Toward Healthier Communication Climates; Or, Why We Need to Speak Up

Toward Healthier Communication Climates; Or, Why We Need to Speak Up

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a culture of what I called Christian (Midwest Middle Class White People) Nice, which had some great things about it, but also some toxic side effects. Most notably, I left my childhood with a strong aversion to calling out negative behaviors. I was a little better at speaking up against unhealthy narratives, but still felt awkward and inept at doing so. In this article I’m going to introduce two communication theory concepts I’ve found particularly compelling. Teaching these theories has  moved me toward speaking up publicly against both negative behaviors and unhealthy narratives, especially in our country’s present moment. The first concept is that of communication climates; the second is a theory called the spiral of silence.

(I know, I know–another longish article. Hang in there. I think you’ll find it worthwhile.)

Why I’ve Been Talking about Assertive Civic Engagement So Much

Many recent posts here and over at the Facebook feed have focused on being assertive at the national political level. I’ve done this purposely as a matter of triage; that is, addressing the most urgent needs based on the evidence. See, according to the 2017 annual report on US stress by the American Psychological Association, the direction of our country topped the list of stressors–for people of both parties.

That’s a big deal. That means 63% of respondents were more stressed about what’s happening in our country than about the usual stressor suspects: work and money. As I discussed in the last post about how to build meaning in Outrage Fatigue and other articles, the best ways to deal with stress is using it as it is designed: to rise to the occasion.

So I’ve been focusing on how we can assertively rise to the occasion on the national level to help us do what we can with the biggest stressor for many. (All of this stuff applies to other levels, too, though, as will become clear. So if you’re among the 37% not stressed about our country’s direction, stick around!)

The Need for Civic Engagement

The other reason I’ve been focusing on the national level so much is because it’s becoming clearer than ever that there’s a huge need for what we scholar-types call emerging leadership in the area of civic engagement. That means that because of problems with the current leadership, many of us need to step up to fill the gap.

Speaking up like this can be a challenge when many of us were trained it wasn’t “polite” to talk about politics–but when there’s a fire, it’s impolite to pretend we don’t need to help ourselves and others put out the fire and make things safe for everyone.

More exciting, lots of good people are emerging as leaders just now—which is great. Those emerging leaders need our support in lots of ways. What is not great is the reasons for that need, which I explained before as having an abusive personality in charge of things.

In this post I’ll primarily focus, as I mentioned above, on why we need to keep speaking up in light of the concepts of communication climates and the spiral of silence. Let me move into explaining those.

Defining Communication Climates

A communication climate is the ongoing tone of a relationship made up of a thousand tiny verbal and non-verbal interactions and how both parties take them as confirming or disconfirming.

Remember, since stress is about our body’s response to felt threat, a pattern of confirming or disconfirming behavior often practically translates into threatening or non-threatening, dangerous or safe.

Since too much toxic stress can lead to illness, even a subtly disconfirming communication climate can literally make us sick over time.

While confirming or disconfirming behaviors are in the eye of the beholder, there are lots of things that are commonly held as confirming—feeling like we are valued; (the murky waters of) feeling loved, cared for and respected; feeling like there’s interested in what we have to say and are interested in, etc.

And frequently feeling ignored, insulted, put down, held to unreasonable standards, lied to, etc. are signs of disconfirming climates over time.

This concept most pops up in the study of one-on-one interactions, especially that of marriages. Famously, relationship researcher John Gottman studied the importance of the 5:1 ratio in the healthiest marriages—meaning that for every verbal or non-verbal behavior we take to be disconfirming, in healthy marriages there are 5 confirming communications.

(That’s because we remember the negative better: that’s how our stress response wiring works!)

(Oh, and if you were raised with religious texts with lots of guidelines on how to treat other people? In my view, those guidelines often relate to this idea of communication climates. But as I just explained, these things do shift person to person–and also culture to culture. So it’s not always easy to apply take a guideline given to people thousands of years ago and apply them to current situations in ways that people find confirming over time. Figuring out how to create confirming climates, even in religious contexts, therefore requires ongoing honest-and-kind communication about what people find confirming and disconfirming, with lots of listening involved.)

Where Disagreement Fits Into the Picture

Important Note: In this communication climates model, disagreement is halfway down the continuum from confirming to disconfirming communication. That’s key: whether it’s seen as good or bad to disagree within a relationship, group, or nation makes a big difference as to whether it’s seen as a safe or healthy behavior or not.

How the disagreement is phrased can matter a great deal toward that. But the truth is, none of us are right all of the time. We need people we trust to disagree with us to help us. When we say things that are factually incorrect and when we engage in toxic behaviors that hurt others.

In toxic climates or relationships, disagreement will pretty much always be seen as a bad and disconfirming thing.

One need only think of the example of the Challenger space shuttle exploding because people didn’t listen to disagreeing information to see why it’s important to make room for disagreement in healthy communication climates.

So yes, here’s the key: in healthy communication climates, people and groups and leaders carve out a space for people to be different and also to disagree. And people admit to being wrong as needed. When you don’t have that, there’s no check on bad behavior or bad decision-making. To use a technical term, it can be very not good, this situation. 😉

I could go on about this for ages, but I’m trying to keep this as concise as possible, so let’s move on up in levels. When you take this concept from one-on-one relationships through the group level up to the national level, the type of words and behavior by those in charge hugely influences the communication climate of a country.

The Country’s Founders Concerns with Healthy Dissent

From the beginning of the United States, the the founders felt that people and especially the other branches of the government and the press should feel safe expressing healthy disagreement without undue punishment.

That healthy assertive disagreement be part of our national communication climate was one of the most important concerns of the founders. The idea was also built into the founding documents that every citizen should be able to air their dissenting concerns and be safe from those at the top of the government.

That’s why we have things like the rights to free speech and free assembly.

Again, all of this isn’t about the climate on a particular day of our nation’s history. But every day’s words and behaviors by those in charge contribute to the national communication climate over time.

And right now, the APA stress report is showing us that the bulk of our nation is feeling threatened, concerned, and unsafe with the national communication climate right now as shaped and reinforced by those at the top.

That’s not because people have been picking on those in power. That’s because the words and behaviors of those in power have been building a very unhealthy communication climate.

And while this situation hurts everyone, those at the bottom of the country’s power structure are suffering most.

The Need for Civic Action to Change the Climate

This is a problem, because we’re supposed to be built on a representative system of government. That means our governmental representatives, especially the ones at the very top, are meant to work for the common good of all.

On the contrary, the words, actions, and policies of those at the top have been creating an incredibly toxic climate for all of us.

They’ve putting down large groups of people. They’ve also been making a space where it’s not safe for people to dissent. For example, they’ve calling the press the enemies of the people and undermining key investigations by the judiciary. They’ve also been gaslighting the evidence of people’s eyes and of clear facts put forth by reputable, expert sources.

In light of these problems, it’s clear that ordinary citizens on up through the ranks all need to work together to do their part to shift the country’s communication climate.

We won’t agree on everything. But it’s clear that a lot of us feel threatened, which should be good enough reason to band together toward a healthier environment.

Where Spiral of Silence Theory Fits In

Man holding sign that says: "Cure the problem don't punish the symptom; Compassion not Cages."
Photo taken by DS Leiter at the Amsterdam “Families Belong Together” solidarity rally, June 30, 2018. The sign reads: “Cure the problem don’t punish the symptom; Compassion not Cages.”

It’s particularly vital for those who disagree with the unhealthy aspects of the current communication climate do what they can toward changing that climate, despite felt risks.

The second theory, which I’ll cover more briefly, speaks to this need: a political science and mass media theory called the spiral of silence.

This theory, created by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, explains that people who perceive themselves to hold unpopular opinions on matters of public concern will remain silent in order to be accepted by others.

This theory is the practical outflow of the fact that so many of us have been raised in toxic conflict-avoidant climates in which we’ve been taught not to rock the boat. We’re scared to speak up in dissent because we’ve been taught either explicitly or implicitly that people will cut us off if we do.

Here’s the tricky thing. From our perspective, we may either see voices advocating for unhealthy behaviors that contribute to toxic environments as in the majority or in the minority.

But either way, we need to disconfirm such behaviors and advocacy for healthier, more inclusive and just climates and attitudes to thrive. We can disconfirm such attitudes and behaviors with as little disconfirming behavior toward the people concerned as possible.

When It’s Important to Break Through the Spiral of Silence

But we do need to speak up against those toxic behaviors and policies where we see them–or toxicity will be normalized and spread even further. We need to all be encouraged to do our part.

As I pointed out in the first article about the Sources of Outrage Fatigue, this is definitely the situation many rightly perceive themselves to be in just now in this country. That means that while civic participation in building a healthy communication climate at all levels is key at all times, it’s especially crucial to do our part these days.

As we’ve been discussing through many of these posts, there are risks in assertively speaking up. Especially in a negative communication climate. But for the common good, the only way to create a better climate, is to take the risk.

What to Speak Out Against?

For a start, all policies and rhetoric that disconfirms, hurts, and puts down large groups of people, and/or tells those in vulnerable groups to sit down and shut up. All verbal and non-verbal behaviors that strike at the founders’ desires to make dissent a safe activity for both branches of government, journalists, and citizens alike. All gaslighting behaviors that try to make people disbelieve the evidence of their eyes as well as that of legitimate facts shored up by lots of sources.

Keep Speaking Up!

It’s not easy, continuing to speak up. But the only way to fix toxic communication climates is for those who advocate for healthier ones to speak up loudly and persistently and keep working until the problem is fixed.

If you feel the need more tools for this endeavor, please do sign up for the email newsletter in the top bar. That will give you access for a limited time to the “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls”—a guide which helps train you in dealing with difficult conversations online and off.

No matter what, keep advocating for healthier communication climates on all levels! Go team #AssertiveSpirituality!

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8 thoughts on “Toward Healthier Communication Climates; Or, Why We Need to Speak Up

  1. Great job explaining your concepts and the examples of ways to speak up are even greater. In addition to the problems at the national level, these are applicable at any level. I am applying the principles to my local church. Wish I’d spoken up sooner!

    1. Thanks Candice! I’m with you in wishing I’d spoken up sooner–but self-compassion is also a big part of healthy communication climates as well, isn’t it? At any rate, I’m glad to hear it’s working for you, and hope things go well at your church. Go team!

  2. Saying “but self-compassion…” seems to push the needle back towards “Christian nice” and give pause AGAIN about speaking up and being assertive spiritually. Us hesitant ones need AT LEAST five positive pushes for every push that gives us pause.

    1. Hm, I see your point, but I also see no point in continuing to punish ourselves for how we used to think, especially when we internalize it as a shame thing. I’m thinking here of Maya Angelou’s quote “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Self-compassion doesn’t stop me from pushing forward into doing better, but it keeps me from unnecessary shame about how I used to think. (And note that I’m using Brene Brown’s distinction here between shame, which is “I am bad” and guilt, which is “I did something bad and can do better.”)

  3. Good points with more positive pushes to be assertive. I appreciate your commitment and willingness to share your expertise for this cause. Thanks!

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Toward Healthier Com…

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