At the recent “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy” conference, Maria Ressa, the Nobel Prize-winning journalist, used simple terms to illustrate the complex threat that disinformation poses to democracies around the world.
“How do you have integrity of elections, if you don’t have integrity of facts?” Ressa asked. “Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without these, we have no shared space. And democracy is a dream.”
Ressa and her fellow conference speakers then spent three days exploring the complexities and nuances of disinformation, the organized distribution of disinformation, and strategies for responding to it. Over the course of the conference, it became clear that the technological and psychological forces eroding democracy are eroding interpersonal relations in every sphere of life, including work.
The common ground that allows us to work together toward a shared vision or goal is becoming increasingly uncommon. It continues to be eaten away by willful or accidental misinformation, misunderstanding, and miscommunication as well as intentionally malicious disinformation. As trust and goodwill disappear, tensions rise and tempers flare, pushing teams and organizations to work harder in their attempt to pull together and avoid being torn apart.
Though rampant, the erosion is not complete—not if you still have your job, your team, and your vision. So how do you restore civility, respect, and trust in your organization? You have to bring people together, encourage them to communicate, regardless of the different opinions, beliefs, or convictions they hold. Specifically, you have to encourage empathetic listening (the skill of communicating) and freedom of expression (the environment for communicating).
“If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations,” said Stephen Covey, “it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
To that end, Covey, the author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” emphasizes listening because unlike reading—and speaking and writing—listening is the one critical communication skill in which most of us have little to no training. And Covey doesn’t want us to simply listen. He wants us to listen with empathy. Empathetic listening lets us “get inside another person’s frame of reference,” not to agree with that person but rather to fully and deeply see, feel, and understand things the way they do.
Covey’s insights on this point are particularly valuable because he offers more than tips and techniques for empathetic listening. He encourages developing the character that fosters such listening.
“If you want to interact effectively with me, to influence me,” Covey said, “you first need to understand me. And you can’t do that with technique alone. If I sense you’re using some technique, I sense duplicity, manipulation. …And I don’t feel safe enough to open myself up to you.”
According to Covey, the key to effective interaction with others is the example you set through your own conduct, which is the active expression of your character—in this case, your sincere desire to understand the other person. “Your character is constantly radiating, communicating,” he said. “From it, in the long run, I come to instinctively trust or distrust you and your efforts with me.”
So how you listen with sincere empathy? You “listen with your eyes and your heart,” as well as your ears, according to Covey. “You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel.”
In “The 7 Habits,” Covey identifies four skills for empathic listening, with each skill an extension of the one that precedes it:
- Mimicking content—You repeat what speaker said, which gets you to listen to the speaker.
- Rephrasing content –You state the meaning of the speaker’s words, using your own words, which gets you to think logically about what they said.
- Reflect feeling–You state how the speaker feels about what they said, which gets you to feel emotionally about what the speaker said.
- Rephrase content & reflect feeling—You combine the two previous skills, to express both the speaker’s meaning and feeling.
When you listen empathetically, you and the speaker are “on the same side of the table, looking at the problem, instead of on opposite sides, looking across at each other.”
Empathetic listening is the skill that people need to communicate effectively. Exercising that skill, however, demands the freedom of expression needed for that communication to take place. Here, the University of Chicago is a worthy role model, given its “overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation…[of] any problem that presents itself.”
As stated in its Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, the University’s guiding principles set a standard for other organizations—regardless of industry—to adopt, either in whole or in part. Known as the Chicago principles, they guarantee “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn,” limiting free expression only when necessary for the university to function.
How do the Chicago principles handle the free expression of ideas that some may judge to be wrong, unwelcome, or offensive? They encourage those individuals to “openly and vigorously [contest] the ideas that they oppose” rather than attempt to suppress such ideas. Likewise, all parties are expected to be civil and respectful, but speech can’t be suppressed simply because civility and respect are ignored.
Of course, the pursuit of knowledge is the mission of the University of Chicago. Its motto is “Crescat scientia; vita excolatur” or “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.” For the University, then, free expression is necessary to its success. For organizations outside the education sector, free expression is optional. It’s a principle they embrace only if they value their employees and customers more than they value the predictability of doing business as usual.
Stifling inquiry and discussion of an issue does not make it disappear or resolve itself as if by magic. In fact, the more volatile the issue, the longer it endures and larger it looms, exacerbating the tensions and divisions that originally brought the issue to light.
You won’t find a shortcut to restoring trust, goodwill, common ground, or a shared vision on your team. But you will find a clear path, one that requires you to be patient, take the time to listen empathetically, and once you understand, take more time to speak freely. That path is always worth taking, especially in the age of disinformation.