What’s the Best Idea You’ve Heard about Communication?

Sometimes I’m asked, “what’s the best idea you’ve heard about communication?” Think for a moment about how you would answer this question. Whatever the insight, you could have learned it from anybody. A family member, mentor, even someone getting on the bus or putting gas in their car next to you. Go on, give it some thought and make a choice.

I’ve long had a #1 in this spot: “always stay open to the possibility of being wrong, misguided, or better informed about anything” (I first heard a variation of this many moons ago from the brilliant Mike Giuliano).

This has been by far the most practical idea for communication I’ve come across. In essence, it means that you’re always open to other information and understandings. That you’re willing to say that you made a mistake and will seek to address or fix it. That you’re not all seeing and all knowing, so no matter where you currently stand or what you believe you’re open to revisions and updates. That you’re never done learning.

What it doesn’t mean is that any idea is as good as any other. That in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, baseless conspiracy theories or the vast amounts of bullshit produced across the planet every day deserve your sustained attention. Or that you’re not forming judgments or evaluating what you come across. What it does mean is that even when it leads to uncomfortable and unprofitable truths, you’re trying to be honest and accurate with others at every turn.

Okay, thought experiment. Can you imagine if everyone on the planet, in all their diverse ways of being, thinking, and acting, at least followed this idea when they communicated with others? Think of the many conflicts that would dwindle away overnight when some acknowledgement one could be wrong, some curiosity to learn more, and an opening rather than closing of space for communication became general norms. That has already been the basis for some of the greatest attempts at reconciliation the world has known.

The forces that get in the way of putting this idea into practice are mighty. And that’s partly why I think always staying open to the possibility of being wrong, misguided, or better informed about anything is so worth the challenge. For some people, learning has a stopping point. I found in one book that many converts to political causes rave about how much thought it took for them to arrive at their new political belief systems, and then just give up on learning anything that might conflict with those new beliefs entirely afterward. Then there’s tribal loyalties, ego involvement, psychological pressures like the confirmation bias (and the media echo chambers that feed on it), salary interests, and more, all yelling at us—like those characters from Inside Out— “you cannot be wrong, misguided, or better informed!”

It’s the difference between behaving as a politician, preacher, prosecutor, or a scientist (as detailed in Adam Grant’s Think Again). Outerbridge put together this helpful figure to show the clear differences between Grant’s modes:

A diagram of a diagram of a person and person

Description automatically generated with medium confidence

I think there’s at least one or two other significant modes to add to this scheme, which I’ll get into in a future post. As Grant also acknowledges, the “scientist” mode can certainly morph into the other three (e.g. pharmaceutical companies paying researchers to promote their drugs). But these happenings don’t undermine the ideal that, when following better angels, the scientist mode searches well first, and propagates only second (and then goes back to searching), rather than vice versa.

I’ll stay open to being wrong, misguided, or better informed about my choice of this best idea for communication. Maybe there’s other principles that are more deserving. What’s the best idea you’ve heard?