3 things Stoicism can teach us about communication

Above all, Stoicism is a practical philosophy. It’s a philosophy to help people live better in the real world. This real life includes, sometimes, unfortunately, people. Don’t get me wrong. I love people. I’m extroverted through and through. However, communication can be one of the most significant pain points of life. Four elements must happen for communication to be successful. You must know what you mean, you must say what you mean, they must hear what you mean, and they must understand what you mean. That’s four places where things can go wrong. Thankfully, the Stoics have some practical wisdom that can ease some of these pain points and increase the probability of successful communication.

#1. Focus on what you can control

“There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power.” Epictetus, Enchiridion I

What can you control in a conversation? What you do. What can you not control? What the other person does. You can control what you say. Easier said than done for sure, but technically accurate. That said, you can’t control what the other person hears. Their past experiences, their current mood, what they had for lunch that isn’t sitting well with them now, all these things play a role in what they hear. You can only know what they heard by listening to and observing them. Watch their expressions, pay attention to their words, receive as much of what they are giving you as you possibly can. You can’t control what they do and think, but you can direct your own speaking and listening to be as clear and compelling as you can possibly manage. Do all you can, and the outcome will be much more tolerable when you have given it your best effort.

#2. Manage Expectations and Impressions

“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today, I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness…” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Clearly, Marcus Aurelius had a glowing opinion of human nature. But he has a point. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a day where no one did anything I didn’t like. Not to say that we should walk around passing judgment on everyone. After this quote, Marcus proceeded to meditate that people’s bad behavior is mostly due to ignorance. We can’t hold that against them entirely, even if we have spent enough time examining our own behavior to determine what they did was wrong. We should go into each day remembering that we are surrounded by other human beings. They have a hard time with most of the same things we struggle with. If not the same things, then other things. They might be just as annoyed with you as you are with them. You’re flawed. You’re probably going to make mistakes today. Expect that these other people will too. Maybe their mistake is speaking to you harshly. Perhaps it’s forgetting to do something you asked or just flat out ignoring you. Be gracious. Assume that people are going to do things that bother you. Assume that they’re doing it at worst because they just don’t know any better. That can’t be entirely their fault. After all, they don’t know what they don’t know. Keep these things in mind, so you deal with the impression of their action calmly and philosophically.

#3. Be about learning, not about winning

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Epictetus

“Starting with why” has become kind of a meme. But truthfully, when we get into communication, we should always have a purpose in mind, and tempting as it is, that purpose should never be winning. Unless you’re a high school speech and debate competitor, no one keeps track of who scores points in a conversation. No one gets a gold trophy for besting your spouse in an argument over the dinner table, although that may cost you some precious metal if you do it enough. You’re never going to get the best of a conversation by trying to beat or embarrass your conversation partner. Take from me, I’ve tried. The more you dig your heels in, the more they will too. There is another way.

I like the way Dr. Jordan Peterson put it when he said, “assume the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.” The person that you are talking to always knows something you need to know. Even if that thing is just an insight that will help you understand them better, they have information that you need. Listen in a way that leads them to share that information with you. Enter a conversation to learn. If you need to try to change someone’s mind, listen to them in a way that will help you know what you need to do that. Be open to them, changing your mind. To win, you don’t have to beat the other person. You have to overcome the part of yourself telling you to beat them.

What’s old is new again. Tidbits of stoicism can now be found in nearly every book about communication in some form. Know the difference between the things you can and can’t control. Accept the things you can’t control. Work like hell to make better the things you can. If you want to learn more about high stakes communication, I highly recommend the book Crucial Conversations.

This post is the first in a long-form (at least by my standards) series of posts that I’m testing out. These will be released every Thursday morning in perpetuity or until I decide they aren’t working. Either way, this is the first of at least more than one. Enjoy!

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