My father-jn-law was a good preacher: dynamic, with a booming voice. One of his mottos was something to the effect that the hardest part of speaking is knowing when to quit.
I saw his motto played out in the weekly telecasts of a well-known church. The pastor was a good preacher; but, he seemed never to realize when he’d made his point effectively, and would keep preaching—and preaching—and preaching.
Some video memes on Facebook do the same thing—especially the ones with a religious theme. It’s as if they’re terrified their message will be missed. So they explain it over and over. They just need to trust their message, and their hearers, more.
Some messages are too important to overstate.
I often have said and written that there are three ways to approach any communication situation: (1) an effective way, (2) an ineffective way, and (3) a counterproductive way. I see a lot of counterproductive communication going on these days.
Take, for example, the “Me, Too,” movement. Of course, from the start it was opposed and ridiculed by the “Bubba” culture. But, to some extent that culture’s misogyny is so deep-rooted as to be considered almost a lost cause. And the message of the movement is too important to waste on a lost cause. And so, the movement lost a lot of momentum because its proponents didn’t know when to stop talking (or posting).
Or, as another example, essentially the same folks that had trouble with the “Me, Too” movement also had trouble with the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
More than likely the opposition to neither movement was to their true message, but, rather to a totally misunderstood and/or assumed message based on the notion that the source was “liberal.” Their true messages were lost, and the responsibility lies both with the bearer and the hearer of the messages.
The same is true for many, many messages all up and down the liberal/conservative spectrum: gun violence, voter fraud, welfare fraud, immigration…
So many movements have important messages that deserve to be heard and understood, if not accepted. Alas, too much effort, and too many words are wasted on counterproductive communication, and no great social change results. Indeed, the resistance and ridicule and the misunderstandings—and therefore the preconceived assumptions—simply get more deeply entrenched.
Yes, we live under some level of obligation to share our important messages. But, we also have some degree of responsibility for how our message is delivered, and that effective/ineffective/counterproductive thing keeps complicating things.
To be sure, creating awareness is crucial if our cause is important. Still, awareness without understanding is useless, even damaging to the cause. Ultimately, the goal of any legitimate cause it to gather support; therefore, the first objective related to communication is to be heard accurately and understood. With that in mind, some things come to mind:
1. Pick your medium of communication carefully. Facebook and Twitter are totally useless if your message is truly important. Face-to-face sharing is always the most effective medium. Social media may seem more efficient; indeed, it offers immediate access to a large audience. But what good is efficiency if all that’s accomplished is stirring up a string of insulting, profane schoolyard free-for-all?
2. Strategize for understanding, not for winning. Remember that understanding always precedes agreement.
a. Determine your goal before you speak or write: do you truly want to communicate your message effectively, or do you just want to win (or start) a fight?
b. Do some research. Opinions are like armpits: everyone has a couple; and some stink. By definition, opinions are ideas based more on emotion and desire than on verifiable data, and they have no necessary relationship with truth. And don’t do all your research in sources that support what you’ve already decided to believe. Challenge yourself before you challenge someone else.
c. A confrontational delivery will rarely be effective. Confrontation creates resistance, not understanding. Besides, you don’t need to confront; the confrontation will come to you. Be the messenger; not the aggressor.
d. Concentrate on what you support, and not on what you oppose.
i. Address issues, not personalities.
ii. Focus on identifiable, concrete needs to be met.
iii. Identify concrete, tangible ways to meet the need.
e. Remember the story of the little boy and the starfish. Crawl before you walk; walk before you run. Go next door before you go global.
3. Never assume your listener knows what you know. By the same token, never assume that what you know is absolute, or even superior to what your listener knows.
4. Never assume you can’t be wrong!
5. Choose your audience.
a. Don’t go after known opposition, hoping to change her/his/their mind. It ain’t gonna’ happen!
b. Learn when to engage and when to walk away
c. Identify supporters and build a team/build a movement.
6. Accept your limits. Learn when to engage, and when to walk away and move on to the next opportunity. Some confrontations simply are not worth pursuing. When Jesus sent the disciples out, he told them they wouldn’t be accepted everywhere they went. He told them, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” (Matthew 10:14 NRSV)
7. And, while we’re at it, learn the difference between disagreeing and hating, and the difference between disagreeing and disrespecting. And accept that not everyone who disagrees with you is stupid.
I love a good debate. I detest a verbal street brawl. Maybe I’m just too goal-oriented; but some things are just too important for casual pooling of ignorance. And, rather than cause harm to a valid cause, I hope I can assimilate the truth of the ancient proverb, “Better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”
That’s the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the walk,
 In case you’re unfamiliar with that tale, a little boy was walking on the beach after a storm’s unusually high tide. The beach was littered with starfish that had been washed ashore and were struggling to get back into the water. The boy was picking them up, one and a time, and tossing them into the water. An old man passed by and observed, there are too many starfish, boy. You can’t make any difference. The boy picked up another starfish and tossed it back into the water. “I made a difference to that one,” he said.
 One of the toughest items on the list! I have a sense I’m making progress on this one.