From the terrible events in Charlottesville to a Missouri state senator sharing on Facebook her hopes that the president would be assassinated, we can’t help but ask: “How can we stop this verbal violence that has passed the line of simply scoring points and is now threatening real lives?” In other words, how do we move forward and dig ourselves out of an America where hateful, vicious, and even violent rhetoric is the rule more than the exception?
I’ve spent most of my adult life researching and teaching adults how to communicate. But a few years ago I began to see an alarming and different trend. I started noticing how our digital lives were making it nearly impossible for us to get in healthy relationships to begin with.
In my new book, Before You Hit Send, I give a few unbelievably simple tips that’ll make all the difference in how we manage our digital lives. I believe the way forward is what I call “The Golden Rule of Communication”: Speak to others in the way you want others to speak to you, even if they don’t speak to you that way.
If you’re like me, you wish for everyone who communicates with you to speak or write to you only what is true, kind, necessary, and clear. So to follow the Golden Rule of Communication means to simply apply this short four-question checklist that can be used by anyone from a middle school student to an Oxford don.
Before saying—or sharing—anything, first make sure you can say “yes” to each of the following four questions:
1. Is it true?
If we said something untrue that we thought was true, most will forgive our ignorance. But what about those moments when we knowingly lied? This becomes the test of our character, and it is here each of us must decide who we will be as a person and communicator. The road to civility begins with each of us only saying that which is true. Yes, there are complex issues with nuances, but in these discussions with many variables we will not knowingly lie. Without a doubt, the first item on the checklist that I ask myself is: Is that which I am about to communicate the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help me God?
2. Is it kind?
Kindness is not optional but foundational for true dialogue, for winning hearts and minds. We are not kind without the truth. That’s superficial sentimentality. But what are we when we are truthful without kindness? Cruel. Truth without kindness causes the hearer to feel, “You aren’t saying this to me because you care but because you intend to club me with the truth. You want to shame me.” As long as the goal is to score a rhetorical point, you may think you’ve “won” the argument; but not only have you failed to persuade in the moment, you have also limited your ability to persuade in the future. You never lose by being kind. By kindness I mean the avoidance of sounding hostile and contemptuous, and instead asking if this will sound loving and respectful. People hear your words of truth but they feel your words of kindness.
3. Is it necessary?
It’s easy these days to post or share or comment first and think about it later. There’s also something about looking at a screen as opposed to looking someone in the eye that makes it easier to react instead of deliberate. So how do you gauge “necessary”? First, if what you’re about to say or share is untrue or unkind, then don’t. Second, if you’re not sure, wait twenty-four hours before responding. Third, think carefully about what will help and persuade others. In hindsight, you’ll almost never regret not having acted. Like in marriage when things heat up and we declare, “And, one more thing . . . !” rarely does that help the topic at hand or the relationship. Unnecessary means it is unnecessary.
4. Is it clear?
When we’re upset, distracted, or tired, we’re particularly at risk of blurting out something that either makes no sense or could be interpreted in ways you never intended, that introduce unnecessary headache and heartache. So think before you answer. Think about your answer. Commit to not be hazy—or lazy—be clear. If it’s foggy in your mind, then it’s guaranteed to be confusing to others.
The Golden Rule of Communication is more than a good idea; it’s the key to influence over the long haul. We may see someone violating these rules and seeming to succeed, but no one can violate them over the long haul and be a person of influence. No one.
I can’t control what politicians and pundits say. I can’t control what someone posts on Facebook. But even if I can’t control what’s said in the world, I can control what’s said in my world—what I speak and how I react.
As our world becomes more uncivil I invite you to join me in saying—”Not on my watch.” No more lies. No more verbal assassination. No more speaking first and thinking later. No more foggy, unedited thinking. If enough of us change our worlds, we might just be able to change the world.