Communication, not narrative, bridges left-right divides
The centuries-old adage, "united we stand, divided we fall," still stands today as a warning.
Yet divisive language abounds in the public square. Such chatter serves to fragment a United States rocked by suspicion on both sides of the political aisle.
It may be "the narrative" that causes the most harm.
Genuine communication has been usurped by the narrative. And declarations that don't match the narrated "consensus" conclusions are often dismissed with extreme prejudice.
The narrative is especially extant and counterproductive in science, where catchy sound bites have condensed complex concepts to palatable platitudes. Take, for instance, the virtue-signaling "science is real" or more specifically "climate change is real." Stating the obvious advances nothing.
In fact, just plain truth can be arrogated into a narrative. Sharyl Attkisson in Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism (Harper, 2020) defines how "the truth can become a narrative when it is couched in terms that present an issue as a closed case never to be reopened or implies that contrary facts and views are illegitimate."
Instead of advancing a narrative, what is more productive is genuine dialogue that welcomes perspective, which is badly needed in science and society today. This perspective must be delivered with integrity, authenticity, and humility.
Without integrity, productive communication efforts will eventually falter. Dishonesty and unreliability guarantee future failure. Politicians, pundits, academicians, and indeed all communicators must maintain high standards and ethics to see future success. Trust is earned through sustained, observable, commendable behavior, not through grandstanding, empty promises, and shallow arguments.
Authenticity is vital to effective communication. Perceptive people have no problem spotting a phony. In Winning Your Audience (Center Street, 2020), James Rosebush, a former deputy assistant to President Reagan, stresses the importance of "discovering your authentic self." According to Rosebush, "the essential element that leads to acceptance by any audience [is] authenticity." He continues with identifying the key to the development and adoption of authenticity:
Self-knowledge is the key. It will keep you from speaking on a topic about which you know too little, using a vocal tone or phrasing in a way that is pretentious or not true to your natural voice — or even standing in a way that throws off or intimidates your audience.
In other words, find out who you are, and be yourself.
Above all else, be humble. Humility is the indispensable characteristic of effective communication. As the proverb asserts: "Pride goes before a fall."
The importance of humility is emphasized in the bestselling management book Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual (St. Martin's Press, 2020) by Jocko Willink. The last section of Willink's book proffers much reasonable advice on communications.
Willink contends that "there is one type of person who can never become a good leader: a person who lacks humility." Willink reminds leaders (and we can add communicators) of the reality that they "might be above their subordinates in the rank structure, but they are not actually superior to those below them in the chain of command, and this means leaders must respect them" (emphasis in original).
The history of an exemplary person drives this point home. Ms. Katherine Johnson, the gifted National Aeronautics and Space Administration mathematician and one of the subjects of the 2016 movie Hidden Figures, died at the age of 101 in February 2020. In a Wall Street Journal obituary on her by James R. Hagerty, it was noted that when she was young, her father told her: "You are as good as anybody...but you're no better."
Such character and language can bridge divides and unite nations.
So, to flip the script and beat the narrative, humility must take center stage with integrity and authenticity in the wings.
Anthony J. Sadar is an adjunct associate professor at Geneva College, Beaver Falls, PA and co-author of Environmental Risk Communication: Principles and Practices for Industry, 2nd Edition (CRC Press, 2021). Susan T. Cammarata, Esq. is an attorney practicing family and environmental law.
Image: U.S. Embassy, Jakarta, via Flickr, public domain.
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