A lesson from writing—about speaking

One great thing about writing is that it forces you to be more thoughtful and reflective.  As a writer, you must observe and reflect in order to craft a story, make a point, and ideally cause people to see something new, or something old as if it were new.   This works even for those who write for themselves in a journal or diary.

Writing can also force you to see how well thought out your positions are about things that you think you have an opinion on; be it capital punishment, the right to life, or your right to wear flip-flops to work.

I was writing about my position on something this morning, and in the writing about it, I observed my own process of arriving at a position on that thing, and just about everything else.

I observed that it’s in the process of formulating my position on something that I come to have the position that I am trying to articulate.  In other words, it’s only in trying to articulate what my position is on something that I actually develop that position.

That position didn’t already exist, except as descriptions of what other people have said, and rudimentary bits and pieces that I’ve never tried putting together before.  My position develops by trial and error, in an iterative process.

What does this have to do with speaking?

Because it suggests that we should give each other a little more breathing room, a little space to back out of the things we say to each other.

There is enormous social pressure to have an opinion, but precious little effort or practice given to how to properly formulate one.  Indeed there is no distinction between an assessment and an opinion. So when asked about what we think about something, we give our opinion, and pretend that it’s ready for prime time.

Whether discussing our views on politics, or business, it’s often the case that we haven’t really thought out our position.  Like a fledgling flapping its wings, people spew words out that are a work-in-progress.  That should be OK if we—especially the speaker—acknowledge that it’s a work-in-progress, and challenge the speaker to refine, explore, and evolve a tentative position to one that meets more rigorous ethical and logical standards.

But that rarely happens.

More often we hold the speaker to account for what he said as if his words are indelible marks on his character, or clues to who he really is as a person.   (What kind of a person would say something like that?)

No wonder people are afraid of public speaking and writing.

Anything we say will be interpreted as our final position on the matter, simply because we said it.  We don’t allow people to reconsider their words, or even acknowledge that a position they took was not final.  Very few things should be.

One consequence is that people become shutdown and afraid to express themselves, because what they say even in innocent conversation could have serious social ramifications.  Another consequence is that people become belligerent and argumentative to defend a position that they were “forced” to take in public.

This is unfortunate and unnecessary.

So let’s relax a bit in how we interpret what people say.

Let’s stand for the good in people and engage with them in an exploration of what things might mean, and in choosing more compassionate interpretations that help people want to cooperate instead of attack and defend.

Let’s ask questions that create space and allow people to re-think, to back-space, delete and re-state just like we do when writing.

You can be provocative, but you don’t have to be judgmental.

Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.