Fear Polarizes

Communication and fear share an uneasy alliance.

On the one hand communication's purpose is to exchange information. Since knowledge tempers fear, communication can be seen as existing because of fear -- if everyone had no doubts or uncertainties no empty feeling that needed filled with information, would we even have need of communication? (I'll leave that as an open question, I want to keep this entry under 10,000 words).

On the other hand, fear can clearly be an impediment to effective communication and it is this that I want to focus on: One way that fear hinders communication is that it tends to polarize us toward (or away) from an extreme position, and thus makes it more difficult to understand each other's actual position.

Consider The Balloon Race metaphor: If Delivery fears that Sales is going to inflate expectations without limit, they will respond by deflating expectations accordingly. Similarly, if Sales believes that Delivery is unconcerned with the need for business, they will respond by increasing the limit of what they are willing to promise the customer. The result is a tug-of-war that is more likely to crash the balloon than for either to get the balloon at the height they wish it to be.

Every situation seeks its balance point, and this is no less true in communication. When we fear that someone is too far to one side, it is very hard not to take an equally extreme position opposing. However, this is as likely to result in no one getting anything they want, rather than (as our fear assures us) an acceptable compromise. (for an excellent look at this see Getting to Yes by Fisher, Ury and Patton).

By understanding that giving in to our fear, by attacking (and often mischaracterizing) the other's position, serves only to exacerbate the situation, by remembering that this is reciprocal (and thus the other is likely attacking us because of their fears), we can choose a different path. We can instead extend trust and acceptance, and not a further entrench our position as our instincts tell us to do.

But they don't deserve our trust! Look at what they want to do -- if I trust them, I am going to get screwed!

In his book, True Professionalism, David Maister talks about how (despite what we are taught) trust is not granted because of trustworthiness, but to create trust -- IOW you have to give trust to get it.

So, when I find myself in a situation where everyone seems to be entrenching around extremes, I try to be mindful of the fears that are driving me -- and those around me -- and extend some trust, unearned, and even undeserved. Its scary, but the gratifying feeling when you see the other party respond in kind is worth it -- and it pays off in effectiveness. If the alternative is to lose anyway, then what do we really have to lose by trusting?