Communication is tricky. Unless we stick to small talk and discuss the weather, conversations can get uncomfortable or heated in a hurry. What we say—on any number of topics—can be controversial; we all know this. But how we speak may be at least as important when it comes to communication.
In a world of information overload, we all have to make daily decisions about whose voices we listen to. Often those with the loudest voices, the biggest platforms, and/or the message we like are the ones that get the most attention. However, we can and should find better criteria.
What People Say
Though I will touch on it only briefly here, it is definitely important to evaluate the content of what people say. Sometimes doing so can be difficult. The internet can help by giving us access to online information that can help us check facts, but it can also complicate things. For example, computer algorithms mean that we can get stuck in echo chambers, only encountering ideas that reinforce what we already think.
How People Speak: Four Modes of Communication
In addition to what information and ideas people share, I have been thinking lately about the importance of how they communicate. Recently I read Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by psychologist Adam Grant. Grant says that people making an argument or presenting their views tend to communicate using one of four different mindsets, each of which “(takes) on a particular identity and (uses) a distinct set of tools.”1
According to Grant, “preacher mode” is the one we enter when we want to prove we are right. He says we use preacher mode “when our sacred beliefs are in jeopardy: we deliver sermons to protect and promote our ideals.” “Prosecutor mode” is about proving opponents wrong. We enter this mode “when we recognize flaws in other people’s reasoning: we marshal arguments to prove them wrong and win our case.” “Politician mode” is about building support. We enter this mode “when we’re seeking to win over an audience: we campaign and lobby for the approval of our constituents.”2 According to Grant, the final mindset is “scientist mode”, in which “we’re searching for the truth: we run experiments to test hypotheses and discover knowledge.”3
The names Grant uses to distinguish these modes of communication are unfortunate in some important ways. They play on stereotypes that both hurt and help Grant’s argument. While named after specific professions, each approach is not limited to that profession, and the people within those fields can and do use each of the four modes to communicate.
“Grant encourages communication that is characterized by humble confidence, an awareness of our own strengths and weaknesses, and a recognition of what we don’t know yet.”
However, I think Grant’s point stands: the way we communicate matters when it comes to how–and even whether– other people hear what we say. Grant encourages communication that is characterized by humble confidence, an awareness of our own strengths and weaknesses, and a recognition of what we don’t know yet. Can we get curious, ask questions, and be willing to admit when we might be wrong? Can we also look deeper in conversations with others, to learn what might be at stake when it comes to a particular belief? People hold opinions for reasons that go beyond facts; often, beliefs are tied to a person’s sense of community and belonging.
These considerations are also important when it comes to how other people present their messages. It ought to raise a red flag if a person always and only tries to prove they are right, tries to prove others wrong, or tries to win approval.
Where Do We Draw the Line?
If you are like me, the idea of rethinking (getting curious, asking questions, and being willing to reconsider) sounds fine, but only to a point. Fair enough. Grant himself admits, “One of my beliefs is that we shouldn’t be open-minded in every circumstance.”4 He returns to this thought in the conclusion of his book: “A big unanswered question here is when rethinking should end—where should we draw the line?”5 I would have liked for him to say more on this topic, but of course it is a touchy one. We all have beliefs that we are unwilling to rethink. I know I do, and I am sure that you do, too. It is worth taking time to figure out what, for you, is non-negotiable.
As you do, keep in mind that an openness to hearing others’ ideas does not necessarily mean giving up your own convictions. “Rethinking doesn’t always have to change our minds….even if we decide not to pivot on a belief or a decision, we still come away knowing we’ve reflected more thoughtfully.”6
I am also reminded of the well-known slogan that “all truth is God’s truth,” a sentiment that has been uttered by many Christians throughout history. The Reformer John Calvin was one; he wrote in a section of his Institutes about understanding earthly things:7 “Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.”8 Can we trust the Spirit of God to “guide (us) into all truth”?9
Asking questions is a good thing, but many years ago a friend pointed out to me that questioning can also be used as a form of defence if it allows you to avoid thinking for yourself. Asking questions needs to be followed by honest assessment in the light of Scripture. We are told in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” The Bible is also where we learn who God is—compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.10 It is where we meet Jesus, and can be surprised again and again by his love, humility, and goodness. It is where we are reminded of our creatureliness, of our tendency toward sin, and of the responsibility that we who follow Christ bear, to live as his representatives. Though the Bible does not specifically address all of the 21st century issues we face, it contains a great deal more wisdom and insight than most of us give it credit for.
“All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.”2 Timothy 3:16
How we communicate matters for a number of reasons. First, it affects the way we as individuals relate to those around us. Defensiveness, verbal attacks, and trying to rally support are often our defaults, but they can make dialogue all but impossible, contributing to the current polarization we experience in our society over multiple issues. Angry and attacking rhetoric may resonate with people who share our own opinion, but is unlikely to sway someone who thinks differently than we do. By contrast, communicating with humility and curiosity can turn a debate into a dance rather than a fight, inviting the give and take of dialogue rather than pushing away people who disagree with us.
Second, one way we can evaluate others’ claims is to consider how they make those claims. Though it might seem counterintuitive, we ought to give more credibility to someone who admits they don’t have all the answers, acknowledges that “It’s complicated,” and concedes when the other side has a point. Let’s reclaim an appreciation for nuance. The voices we collectively heed are the ones that tend to be magnified. Let’s make sure we are listening to the voices of those who communicate with integrity.
I think this is the bottom line (and my favorite quote from Grant’s book): when it comes to convincing people, “It’s easy to conclude that the ends justify whatever means are necessary. But it’s worth remembering that the means are a measure of our character. When we succeed in changing someone’s mind, we shouldn’t only ask whether we’re proud of what we’ve achieved. We should also ask whether we’re proud of how we’ve achieved it.”11
pg. 18 ↩
pg. 18 ↩
pg. 20 ↩
pg. 27 ↩
pg. 248 ↩
For context, Calvin defined “earthly things” as those things “which do not pertain to God or his Kingdom, to true justice, or to the blessedness of the future life,” including “government, household management, all mechanical skills, and the liberal arts.” (Institutes I, p. 272) ↩
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I, Book II, Chapter 2, section 15, p. 273, 274 ↩
John 16:13 ↩
Exodus 34:6 ↩
Think Again, p. 160 ↩