The Two-Letter Word That Destroys Productive Discussion

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One thing I’ve learned over the years is how to take critical comments with a grain (or sometimes a pound) of salt.

Recently, I have been commenting on the Democratic primary debates (such as here and here). Although my lens is always an apolitical analysis of the candidates’ communication effectiveness, I knew that anything related to national politics would open me up to possible criticism, given how personal it is to so many people.

Naturally, there are those who have agreed and supported my efforts and those who have not. Unsurprisingly, on some platforms the feedback I have gotten is far more “colorful” than others. However, I was struck by an important pattern in some of the comments, and how it changed my willingness to engage with the contributors.

In particular, there were fans of candidates whose performance weaknesses I critiqued who were unhappy with the fact that I had voiced any sort of criticism of “their” candidate at all. But it was HOW they expressed this displeasure that made all the difference. It all came down to two letters: BE vs. DO.

Some objectively referenced points I had made and why they thought my analysis was off. In contrast, others preferred to attack me personally for having said anything negative about their favorite candidate in the first place. Those people used the very simple but powerful verb, “to be.” Some of the most unfiltered contributions ranged from telling me “you are weird” to calling me a “lunatic” and even a “psychopath.” By using this language, they chose to attack my essence, who I am (“be”) as a person.

On the other hand, people who told me why they disagreed with the assessment itself implicitly used an equally simple and powerful verb: “to do.” They disagreed with what I did: Specifically, I made assertions they didn’t like.

Discrepancy between these two approaches had profound effects on my treatment of those comments, and have equally profound implications for constructive conversation and conflict resolution on the whole.

People who attack who I am with “be” language are showing me that they are neither open to discussion nor interested in respectful dialogue. It also shows that they missed the underlying purpose of all of my posts in the first place! When I receive those comments, my decision has become simply to ignore them, since I see no value in trying to engage rationally with someone who preferred emotional, vitriolic, and personal attacks.

In contrast, when people used “do” language, I am much more interested in exploring their line of thought, finding common ground, or at least achieving mutual understanding.

When I read comments like, “I disagree with your assertion that candidate X should have…”, I genuinely want to understand the reasons why. They didn’t assume the worst in me as a person, lob insults or otherwise attack me personally. I love a good debate, and someone who could present their counter argument to me in an intelligent, respectful and objective way piques my interest and inspires me to continue the exchange. In one exchange, I went back and forth several times with a contributor and in the end his comment was, “Vocal Impact Productions, we are in agreement then…”

What’s the moral to the story? In looking to make connections and more, two little letters – to be versus to do – can be the turning point between building the bridge and blowing it up.

I sincerely thank all of those who have commented on any of my posts, and invite you all to continue to discuss and debate with me on any subject, especially as I continue to analyze the communication effectiveness of the candidates in the upcoming rounds of debates. I equally welcome your disagreement as your praise. What matters most to me is that we get to engage in civil and productive discourse.

I hope that these strategies help you to promote such dialogs in your work and home conversations as well. Just remember the key: when in disagreement, disagree with the person’s statement or behavior (what they DO) without judging the person (who you see them to BE). Therein lies the power to bring people together AND affect meaningful, positive change.

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