People in conversation

So What? Reflections on Purpose

Today is my birthday and I'm reflecting. I've been thinking about why I do the work that I do. I find that all of my answers relate to a question we hear frequently at Essential Partners: "So what?"

"They are just words….so what? So you help people play nice: What difference does it really make?"

I often find myself scratching my head when this question comes up because—to me—the connection between words and other kinds of action seems so self-evident.

Sometimes I want to retort: "How do you propose making other kinds of changes if you don't' use words? If you don't 'just talk?'" If words are the currency for other kinds of action, shouldn't we pay attention to how they are used?

Maybe my perspective comes from years spent in the consulting room, watching families transform themselves by shifting their language and patterns of speaking. Many of us at Essential Partners—like me—are or were family therapists. We know from hard experience the damage words can do. We also know the transformative power they hold for good.

Years ago, I spoke with a teenage boy through his bedroom door in his family's opulent mansion, where—from his perspective—there was a lot of money but few words of love. He had a gun and was ready to use it on himself because he could no longer take the constant stream of derision he received from his father. What saved him was hearing his parents tell him he was loved, in a way that he could receive. Just talk.

Words—"just talk"—build up or tear down. Every day we read in the news how a toxic verbal environment at home has led to violence and yet another death. Every day we see how words are used in the public square to demean, humiliate, intimidate, provoke, and destroy opponents, killing any chance for collaboration. Every day the online world is filled with the kind of ubiquitous corrosive language I read yesterday as "comments" on a couple of articles in respected online journals:

"she's obviously ignorant"

"an obvious case of gender bias"

"You should be ashamed for your intellectual dishonesty"

"you are so blinded by your ideology"

What these statements all have in common is an attack on character and person, rather than perspective and issue. It's the kind of speaking that has come to pass for legitimate "engagement"—the kind of interaction modeled and promoted by our political leaders. It invites symmetrical responses of aggression, counterattack, or a quick exit.

On a larger scale, populations deemed undesirable and expendable by their enemies are systematically dehumanized—with words—to make violence against them more palatable. On the other hand, the caring speech of family, friends and colleagues anchors us to community, which makes us willing to extend a hand to others, even when they differ from us. In the public sphere, speech enables opponents to join hands in service of common goals that transcend their enmity.

To paraphrase Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan, how we talk to each other affects how we work (or don't work) with each other. We have the freedom to say what we want. But we need to take—and require—responsibility for the effects of speech. What if we had the equivalent of Angie Holan's great Web site, which checks the accuracy of politicians' speech? A "Wordwatch" that monitored and held public figures accountable for the effects of their speech?

We do what we do at Essential Partners, ultimately, because of the passionate desire to create a more inclusive, democratic, constructive, and fair society. The conversations that people have drive the efforts they invest in these outcomes—on small and large stages. We focus on conversation out of the profound belief that helping people change the ways they speak and listen when they encounter "difference" will help them change the ways they treat, think about, and feel for those they define as "other": whether it's a sibling, a coworker, a political adversary, or someone with a different identity, culture, religion, values, or worldviews.

Relationships, whether they are political, vocational, or familial, are all governed by "talk"—by words and how they are used. Shifts happen when people change their speaking. Whether between a young boy and his parents, among partisans on abortion in the United States, Hutu and Tutsi in Burundi, or Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, when people pay attention to how they talk, what they say, and the impact of their speaking, things change. Demonized enemies become human. Opponents rediscover capacities for curiosity and care that were previously scarred over by partisan rancor. Trust and the potential for collaboration on policy development or building a playground become more possible, even while holding fast to one's identity and perspective. And, once tasted, good news of transformative conversation is carried outward into successive circles of relationship.

Is "just talk" a panacea that will solve all problems? No. But it's a start—one that we dearly need in this country and around the world. And it sure beats much of what's happening now in the halls of Congress, online, in the media, and in many of our public gatherings.

Bob Stains is a Senior Associate at Essential Partners, having previously served as Senior VP for Training.