A professional career coach taught me that the single greatest contributor to any workplace conflict begins with a breakdown in communication. It begins with the assumption that everyone around you experiences life the way that you do, which means assuming that the lessons we have learned are also the same as everyone else.
Outside of the workplace, this idea has contributed to a narrative of judgment in favor of listening. Our language has shifted to be more combative. Political and social issues in particular are described in militaristic terminology. I began listening to our tone, and I found myself hearing this language everywhere. We are at war with an ideology or fighting a battle against Coronavirus. Essential workers on the frontlines; masks are a sudden threat to our democracy. Our language is becoming—or perhaps, has always been—inclined towards violence. Every dissenting opinion becomes an idea that we are suddenly ‘at war’ with. It makes communication incredibly challenging, if not outright impossible.
While reading the news, I found that multiple sources were relying on this structure of combative language. Fox News had articles titled Protests Flare Up or Economic Recovery Threatened by Coronavirus. The New York Times was no better—A Viral Epidemic Splintering into Deadly Pieces or Four of the World’s Wealthiest Men are Preparing for Battle. The first one sounds like a bomb, the second was regarding a Congressional hearing. CNN talked Stimulus Negotiations, or Homeland Security and Oregon Reach Deal […]. All of these titles are directly indicative of a war—preparing for battle, negotiating, reaching deals—it’s mind boggling to think these are all written about people living together in a community.
It is no wonder we have so much trouble having conversations. The language used by leaders and the press in our country victimizes one side and brutalizes the other. When everything becomes a battle, everyone who isn’t on our side becomes an enemy, and we become soldiers for a cause. But that’s not quite right is it? The human experience isn’t as black and white as two nations declaring war. As I mentioned before, it is damaging to assume that we have a shared experience. There are staggering differences in the levels of knowledge, understanding, and education between people. Immaturity or inexperience doesn’t make you an enemy—if anything, it makes you a candidate for growth.
If we had the choice between helping someone to understand and wiping them out completely, shouldn’t we choose the former? And yet, our language seems more indicative of a society that wants to vanquish the other—to eliminate the voices of the people we disagree with, rather than doing the hard work of teaching them how to change their tone.
I am the receiver of someone’s hard work. A lot of peoples’ hard work, actually. Those people were kind enough to change their language for me. Generously, they recognized I was an opportunity, not an enemy. With patience, they explained an experience that was not mine, and caused me to recognize their validity, while confronting my own narrowmindedness. It hurt, as change often does. But they’re called growing pains for a reason.
Language is a tool that, like anything, can be used responsibly and kindly for a greater good. The right way is seldom the easy one. It requires us to set aside our own experience, and to recognize that the experiences of others are always valid, even if they might sometimes be wrong. Those are where the opportunities for teaching and for change reside, if we have the patience for it.