The Art of Communicating Controversially without Resorting to Name-Calling

The level of animosity in public discourse seems to be at an all-time high. Whether it is because of social media, or because we need our information in shorter, sharper sound-bites, smarter people than I will be debating over this right now. However, it stands, that in the current environment where the inflammatory rhetoric of politicians like Donald Trump and, closer to home, Pauline Hanson, are having a real impact, the language of fear and anger seems to be working. So how can we ensure than we communicate effectively, yet steer away from inflammatory rhetoric?

The first point to establish is that in communicating complex and challenging topics, rage and anger seem attractive because they get our attention, but they really lead to nothing. The key to developing understanding is language that is calm, inclusive and factual.

There is actually even a scientific reason for this. When we are in a highly emotive state, we have a visceral or gut reaction, but it is very hard for us to think or rationalize. This highly agitated state of arousal can be called a hijack of the amygdala. The Amygdala hijack is a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.  Goleman uses the term to describe emotional responses from people which are immediate and overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat. This is also sometimes called the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism.

When we are in this state our options for calm, rational discourse is virtually nil. So, great for a sound-bite, but it is terrible for any meaningful dialogue. So here are a few tips for more communicating challenging concepts without triggering outrage:

  • Keep language neutral: Try and avoid language that is designed to trigger a highly emotional response. If in doubt test it on a colleague.
  • Deliver in a calm, yet meaningful tone: No, not a monotone! But if you are calm your delivery will be too. Focus on using slow and deliberate breathing and your delivery and tone will be calm and clear.
  • Listen and adapt: Whilst you are slowing your delivery keep an ear out for the responses. If people can’t hear you speak up, seek on going feedback from your audience and change if needed.