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Afghan "Shura" - Source: US Navy

A debater with thin skin is much like a soldier without composure: He isn’t much good to his craft, not to mention his cause.

I find myself debating a lot these days. Many of the topics revolve around business, brand management, crisis communications, Social Media, R.O.I. and marketing, while others touch on far more important ones like geostrategy, culture, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and Constitutional law. I believe debate to be a healthy pursuit – not simply an entertaining passtime – and engage in it with both delight and passion. I relish the opportunity to face off against another’s intellect and wit, especially when the act of debating an issue helps bring a discussion back from a place of hateful discord to one of mutual respect, if only for a few minutes.

It doesn’t mean both parties will agree or that one side will convert the other. I am not that naïve. All it means is that both parties will discuss the issue with respect towards each other. Debate is at its best an exercise in civility, at its worst an ugly, pointless brawl or shouting match.

The latter happens when emotions rather than reason get the best of someone involved.

Before you get to riled up, consider this that if debate is indeed a manner of combat (and it is,) it at least has the virtue of being bloodless. As such, it is a gentleman’s (and likewise a lady’s) sport. Losing an argument isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it may come with its share of benefits, not the least of which may be an education.

Now might be a good time to point out that debates are not about proving that one’s feelings about an issue should prevail. Debates are about arguing points, not feelings. “My feelings are more right than your feelings,” is an impossible argument. You might as well try to argue that your choice of a favorite color is better than someone else’s choice of their favorite color. It is completely pointless.

In every debate are two conjoined threads: One holds fast to reason while the other weaves itself into feelings and emotions. unless you want your exchange to degenerate into mindless hysterics, always focus on the former. While passion can – and should – drive a debate, it should never be the instrument of its discourse. Ever.

How this translates to this blog and exchanges I might have with you on Facebook, Twitter or even in the real world of face-to-face interactions is this: I will never tell you that your feelings about an issue are wrong. I may, however, tell you that your thinking around an issue is.

And then prove it to you.

When this happens, here’s how to best me: Prove me wrong. Not with feelings, not with arguments about feelings, and certainly not with anger, scorn, insults or threats. Best me with reason. If you make your argument, I will yield. (Gladly, in fact.) It happens regularly.

If you cannot make your argument, break off, give the topic of discussion more thought, do more research and try again when you’re better prepared.

Never will your feelings about an issue be enough to convince anyone of the validity of your position, especially if they revolve around anger. No emotion or personal belief, even if echoed by your peers, can ever justify the abdication of reason, especially in a debate. Show me your cool head. Show me the depth of your intellect. Show me the extent to which you have reflected upon an issue. Preparation here is key: Know what you are talking about. Know it from every possible angle. Consider all of the points of view, and recognize their every strength and weakness based on its own bias, not yours.

Only when you can see every angle can you consider yourself ready to enter into a debate – that is, a discussion about a topic with someone of the opposite viewpoint. Regarding this topic, here is something to consider: Spending most of your time both listening to a single viewpoint and discussing it with like-minded peers will not prepare you for a debate, the object of which is this: To prove the validity of your point in spite of your feelings, rather than by recruiting others to the emotion that secures your adherence to it.

A few tips on debating issues both online and offline:

1. Know the subject thoroughly. Not just your side of the issue, but all sides equally.

2. Trust both, but separate reason from emotion. The former is your ally. The latter is not.

3. Unless you live in a theocracy, morality and religion are subjective arguments, not objective arguments. Subjective arguments, while fascinating in certain social situations, have no place in reasonable debate.

(Update: Rick pointed out that I may be wrong about this in the comment section, and I see his point. Our discussion about context helps shed some light about this. I indeed failed to take into account the context of a debate when I suggested #3. He’s right.)

4. Respect your opponent even if s/he does not respect you. (Your professionalism, kindness and honor are yours. Their absence in an opponent has no bearing on your own.)

5. The moment either person involved loses their temper, the debate is over.

6. Thin skin and public debates do not mix.

7. Be aware that debating a point with an unreasonable person may be a complete waste of your time. Debating the virtues of civil rights legislation with a racist, for instance, may not be the most productive use of your time. Likewise, arguing ethics with a crook probably won’t get you anywhere. Just as worthy opponents make great sport, worthy opponents make great debates. Too one sided a contest typically yields disappointing results. Don’t waste your time on unworthy foes.

8. At least 1 out of 4 people who disagree with you may be utterly incapable of arguing a point objectively. See item 7 for further instructions.

9. If you represent a company or organization, heated debates may be ill-advised – especially when they touch on religion, sex and politics. If you are answerable to no one but yourself, no such limitations exist beyond those you impose on yourself. In either case, always remember item 4: The golden rule of public debates.

10. If you are bested, acknowledge it gracefully. If you win, thank your opponent for his/her gracious effort. All other outcomes are to be avoided whenever possible. Nothing is gained from the murder of civility, especially in matters of public debate.

One final note: Debate with heart, let outrage fuel your argument when it must, but keep your sense of humor close at hand. When all else fails, it may yet carry you through. The ability to laugh at yourself, at your own stumbles, at the witty barbs of your opponent when they deserve a nod, can be all the armor you need to compensate for any unwanted thinness of skin.

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The world before social media

Back in the day, most people were disconnected from the world. They lived in small family groups, peer groups, villages and neighborhoods, seldom connecting with the outside world. Aside from merchants, soldiers and sailors, few ever really scaled their reach beyond a few miles from home. Yet people were social in ways that we aren’t today. Life was by its very nature social. We didn’t watch TV or surf the web or read magazines. Laundry was washed at the local laundry fountain, where all the women washed their clothes together. Without adequate refrigeration, food had to be purchased daily from crowded markets. We lived and worked in close quarters. Neighbors lived much closer to us than they do today. Our homes were less spacious, the streets narrower, and the world was something that existed well beyond a horizon we hardly ever had a chance to discover. Annual festivals, celebrations, catastrophes and cultural events pulled us together at regular intervals and cemented our bonds with each other. Some might say that we were more social then than we are now: Pressed together in an analog world where little distracted us from human interactions and bound by strong social ties, we lived and breathed together as full-fledged members of our respective communities.

Then came the industrial revolution, and mass transportation, the telephone, television and the internet… and it all changed. We grew apart. Our homes became more spacious, our yards broader, and suddenly our neighbors were little more than strangers. We turned away from each other, preferring other modes of entertainment to basic human contact. Books, magazines, television, the internet, video games, portable music, cars, sports… We essentially became anti-social. We erected walls. We separated ourselves from the community and reconnected with it only on our own terms. We stopped writing letters and began writing emails. Our daily interactions became more and more impersonal. We isolated ourselves in comfort.

Then Social Media emerged from the antisocial communications machine and changed everything.

Yesterday, Edelman Digital’s Maria Prysock and David Armano asked “would a world without social media be more social?” It immediately made me think of this clear separation between the analog world of old and the new digitalized world. Having spent the last few weeks in Europe – much of it with my parents, both born in the 1930s’ – I was reminded of how much things have changed even in the last 50 years. People of my parents’ generation seem to both marvel at the way Xers and millennials adopted communications technologies but in the same breath bemoan the fact that digital connectivity is eroding our basic social bonds. Our ability to be comfortably content in each other’s company without having to push a button or interface with a device. Imagine how 13th century Europeans might have felt had they witnessed modern day people spend half their day fiddling with objects rather than talking with other human beings.

While it might be tempting to think of the answer to Maria and Dave’s question in terms of quality vs. quantity of social connections, it really comes down to a far less philosophical point: simple reach.  The world before Social Media may have seemed more social, but it was also clustered. Social had very little reach. It didn’t scale. It was limited to rigid, often closed social groups with their own power structures, rules, and limitations. The web may only be a proxy medium compared to say, the village well, the tribal long house or the local market – each a face-to-face medium – but it has served to significantly extend Social‘s reach (globalizing and liberating it, even) without stripping away its basic nature. Social Media’s ability to connect people globally, in real time and on their own terms redefines the very nature of the term “social.” It shifts it from a localized, tightly controlled phenomenon to a global and highly adaptive one. And in that, it is a cultural revolution unto itself.

Think about it this way: 200 years ago, what was the size of a typical person’s social circle? (The very term “social circle” is pretty telling.) 30? 50? Maybe 100 people? Your family, your neighbors, the butcher, baker, blacksmith and other tradesmen? The local clergymen? Your shipmates? Your troop? Your fellow students? More to the point, what was the size of that social circle’s geographic footprint?

See where I am going with this?

Compare it to today: Users of Social networking platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Linkedin and YouTube (to mention only a few) haven’t just broadened their social circles and turned them into complex webs of connections and interactions, but extended their reach geographically to a quasi global network as well. Social hasn’t just scaled. It has been redefined.

So I suppose at the very center of the “would a world without social media be more social?” question lies another question: How do you define social? Or rather, how do you separate old-world social – that focuses mostly on depth of connections – from the new, digitalized social – that focuses on breadth as well?

The thing about it is… digitalized social (social networks and socialized media) doesn’t and cannot replace the age-old social interactions generations of humans grew up with. Nothing can replace the nuances and impact of face-to-face communications, of one-on-one interactions, of handshakes, of hugs, of sharing drinks and stories and the warmth of a fire. Not video conferencing, not foursquare, not even augmented reality. Just as a newborn baby needs to map out her mother’s face with her own eyes, we need to press flesh and eat together and experience a bit of road together in order to form the bonds that our communities, businesses, organizations and social ties need to keep from coming apart. You still need to visit grandma and hug her. You still need to pet your dog. You still need to visit your parents and your friends every time you get a chance.

This is why Social Media fans rush to conferences where they can meet in person – the ultimate irony of the Social Space being that most of the money being made under its auspices still happens offline: #sxsw. #Blogworld. #LeWeb. #140Conf. #Social Fresh. #Blogwell. (Should I go on?) The same social dynamics are why remote meetings don’t work as well as on-location meetings. It’s why working groups who can’t be in the same room are typically far less efficient than working groups who can share the same space. Contracts are signed in person. Important meetings are worth traveling to. People still like to look a client or partner in the eye before pressing on with a relationship. Here in Cannes this week are the Cannes Lions, one of thousands of events that would never happen if we didn’t have a need to come together at regular intervals to celebrate what makes us tick.

More than 80% of human communications are non-verbal, still. The web hasn’t changed that. Ask an emoticon.

What the industrial age tore apart in our once simple and finite social habits is now being patched up by the socialized web and social technologies. Our need to be social isn’t affected by twitter, blogs or facebook. It isn’t affected by mobile technologies or the web either. How social we are as individuals isn’t dependent on our access to technology or lack thereof, but our ability to choose between being locally social or globally social is. And that’s the crux of this whole discussion: technology is just a tool. It provides a medium. Enablement. Socialized media are channels, nothing more.

Social technology is simply a proxy medium: The town square, the tribal long house, the hunting party’s fire multiplied by millions and touching every part of the planet equipped with an internet node. “Social” is a behavior first and foremost. The technology, the apps, merely pipes and real-estate.

Would a world without social media be more social? Yes. No. In a way. Social would simply take on a different form. A different meaning. Without the web itself, without cell phones, without Twitter and Foursquare and email, without TVs and earphones and shopping malls, perhaps we would turn away from the outer edges of our world and once again turn inward to our own local peer groups, to our neighbors, to our local social networks. Maybe. But those of us with social wanderlust would still find ways to reach out over the wall and the next forest and the next hill, by telegraph or carrier pigeon or corked bottle, knowing that half a world away, someone was dying to reach out to us as well.

Before Social Media, we built walls... and sand castles.

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