The aspiration to speak no evil is easier said than done.
Even acting with the best intentions, we communicate in ways that often misunderstand the views of those with whom we speak and ignore viewpoints that would better help us address the challenges we face. And that imperfect communication process happens within contexts that add to our difficulties, such as the struggle for timely and accurate communication within large organizations.
How then can rhetoric help?
In her book Toward a Civil Discourse, Sharon Crowley describes rhetoric as method to find “ways to alleviate disagreement.” I. A. Richards describes a similar idea of rhetoric as “a study of misunderstanding and its remedies.”
Our language use can be manipulative—we can use it to win disagreements unfairly. But Crowley and Richards point to an alternative wherein we use our language to work with each other to find both equitable and, insofar as possible, mutually agreeable resolution to our disagreements.
This is no easy feat. When those who have borne the weight of injustice speak out for redress, their voices are not quickly or easily welcomed by those who have benefited from the scales being tilted in their favor.
Progress can come through disagreement, yet in disagreement we face numerous pitfalls.
Key insights that help us avoid those pitfalls are listed below and begin with an essential question: where is the disagreement?
While this may seem like an easy enough question to answer, it is often unclear due to the challenges raised by the other three insights.
Look for the disagreements
- What are the different viewpoints in conversation with each other?
- How fairly does each summarize the views of the other?
- What viewpoints should be in the conversation but aren’t? What other questions should be asked?
Consider the differing purposes people bring to their communicative interactions
- Do the discussants in a conversation have a shared goal?
- Or are they working at cross-purposes?
Acknowledge participants’ differing and intersecting positions of power and privilege
- How do differing levels of power, such as between manager and subordinate, affect our communication?
- How might what seems right and natural to me be perceived as wrong and arbitrary to another?
Recognize that what seems to be case may not be and that what is the case may be difficult—at first even impossible—to understand
- How do our disagreements confuse issues of cause and effect? How do they exclude needed perspectives?
- Having been wrong before, where may I be wrong now? Among those with whom I largely agree, where might they be mistaken?