Episode #1: What can I say?
to establish psychological safety.
My students and friends often ask me, what can I say? As a someone who studies and teaches rhetoric, when I get asked this question, it is often by people who want to know how to speak to the folks on the other side of the wall, that is, they want to know how to talk to the people who think across the great divide and who don’t agree with them. I think at various times in our lives we all want to know, “What can I possibly say so they might understand?” But more often than not, what people really mean is “what do I say to the people who have different views on [marriage, politics, religion, climate, public health and so on] so that they can see that I am right and they are wrong!”
My scholarship and training in is in Rhetoric—the study of how people can use language to shape their world; in its shorter, more utilitarian form, rhetoric looks at how we can persuade others to our point of view. So, when people want to know what they can possibly say to bring others to their side of the divide, I happen to have a few helpful hints to offer.
But first, we need to get clear about our question. While a goal of rhetoric is to use language to persuade others, we can also use language to move conversations beyond “winning” and “losing” and more along the lines of the question:
How might we might achieve a positive outcome from our inevitable and innumerable verbal conflicts?
A key feature I found in my research is the role that psychological safety plays in fostering effective team communication and trust. In academic-speak, psychological safety is the shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. Put another way:
Psychological safety occurs when people in a group feel there is no immediate social danger to voicing an idea, even a potentially bad one.
Only when this baseline level of team cohesion is set can teams really start to communicate effectively.
Oftentimes, at the beginning of a group session where I ask people to share differing views, I notice a tendency for the other side to put people into boxes: the boxes are black and white, right and wrong, or even good and evil. We fall easily into a mindset where people are either for or against us, and when they are against us, they are not just bad, but quite possibly malevolent. Our side is, of course, honorable, and morally pure. Am I right?
While I will admit that sometimes people and situations do fall into these clear-cut categories, and that there can be circumstances where making your voice heard irrelevant of social consequences is indeed called for, most of the time, if we are being honest with ourselves, there’s a little more gray between the black and white construction of us versus them.
The questions I grapple with in my work include:
How can I help people use language to build a world with more room for space, and less sharp edges separating one another?
How can we belong to a society with multiple perspectives?
And how can we better communicate with one another, not despite, but because of our differences?
Over the next few weeks, I will share some thoughts on the tools of rhetoric that we can employ to talk across the great divide, and in doing so, hopefully help get us somewhere where we can speak to each other again.
In the meantime, tell your friends!