[Note: This is the text for a speech given to the Portland Spokesmen’s Club on April 14, 2013. The actual speech given was much shorter, as this version is way too long, and it needed to be lopped and cropped to fit into six minutes.]
I suppose it is somewhat ironic, and more than a little unfortunate, to say this, but for all of my practice in communication, I still find one aspect of clear communication to be particularly challenging. Whether I have been dealing with friends or familiy or other loved ones, I have had a difficult time avoiding the two ditches of silence and violence that sit on either side of the narrow path of clear and respectful communication, and I have had an equally difficult time helping others to communicate clearly and respectfully with me as well. This is a subject that has long and deeply troubled me, and so today I would like to talk about some of the reasons why it is a difficult struggle to stay between the extremes of silence and violence, and what we can do about it.
In May 2003, though I was a little more than a sememster away from graduating with my bachelor’s degree in civil (structural) engineering from the University of Southern California, I walked with my peers on a hot late spring day in Los Angeles. Only one person came to see me graduate, and that was my father, who flew out from Western Pennsylvania to see me walk across a stage. The next day, he went with me to church services in Eagle Rock, where I attended at the time, and an older friend of mine who I often went out to eat with after Sabbath services commented on how much my father loved me, a comment that left me rather speechless. After all, my late father was not a physically affectionate person, nor was he someome who spoke often about his feelings. Indeed, he was a person whose emotional life was rather hidden beneath his sense of duty and responsibility, his constant activity, and his striking combination of outspokenness sociability and deep emotional reserve that served to amuse and entertain others while also keeping them at a distance. After my father died, I noticed many of these same qualities in my own dealings with other people, for the same reasons that he used them, and I recognized that just as I was deeply unaware of the extent of my father’s love and respect for me, so too others might just as easily not know how much I care simply because of my own extreme fears in showing my heart to those whom I did not trust to respond with tenderness and sensitivity, especially given the difficult and often unpleasant life that I have lived. In important ways, both my father and I have lived our lives where important matters were kept silent because it was too dangerous to be open in a harsh and abusive world.
On the other side of clear communication lies the problem of violence. By this I do not mean physical violence, but rather abusive and harsh language. Coming as I do from a very divided and somewhat fierce family background, I have acquired a lot of poor communication habits in this regard. When I moved to Portland, very quickly I learned that while I had no knowledge or prior opinion of many of the people I now sat at church with, quite a few of them had some prior knowledge of my own conversation and conduct and were not pleased with the fierceness of my own public discourse over the past few years. It deeply disturbed and distressed me that I was thought of as being an angry hothead full of bitter invective and abusive language towards others. Without having any personal acquaintance with me whatsoever, multiple people gave me harsh rebukes of my character based on what they had read of my online writing and correspondence, which I found rather painful and uncomfortable. What is certainly true of me, and which may be true of others as well, is that we may sometimes we so upset about the violence that other people are giving us in their language that we may respond in kind, not realizing that there are others, even innocent bystanders, who may be hurt by the way in which we communicate with others. Without being fully aware of it, I had repeated the patterns I had learned in my youth, and hurt and offended others I did not even know, something that still deeply bothers me.
How do we avoid these extremes of silence and violence? To encourage people to speak honestly and openly and kindly, we must keep two principles in mind. First, we must ensure safety. We need to realize that people may feel deeply shy about communicating bad news to us, in fear that we will be upset at them or be disappointed in them, even when they are only bearers of bad news and are not to blame at all. We need to make it clear to others that we will not hold others at fault for communicating the truth to us, no matter how unpleasant it may be, and that we will instead treat others with respect and honor for being open and honest with us. Second, we must ensure that our own communication with others is marked by genuine love and respect, so that we may avoid hurting others with the way that we communicate and so that we may build trust with others and encourage them to reciprocate. Some people may be deeply hurt from their own past, and may respond with difficulty, while others may not respond in a respectful or loving manner at all. Nevertheless, if we wish to enjoy communication with others that is both honest and kind, we must set the standard we wish to enjoy with our own communication.
Building trust with others takes time, and it is a difficult matter to summon the courage to speak the truth when we are afraid of how others will respond, or avoiding the other extreme of cultivating honesty without cultivating respect and kindness at the same time. If wish to communicate in ways that are both open as well as respectful, we must avoid the extremes of silence and violence. If we are silent, we will fail to communicate the truth out of fear, and if we are violent, we will wound people with words instead of helping to heal the wounded hearts that so many people carry with them as a result of having lived difficult lives. Let us all strive to walk on the narrow road between silence and violence, so that we may be models of both honesty and kindness in our conversation and conduct.