Words are like knives. When kept sharp and brandished by a master, they’ll cut straight to the core of matters. If they’re dull and clumsily applied, their ragged carvings harm the ones who wield them, along with others in proximity.
Consider State Sen. Lynn Hutchings, who allegedly compared protections for LGBTQ people to protections for those who sexually abuse children or practice bestiality. Ten students from Cheyenne Central High School said they were lobbying the senator to increase protections for LGBTQ workers when she drew parallels to pedophiles. Hutchings said her attempts at an open dialogue were misconstrued. The civil rights group Wyoming Equality filed a complaint on behalf of the students, and many people have weighed in over her word choice, intent, and the appropriate consequences.
Considering how hard people work to reach the heights of power, it’s amazing how many forget the extra scrutiny that comes with the spotlight. Those who live in the public eye need to remember we have higher expectations for them when it comes to filters, tact, and accuracy.
“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” This is advice that most children will hear ad nauseam before they enter school. Recite the first six words, and anyone within listening distance can conclude the sentence. It’s regrettable we don’t spend more time being quiet and listening, especially when silence helps us communicate better.
Diplomacy is another undervalued art. It requires you to consider your audience, identify shared and contrasting interests, and build bridges. One may know the solution to a longstanding problem, but the wisdom won’t be recognized if it isn’t delivered in a way it will be clearly received. It often requires multiple attempts, and perseverance to retrace familiar steps, but the rewards are shared when we reach the same conclusions.
Validity is another quality that’s seen reduced mileage. Who needs facts when you have feelings? The importance of the truth hasn’t changed; it’s just that more people are settling for less. We need more leaders who can back up their statements with authoritative sources. It shows when officials don’t do their homework, or even read the meeting packet. A lot of work goes into those voluminous reports, and it doesn’t always get the attention it deserves from the decision makers. Those who offer thoughtful, informed opinions rooted in fact will set themselves apart from the pack and elevate the debate.
Now you can aspire to increased sensitivity, finesse and honesty, and still end up with egg on your face. It’s not a matter of intentions but of end results. We’re only human, but sometimes we make fools of ourselves.
An important test of character is demonstrating you can learn from your mistakes. Limiting missteps is important, and they’re too often repeated. Some people get caught in a loop, making the same errors and being unable to move forward. It doesn’t matter whether you’re mired by stubbornness or ignorance; those unable to change won’t get anywhere.
Remember criticism doesn’t necessarily equal an attack. While some are only looking to cause pain or score points, others are seeking to impart lessons. If you can recognize those who are engaging because they care, you’ll know who to reach out to for help.
To break free from a verbal trap you set off yourself, we recommend would-be escapees start by listening. If you didn’t recognize the importance of being attentive before, hopefully your entanglement is illuminating.
Pay attention to what people are saying. Locate the sources of misunderstandings. Consider if the wrong words were used, if you’re acting with a flawed premise, or if there are factors you hadn’t considered. When there’s a difference between your purpose and your effect, close the gap.
Take an active part in correcting the record. It’s not enough to say, “That’s not what I meant,” or, “That’s not what I said,” and refuse further comment, as Hutchings has done. Answer the important questions. What was said? Where did your message depart from your intent? What have you learned? How would you say it differently today? What will you do differently in the future?
Clarification and context can cool things down. Stonewalling, deflections, or attempts to obscure will add more fuel to the fire, and leave everyone burned.
The cycle of blunder and backlash isn’t new — it predates recorded history — but it’s exacerbated by a wireless society. The internet connects many, but the depths of those relationships are often shallow. We suffer from reduced face-to-face interactions and the bravery bred by anonymity. Horrible, hurtful things are posted namelessly online. It’s hard to apply accountability to the invisible. As more people formulate their thoughtless or shameless habits in the digital world, we’ll see them exported to the physical realm, where there will be more conflicts created by a lack of sensitivity and consideration.
When it comes to elected leaders who transgress, voters usually decide the punishment. In between elections, residents can provide feedback by praising or challenging officials. It’s important that we keep them accountable, because an inactive electorate removes all incentive to improve.
Those who pursue the benefits of the limelight need to know they come with higher expectations and repercussions. If you talk without thinking, expect to be called out on it. The First Amendment of the Constitution protects your freedom of speech, but it doesn’t protect you from consequences.