Thursday, December 25, 2014

10 things all people can do to maybe stop yelling at each other all the time [Because noise]

It's loud out there.

It has always been loud out there, but it seems the events of August 9th have touched off a new era of Yelling at Each Other. An unprecedented era likely due to things like The Internet and The 24 Hour News Cycle.

I'm not really talking about literal yelling, more so figurative. I'm talking about words flying through the air, taking up precious space, landing nowhere, or maybe landing as a gut punch - but without knowledge, or sometimes with intent to harm. I'm talking about the act of using communication for its most divisive and destructive purpose. Wasting it. At a time when collectively, we are thirsty for understanding and evolution.

With every event, every announcement, every sound byte, every new piece of information, there's an opportunity to listen, to consider, to reach across, to gain new understanding. Each time I find myself deflated as I watch the space of opportunity fill with conflation, dismissal and the digging in of heels. A battering ram instead of an olive branch.

The communication strategy nerd in me keeps trying to analyze what I see happening in those moments of opportunity-turned-brawl, mostly because I've got to do something besides just watch it happen and sometimes I need a break from wading in myself. What are some of the things I/we can employ/accept to maybe grab a little bit of progress each time the roller coaster starts up again?

Because more of the same? No, thank you.

1. Nothing is simple. Well, maybe the only thing that is simple is that everything is complicated. I'm sorry, there's just not an easy answer, a concise explanation or a quick fix. It's. Complicated. So by definition, generalizing will get you nowhere real. The next time you find yourself about to generalize, stop and challenge yourself to find a very specific way to say what you're attempting to convey. You might find that it leads you to a question or two. You might find that once you go through that exercise you realize you don't have anything to add to the conversation, but perhaps something to learn.

2. No name calling 2.0. Let's expand the age-old playground rule to include, perhaps, labeling someone with an ideology, an action or a political party. When you start to put a label on another person that isn't you, stop. Maybe every time you do it, donate a dollar to a cause working toward progress around any of the 20 social issues on the table right now.

3. Speak truth to yelling. When someone is being a bully, step to them. And I don't mean by calling them a bully or saying they are wrong (see "no name calling" above) or yelling louder, but maybe just pointing out that their language or tone is not helpful. Maybe help them frame some questions or things they might want to learn more about. Maybe you just state that they are making you really uncomfortable by using divisive language which leads me to

4. Choose your words. Don't use divisive language. How do you know if your language is divisive? Are you yelling or typing in all caps? Are you repeating the same phrase or idea over and over again? Are you dismissing someone's personal experience? Are you walking into a room of hurting people and pouring salt on the wound with your need to assert "facts?" Are you using words that completely demoralize, blame or categorize generally an entire group of people? You're being divisive. Stop it. It's really not cool. In any of the cases above you might be right, but it's still divisive. A fun game I play sometimes is to try to come up with the least divisive way to convey an idea. It's not easy and I'm sure in the end I always offend someone but without fail the process of trying yields some understanding or new perspective, if only for myself. 

5. Don't take the bait. People everywhere are exercising their frustrations out loud. Anger and confusion and fear are showing up in the form of "debate" - and not nice debate like your debate club debate with rules and structures and a winner.  This is the stuff we've been watching on comment sections and on Facebook. Don't take the bait. Don't get dragged in. Standing up, speaking up, asking questions, yes. Name calling, generalizing, divisive language - not helping. Don't take the bait. Walk away. Pet a kitten.

6. Know your choir.  I believe there is such a thing as psychic space - like digital bandwith or printed space in the newspaper - that there's only so much we can hold in our heads simultaneously. So, know who your choir is and don't waste your energy (or theirs) preaching to it. Emotions are high and energy short. How many debates of semantics have you watched go down between people who agree about the big picture? It might seem a safe space to work out some energy (whether conscious or not), but in these times consider stretching yourself. Find a conversation where you can move the needle, not one where you're moving food around the plate. You're hogging precious psychic space by publicly exercising your ability to agree. 

7. The devil's in the details. What's happening around the country is not about what happened on August 9th or any other date following. It's about hundreds of years of laws and hurt and power and a system steeped in all of the above. Even if no one has articulated it to your liking, it's bigger than right now. Therefore, debating the facts of a case that is not the core issue will not win you friends or influence people or help or open any minds. It will take up space that is needed for healing and change. Understanding or articulating how the system works or doesn't ("understanding," "articulating" not "declaring," "shouting," "insisting"), yes. Understanding or articulating how our systems and structure tie into our day to day interactions, yes. Trying to dismiss the entire concept through the actions of an individual, not helpful.

8. No sides. Unless you are ordering at a BBQ restaurant, nix the sides. Here's the thing: we all inhabit this earth/society/region/neighborhood/block together. The singular side is survival, thriving, health. If you want the violence to stop or the protesting to cease or the system to change, get on the side of progress and put your hands on deck. Get in where you fit in and work from where you are. But this whole "side" thing? Not helping. Human side. 

9. Recognize your station. If you're a politician, getting into a Twitter spat with a citizen - nope. If you're a community-serving media outlet, not bothering with sourcing/selective coverage - nope. If you're an organization, shaming the behavior of individuals and name calling - nope. Sorry folks, with power comes responsibility. No matter how tense things are you don't get to selectively be in power and get down in the mud whenever it suits you. Sometimes you have to take the high road. The rules are different for you. We have to demand that consistency from our organizations, institutions and politicians. Recognizing the same on an individual level is important as well. 

10. Stop throwing apples at oranges. This is a play on some of the above, but I think important enough to pull out on its own. Part of communication that is not yelling is seeking to make sure you're speaking the same language. When someone articulates that they feel the weight of hundreds of years of injustice and someone offers obeying policemen as an anecdote, that conversation isn't going anywhere. When someone articulates that the tools they are given to enforce laws and a system that is broken are inadequate and someone offers the universal use of body cameras as an anecdote, that conversation isn't going anywhere. Maybe resist the urge to offer an anecdote and instead learn more about what someone is trying to convey. Maybe you'll help them express themselves better. Maybe you'll learn something.

BONUS! Leverage love. We fight hard for those we love. By nature, we want to support and understand them. Seek out someone you love who has a different viewpoint than you do and make it your goal to understand where they are coming from. We've all got one (or two) of those people. If you don't think you do, maybe dig a little deeper into those family conversations you keep on the surface. You might know that you're that person for someone else. It will likely break your brain a little - if not a lot. But brain breaking is exactly what we need if we're going to get anywhere new. 

Don't mistake this as a plea for everybody to get along and for it to be all sunshine and roses. Evolution and true growth is hard. It hurts. It's inconvenient. It gets ugly before it blossoms. My plea is for us to begin recognizing which uncomfortable energy is wasteful self-serving gnashing of teeth and yelling at each other and which uncomfortable energy is part of a very necessary very hard process. 

Because progress. Please. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Watching St. Louis fall to peaces [Because meaning]

Image: STL-Style
"Peace for St. Louis."

The visual that comes to mind is that of a life raft. Everything seems to be going under, but there's this ring of "peace" and everyone's grasping onto it amidst the debris. The one thing everyone can agree on. The sentiment it seems most everyone can get behind. The common ground we so desperately need.

"Praying for peace."

While initially it felt like a solid, unifying message, I soon found myself feeling a little sad every time I heard a word with the root "peace" float out into the ether. It started to feel empty. "I don't know what else to say, what other words to use, so here. How's this one? It's got a long, storied history. A warm fuzzy one, even. And it won't piss anyone off."

Then I realized that in some corners it was being used - and in other corners heard - as a directive. Code for "don't do the opposite of peace. Your city is counting on you, behave."

"I know St. Louis will handle this peacefully."

Then today, as I watched/overheard/texted about the 180th round of "violence isn't the answer/it was a peaceful protest/get off my lawn" it hit me: the wedge is so wide, the damage so deep, that most words fail. We are so wounded, so on edge, so passion filled, so sad, that even a sentiment of the most empathetic intent can get hijacked by words. But more accurately by pain. It's really just that the words are no match for the pain.

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more rioting and looting

"Peace for St. Louis" -  No more hate-filled comments sections

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more blood on the streets

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more teargassed churches

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more chanting mobs

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more illegally operating courts

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more tough conversations

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more passive acceptance

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more blaming the system

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more fighting authority

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more interrupting my normal

"Peace for St. Louis" - Justice

"Peace for St. Louis" - Acceptance

I could go on, but you get the point. Everyone does not want the same thing. Everyone's version of peace is not the same. Everyone's version of peace, to someone else, is scary, offensive, inconvenient, hard.

Words are a vehicle between intent and impact. The impact of our actions - all of our actions - has been exacerbated over the past three months and has made the wedges between us ever wide. So wide that we mostly cannot hear the sound of the disconnect from one end to the other, only the words in between.

I don't have any answers. But I know that I am watching words fly and seeing them land as fuel on the fire when they were meant as a salve. Watching people hurt each other when the intent is to help. Watching people so crushed by the many things brought out into the daylight over the past few months that they have no words left. Hearing the absence of words speak louder than the best crafted sentence.

So many of the expanded definitions of the word "peace" are about the absence of discord. The agreement to stop conflict - not necessarily resolve it. There is much discord in St. Louis. There is much conflict. It is complex, it is deep, it is raw, it is personal and it is not going back into the box. We've said too many things and made too many moves. I don't think any of us want to go back to before, because going back to before means the possibility of ending up here again. And before sounds a lot like a series of co-existining versions of individual peace.

So where to? I don't know. But wherever it is, we've got to work together to decide it, envision it, articulate it on purpose and with collective intent. I don't care what we call it, but we've got to lay that plan out together. Otherwise, we fail before we start.