“The wheel that does the squeaking, is the one that gets the grease.”
— Josh Billings in “The Kicker”
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
— Queen Gertrude in “Hamlet,” by William Shakespeare
There’s a fine line between squeaking enough to get that coveted grease and protesting so much that folks start to tune you out. It’s a line that tends to get crossed when people feel passionately about something … such as, say, the Emergency Water Supply Project.
Those who have made up their minds about the project, one way or the other, are protesting (or defending) both so much and so loudly that those whose minds aren’t made up yet may soon grow weary of listening … if they haven’t already.
In a sense, I can’t blame them for tuning out. When a speaker’s overriding purpose is to “get the message out,” it doesn’t build trust or an inclination to listen. Instead, it creates a knee-jerk reaction of “here we go again” whenever the other side starts to speak, and almost no one ends up listening.
In taking a stand on a controversial topic, the question you have to ask yourself is, what’s your goal? The question is relevant whether you’re talking about the water project, dogs on Fiscalini Ranch trails or sandwich board signs on Main Street.
Are you trying to shame people, or convince them? Do you want to have the last word, or do you want others to actually listen and consider what you have to say? If your goal is the former, read no further, but if you want your audience to lend an ear, here are a few tips.
• Refrain from using inflammatory language. You may think the other side is telling a bunch of bald-faced lies born from nefarious motives, but saying so doesn’t encourage communication. It shuts it down.
Avoid the temptation of preaching to the choir — and it really is a temptation, because everyone enjoys the “atta boys” that come from like-minded listeners.
If you see inconsistencies, point them out in a reasoned, civil manner. High-volume political rhetoric leads to gridlock. If you have any doubt about this, just take a look at Washington.
• Avoid saying “I told you so” if something goes wrong on the other side. There are always lessons to be learned from past actions, but repeatedly reminding others of those lessons won’t make them listen to you … it will encourage them to do the opposite: turn a deaf ear. Then, when you have something new — and potentially important — to say, you may find your intended audience has already stopped paying attention.
• Don’t invoke the “my dad’s bigger than your dad” argument — otherwise known as the bandwagon effect. Avoid talking about silent majorities, vocal minorities and so forth. In the debate over the water project, “this many hundred people” may be wearing blue T-shirts, and “that many hundred” may be members of Greenspace.
But the core issue is, for instance, whether the plant does what it’s supposed to do (produce potable water) without doing what it’s not supposed to do (significantly disrupting the environment). The answers to those questions have nothing to do with how popular it is.
• Try not to get defensive. People who don’t know how to listen often miss valuable input because they’re so busy thinking about how to respond. Refrain from composing a rebuttal in your head before the other person has finished speaking — or cutting someone else off in order to make your point.
Most people are a lot more likely to listen to a response that expresses a willingness to understand than a detailed point-by-point defense, no matter how eloquent or accurate that defense may be.
• Avoid us-versus-them thinking. Folks who aren’t 100 percent for you aren’t automatically against you … but treating them as if they are might very well push them to that opposite extreme.
Things are almost always more complicated than they seem — especially when you’re dealing with Mother Nature, precarious ecosystems, governmental regulations and complex technology. People are complicated, too. Giving them room to have complicated opinions means you’re open to listening and, potentially, finding common ground, at least on some things. Treating them as though they “don’t care about the environment” or are “anti-water” creates stereotypes that are, at best, far too simplistic and, at worst, incorrect.
• Stay open-minded. Everyone brings a degree of bias to any discussion. Acknowledge your own bias and work to minimize it. If you go into a process already convinced you’ll find problems, guess what? You’ll find problems — whether they’re significant, trivial or nonexistent. By the same token, if you go in with the intent of touting a project’s success, you’re apt to overlook or downplay potentially significant obstacles you may not have foreseen.
The moral of the story: You don’t need a Ph.D. to be a spin doctor, but if you’re not careful, you’ll wind up with an emergency room full of bruised egos, hurt feelings and broken promises — without having changed a single person’s mind.