I recently came across a video of the 1999 induction celebration of Mr. Rogers’ into the television hall of fame. I stand in awe of Mr. Rogers because like no other human being I can recall, he achieved an outlier level of greatness – a game changing achievement – through absolute gentleness. When we think of rebels and revolutionaries, people who bucked trends, spurned conventions, and refused to conform to social pressures of all kinds, particularly when we think of men, we think of James Dean types, punk rockers, or even the rising momentum of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s oratory. But, of course, in some sense these types are conforming in their nonconformity to the gender stereotype of what a man is supposed to be. And, the problem with that stereotype (which is not necessarily the problem of the leaders who fall into it) is that it does not look deeper into what a human being is supposed to be.
Mr. Rogers did not simply repeat the structures of gender stereotypes in demonstrating his value as a human being. Instead, he understood that human beings needed to risk developing their capacity for gentleness in order to achieve our fullest capacity for greatness.
Alexandra Petri, the author of A Field Guide to Awkward Silences, wrote a funny opinion piece in the Washington Post this week entitled “Famous quotes, the way a woman would have to say them in a meeting.” The piece uses humor to make the point that our communication styles demonstrate just how real and pervasive gender bias is in our culture. Here are Ms. Petri’s translation of famous quotes from men.
“Give me liberty, or give me death.”
Woman in a Meeting: “Dave, if I could, I could just — I just really feel like if we had liberty it would be terrific, and the alternative would just be awful, you know? That’s just how it strikes me. I don’t know.”
“I have a dream today!”
Woman in a Meeting: “I’m sorry, I just had this idea — it’s probably crazy, but — look, just as long as we’re throwing things out here — I had sort of an idea or vision about maybe the future?”
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Woman in a Meeting: “I’m sorry, Mikhail, if I could? Didn’t mean to cut you off there. Can we agree that this wall maybe isn’t quite doing what it should be doing? Just looking at everything everyone’s been saying, it seems like we could consider removing it. Possibly. I don’t know, what does the room feel?” ...
One of the influences that led me to become an attorney mediator focusing on helping families navigate conflicts, challenges, change and opportunity is the incredibly useful book, Difficult Conversations, written by the directors of the Harvard Negotiation Project. This book is the product of thousands of hours of discussions with people from all walks of life who came into their clinic to talk about the difficulties they were having in navigating conversations about conflicts in their lives. In constantly analyzing where such conversations broke down, turned nasty, or just lost focus, the authors were able to develop an understanding of the anatomy of the difficult conversation. That is, the authors found in their thousands of case studies that there was a uniform arrangement of structures, obstacles, opportunities and pitfalls that must be carefully navigated in talking about any conflict. More importantly, they created a map and a tool kit to help everyone learn how to navigate these conversations skillfully.
The most basic “bare bones” version of this anatomy is this: Every difficult conversation has three layers and each layer has certain pitfalls that must be avoided by applying specific constructive communication practices.
The three layers present in every difficult conversation are: the What Happened layer, the Feelings layer, and the Identity layer. Over the last several blog posts, I have provided a brief description of the significance of each of these layers in understanding the forces at play in any conflict. In addition, I have described each of the pitfalls present in the difficult conversation anatomy and refelcted on the communication strategies developed by the Harvard Negotiation Project for keeping things constructive.