering moment — the night Martin Luther King was assassinated, on April 4, 1968. Speaking to a grief-stricken audience in an all-Black neighborhood in Indianapolis, Kennedy acknowledged that the nation was the scene of “great polarization” that might be made even worse by what had just happened.
“Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand compassion and love.”
That’s what communicators do.
And in our own troubled time, that’s what communicators must help their fellow citizens do. For the good of us all.