"Science requires critical thinking, but it is also critical that we not be condescending when we communicate science."
By Nandu Nandini
Effective communication with the intent to inform and motivate to change requires much more than just excellent written or oral communication skills. It not only involves an understanding of our audience but also a basic recognition that this audience consists of human beings like us. Whether it is online or in person, at any point in time we are addressing a human being.
When we are communicating with people it is very important to understand that kindness and compassion towards others goes a long way in helping get your message across.
Take for example when science and its concepts are being discussed. Science is based on evidence and facts. It requires logical, rational thinking. The concepts that are being discussed are straight hard cold facts. It is the reality and the truth.
But we human beings are complex creatures, cold hard facts are boring, period. We are creatures of emotion, we have the capacity to feel, we have differing perceptions shaped by our lives, society, environment, education levels, and many other influences.
Keeping this in mind going into a discussion with a divisive mind is never a good idea. We want to find common ground. We want to share ideas, concepts, and facts.
How do we do this ?
Foremost is to always remember it doesn’t cost us anything to be nice. Our behavior is one thing we can control and that will set the tone for any discussion. It is never a good idea to go into a discussion assuming we are always right. Being open minded and ready to acknowledge that we may be wrong is a good move. Leading with our ethics in mind is a good move.
Some of the worst things one can do in a discussion among many others are.
- Don't call people names
- Don’t dump all the blame on others and somehow make it about their behavior.
- Never use racist, sexist, derogatory language in any discussion.
- Never display hubris, arrogance, and a holier than thou attitude.
- Do not attack, mock or insult others.
When we do not follow these rules people shut down, they put up mental walls, and they are not going to listen to your rational and logical explanations. All of what we are saying becomes mere noise to others and this is how we lose our audience.
When we suspend our ego, our need to prove our intelligence and knowledge, and concentrate on exchanging ideas kindly we put the listener at ease. Then maybe they will not shut down, maybe they will listen, just maybe they will not feel the need to get defensive and resort to all the worst things aforementioned.
This area is where the anti science folks seem to have the upper hand, they know how to be nice to people while taking advantage of them. They charm people, they appeal to the emotion. Yes, it is a logical fallacy to appeal to emotion. But instead of committing this logical faux pas, why not recognize the inherent humanity in people we are trying to reach out to.
These people may be misled, they are afraid, they have been duped by charlatans who have taken advantage of their fears, they are confused. Some of them are suffering from severe cognitive dissonance. We need to attempt to breach these barriers to effectively communicate in discussions by first acknowledging that to ourselves.
No matter how intelligent we are, no matter how many degrees we possess, our attitude towards others makes us a better person.
When we treat others with kindness and compassion in any interaction even if it is science communication we build a bridge and this may very well lead the other person to be willing to meet us halfway, we teach them and they teach us.
Last but not least, even if the other person is belligerent and treats us badly, we always have the choice to not respond in the same manner. That restraint we show could quite possibly put the other person at ease, make them drop their defenses. They could be at a loss about how to continue. It may not always work, but it is well worth a try. We end up stopping in its tracks the vicious spiral of nastiness.
How effective we are surely depends not only on our methods but also the other person’s, but the key difference is we only have control of ourselves and our methods. When despite all our efforts to be nice fails, the best option would be to politely disengage from the discussion. When we take the high road, we may not win the argument, or we may feel like we have failed to communicate. But we will know we tried our best and did so in an ethical and compassionate manner.