Only Say Things That Can Be Heard

For reasons entirely too personal to go into here, I have spent a lifetime serving (often but not entirely unwillingly) as a diplomat.

In that time, I've constructed many many many sets of complicated 'rules' or 'guidelines' or 'procedures' for dealing with conflict. Most of them have not worked, either because they simply made no sense at all, or because they left out key points, or most frequently, because they tried to eliminate difficult judgments and only served to delay or hide those judgements.

I have finally settled on a silly motto: OnlySayThingsThatCanBeHeard. -- MichaelHill


You want to communicate your ideas. You want to be heard, preferably understood, and most preferably agreed with. It doesn't work. No matter how you try, they JUST DON'T GET IT. In the end, your frustration and theirs climbs so high that an artificial barrier is created. Both sides have become convinced that no communication can take place, and therefore no communication *can* take place.

Practice saying only those things that the people around you can hear. For an ongoing conflict, spend some part of each day extending your understanding of the ideas your opposite can hear. Do not waste your time and your opposite's by re-iterating unhearable words. Doing so is not only non-communication in the moment, it is building a context of non-communication across the long term.

It's an interesting and powerful motto. I wish I could explain it more fully, but I'm strangely out of words. Maybe if someone could comment, I'll be able to find a way to express it more clearly. -- mh


PleaseUnderstandMe has useful advice for such situations.


I am thick. If one would OnlySayThingsThatCanBeHeard, is it not a kind of GoWithTheFlow? If so, it is a good strategy as long as there is no urgency for trying to communicate unacceptable viewpoints.

Some may view TheSearchForTruthIsFutile, however there are others who have a conviction that there must be ways to induce a larger community to embracing a much overdue CulturalRevolution.

So some advice on rebranding from a DevilsAdvocate to a ChangeAgent. Or tips to get others to OnlySayThingsThatCanBeHeard :)

Good question. In my view, although it might at times mean something like GoWithTheFlow, it does not mean TheSearchForTruthIsFutile, nor is attempting to teach others.

But it does mean, examine each situation to see what you can and can't teach. The first step in teaching platform diving is to have the student simply jump off feet first; it would be pointless to lecture them about how to do a 3 1/2 flip in pike position. They are not in a position to grok it. That's what OnlySayThingsThatCanBeHeard usually means to me: don't say something that is predictably pointless; search for something you can say that will be heard and understood.

Another example is talking to someone after a personal tragedy. If it's been 5 minutes, don't give them counsel about how to move on and get over it; they will not and cannot hear you. Instead, comfort and empathize. If it's been 5 years, on the other hand, perhaps by then they can hear, understand, and follow up on the same counsel that would not have been appropriate 5 minutes afterward.

And of course, if you want to preach love and acceptance of all people regardless of race, it would be most unwise to begin to do so at a KKK or neo-Nazi rally. They certainly won't hear you. So perhaps sometimes it means, go to a group that can hear what you have to say. It depends on your goals; is the person you're talking to the primary concern, or is your message the primary concern? And in any case, tailor whatever you say to be something that can be heard, because by definition it is pointless to say something that cannot be heard.

So I view this as just a PatternLanguage on the topic of common sense.

Mostly just, "yes", Michael. People can only hear (a) if they are willing, (b) if they have the preconditions for understanding.

Saw a FarSide cartoon today with scientists studying the vocalizations of dolphins, recording each with a tally mark. Scientist says to other scientist, "I got another 'ah blah es pan yol' sound here." Other sounds on the board are 'booen os dee os', etc. The scientists have (a) but not (b). You are trying to keep (a) alive while building toward (b). -- AlistairCockburn


An important part of this is to DetachCriticism?. "Only a moron would think that X" diverts attention away from X and toward your calling the listener a moron. The less-aggressive "Don't you realize that X can't work?" still tends to trigger the listener into defensive mode. "It seems to me that, when the Y foobles, the X assumptions fail" carries the same message, but focuses the listener's attention on the problem space. In my experience, listeners who don't feel threatened are able to hear more of my message. Some listeners, of course, treat "It seems to be raining today" as a personal attack...

All of this is complicated by individual style. I react to "All X are Y" by immediately trying to think of counterexamples, and react favorably to "Some X appear to be Y, as seen in the following cases." Other people find the first formulation direct and enticing, while the second is wishy-washy and uncommitted.

-- BetsyHanesPerry

Very well said!

Yeah, except the part about "It seems to be raining today". Is that some kinda crack??

Yep, if said right after I say, "It'll be raining in hell before I do that."

I think you're quite right, Betsy; this kind of etiquette is quite as important as the usual business of saying please and thank you and washing regularly. But I think Michael is going a little further in what he's saying. Think of Galileo trying to explain himself to the Inquisition; no matter how nicely he might phrase things, it's the message, not the etiquette, that they're not ready to hear.

The question, then, is how you can go about delivering an unacceptable message to an unreceptive audience. It's usually a matter of preparation; if Galileo were still around to try to explain himself to the church today, he'd find them prepared, if not to accept his message, at least to tolerate his method. Some biotechnologists might not agree ... but then perhaps they're climbing a preparation curve of their own.

In LaoTse this sort of preparation is how you build strength: AccomplishWithoutAction. To attack this kind of strength is itself quite an effort; it's more effective to accept it and say things that don't contend with it. -- PeterMerel


Some, not LaoTse, could equally well offer. DontAccomplish. -- AlistairCockburn


I think where we differ is in thinking you can separate the etiquette from the message. The etiquette (I would say presentation) is part of the message. An essential element of OnlySayThingsThatCanBeHeard is to know how your hearer listens. If you know that your hearer listens for slurs, you are especially careful not to say things that the listener can interpret as insulting. If you know that your listener hates global statements, then you carefully don't use them when trying to persuade.

When I'm talking past somebody, I tend to retreat to facts. "Do we agree that product speed will affect customer satisfaction?" "Do you think that the current product speed is sufficient?" This doesn't always work, and I suspect my preference for this style has a great deal to do with Myers-Briggs and less to do with my genius at communication.

-- BetsyHanesPerry

Maybe not just MyersBriggs either ... a good deal of research has been undertaken in discovering the dimensions of culture. This includes things like which just goes to show that if you want to be an international diplomat you really do need to realise that your entire concept of reality is really just a localised consensus and that elsewhere in the world you will need to modify your message.

See also: http://www.via-web.de/ibc/internationalbusinessculture.html BrokenLink - but may be in http://www.via-web.de/271.0.html.


This is a tricky bit to manage. I was accused yesterday of hypocrisy by a developer on one of my teams. He said, "You say all this stuff. You write all this stuff. But on this project we often do exactly the opposite." I modified my message to this team a bunch based on what they were ready to hear. I think in the process I got the most possibly out of them for the customer. It is still uncomfortable to be accused of being incongruent. I'd do the same thing again, though, so I guess it can't be too uncomfortable. -- KentBeck

Kent, I'm dying with curiosity here. You seem to be acknowledging that a) your behavior was hypocritical, and b) you would do it again. Is this the case? I would like to hear more of this story at almost any level. What behaviors were (potentially) hypocritical? What things do you say but not do on your current project? How did you treat with the developer who made the charges? How did this come up?

I don't think there's anything hypocritical about saying both, "This is the best way to do thus-and-so," and "I think you should do thus-and-so." Even when the two prescriptions are different. It seems to me as though this is possibly what you were doing.

There is risk here, in that we could be so gentle that we move in inches, where by being less gentle we could move by yards and miles. As a consultant, I'm often expected to have a quick result, but I tend to change things more gently.

So there is a question perhaps of effectiveness v. efficiency here. Clearly I couldn't move quicker by alienating my audience, but I may be so concerned about OnlySayThingsThatCanBeHeard that I am less productive that I could have been. Ah, it's all balance, isn't it. -- TimOttinger

Partly, it's to recognize the LimitsOfAccomplishment. Partly, I see in Michael's comments Bach's theme in the ...reluctantMessiah book where the messiah recognizes he can't reach everyone and has been hanging onto the desire to, anyway. Then he lets go of that. -- Alistair

Michael, one thing I learned from studying then teaching was that YouCantLearnSomethingUntilYouAlreadyAlmostKnowIt. The trick to teaching or talking people around to your way is to move them in small steps. -- JohnFarrell
This advice sounds like saying "If people aren't going to listen anyway, then keep your mouth shut." Thus it seems to advocate social conformity over independent thought and the expression thereof (and sounds a bit like self-censorship), and so it seems evil to me.

It is important to recognize that if people don't believe they have a reason to listen, they may choose not to do so. You can expect certain kinds of reactions from people in certain frames of mind - including, sometimes, the "ostrich" reaction - and that is an inescapable truth.

The recognition of that, though, still doesn't relieve you of the obligation to say what needs to be said. Honesty is more important than people's feelings. If the truth (or your viewpoint of it, anyway) upsets people, or if they choose to ignore it, then so be it. (And if it's too complex for people to understand, then what they need is more information, not less. Writing is better than talking in such cases.)

Sometimes it's important to "go on record" with an objection that people won't listen to at the moment; you can always point at it later (like when you're on trial for helping to cause a disaster) and say that, well, you told them so, but they just wouldn't listen. -- EdwardKiser

This is about finding things that can be heard which is different from avoiding things that can't. It is far better to deliver a message that will avert the disaster than it is to deliver a message that will fail to avert the disaster but that will cover your butt. "Honesty" is too often used as an excuse to say what you feel like saying instead of finding more effective, albeit less satisfying, things to say. Consider that you will not live long enough to utter every possible truth. You must pick and choose among truths. "OnlySayThingsThatCanBeHeard" advises you to choose the truths that will do others the most good. -- PhilGoodwin

The SixThinkingHats is a great way to make sure that everything that needs to be said gets said. -- EdwardKiser


This is another way of saying "speak in the language of your audience", is it not? I like however the point of avoiding creating the context of non-communication, which is one of underlying principles in the parable of "the boy who cried wolf".

-- EricScheid

I think it's more about the ideas, rather than the terms. For example, one can understand the single concepts in a mathematical definition, while not having an intuitive understanding of the definition as a whole - which stays in the mind as an abstract chain of concepts, with a correct syntax and a known semantics, but without a meaning associated with it.


Another illustration: Things not heard because of excess verbosity: BlahBlahBlah

mmm, actually selecting things that can be heard is far different from polluting one's head...


The other way I've heard this described:

You can only teach people what already lies on the edge of their awareness.

There is, however, a corollary:

The greatest sorrow is to be knowledgeable but be incapable of acting.

-- JeffChapman

Cassandra's greatest misfortune was that the stock market hadn't been invented. She could have made a fortune short-selling Trojan companies to buy Greek war bonds!


I think OnlySayThingsThatCanBeHeard it is an implementation of the more abstract KeepItEasy?. An easy theory for OnlySayThingsThatCanBeHeard would be that if you make too much blahblah, you overload the input capacity of the brain (or thinking system) of the receiver.

If any pathological influence excluded, normally everyone's brain consume the same amount of chemical substances to assure the correct operation of the neural network. But as certain people have different knowledge bases, it can happen that for a certain input that has to match the MindsKnowledgeBase? or MindsKnowledgeRepoitory? and to bee processed, there is no match, or only confusing match, and, in this case, a part of the brain is entering into longer loop, waiting that the synchronous call "knowledge base" returns with or without the matching information. Of course, during this loop the energy resources are further consumed, making the receivers thinking system to feel frustrated and so on.

It is possible that the receiver's thinking system contains in his mind's "Pattern Base" or his mind's "Pattern Repository" a "Self Defence Pattern In Case Of Being Idiot", and because of this it can happen that instead of returning to the sender of the message like "Sorry, could be, but I have no knowledge about it", or, "Might be, I am going to check" or similar, it instead returns a defending message containing imaginary facts like, "No, I am sure it is not right, because I have seen the contrary in a paper."

I think the best way to start a discussion is to tell the receiver (partner) a PerfectJoke?, that would sensitise the partner and open the MessageChannel?. But as no PerfectJoke? exists, no perfect discussion is possible.

-- MihalyElekes? (heavily edited by WikiGnomes)

P.S. please do not take this seriously


When I took science in high school, one of the more interesting experiments we performed was the ResonantTuningFork? trick. Two tuning forks of exactly the same note were placed across the room from one another and one was struck with a xylophone mallet. A few seconds later, with the first fork having been manually damped, the second could be heard to emit the same note.

The same trick would work to a lesser degree between forks of harmonic notes, but not between forks of simply different notes.

The receiving TuningFork? would only "listen" to its own note or to a harmonic of it.

People, it seems, do this to some degree. You get heard better if you tune what you say to the listener's note.

-- GarryHamilton

But to a large degree people only listen if they like what they hear. -- ts

I recently was sent to an advanced professional selling skills class by my company. The class essentially taught a personality identification system (akin to Myers-Briggs but simpler in structure and not a direct analog). It taught:
  1. the traits of each category,
  2. how to quickly recognize the category a person likely belonged to,
  3. how each category views itself (pros and cons),
  4. the likely conflicts in communication which would arise between categories, and
  5. how to a) avoid and b) defuse conflicts for a given combination of categories.

It's not always the silver bullet, but this method is very useful. It is probably better suited to face-to-face situations, but in my opinion it can be applied with modest success to online interactions.

This class revolved around what was heard. At certain times, we broke into groups of our four main categories and went through various exercises, and it was just fascinating to see what panned out. At one point, a person in one group said something, and every member of another group (including me) spontaneously came out with "That was cold." Though there was nothing really wrong with what that person said, it was the delivery that we objected to. Another group almost instantly garnered the label of the "problem customer" group, as its traits were those that most of us associated with bad experiences.

I don't know what this system is called or whether it's proprietary. The main categories are Analytical, Driver, Amiable and Expressive.

Saw these categories used recently (2014) but they were colour-coded: Blue, Red, Green, Yellow respectively. A quick Google indicates this is based on SocialStyleTheory? by DavidMerrill?, work on which dates back to 1964 -- MatthewMorris


I can only suggest reading Arthur Schopenhauer's small book "How to win an argument". It describes in simple rules what makes a good discussion, and why most arguments end in stupid conflict. Possibly the smartest things ever said about this topic. I find myself often in the same position - but I find it really hard to stop talking and OnlySayThingsThatCanBeHeard. :-) -- ThomasSchmall?

A similar sentiment is captured in the aphorism: "Never try to teach a pig to whistle. It is a waste of your time, and it annoys the pig."
But if you say something in a forest ... never mind.

It must be noted that the title puts the part of the burden of the listener upon the speaker. In speaking one must be aware of knowledge, background, and attitude of the targeted audience. It is evident that things said in a way that they can be heard, does not imply that they will be heard. There will always be those who do not comprehend, pay attention, or accept what is said. It may be enough to speak, and let it be that "they who have attentive ears, let them hear." -- DonaldNoyes
The other side of the coin is that many people will be bad at saying things that you can hear, so you can benefit by learning to sift through the words from someone who is constantly offputing. -- ErikvonReis?
CategoryCommunication CategoryPsychology CategoryCriticism

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