Sunday, August 14, 2005

Rhetorical Sensitivity

I would like to follow-up on two earlier postings, Peacemaking and Effectiveness, and Language and "Translation", by now discussing the role of "rhetorical sensitivity" in effective peacemaking.

In the first posting, I discussed hearing a talk by someone who was concerned that so many people who are interested in peacemaking and social change do not pay enough attention to how to actually be effective. They care more about being faithful than actually succeeding. The implication was that many people want to make themselves feel better by "doing something," but (for whatever reason) don't follow this up with actual analysis of whether what they did actually accomplished what they hoped to accomplish.

The reasons for this may be obvious. It is hard work to follow up with careful analysis of effectiveness. Not only does it take time and attention, it requires humility. What if you weren't very effective? We don't like facing our lack of effectiveness. It is easier to say, "I tried my best!" and blame others for why it didn't work.

But what if we really really care about succeeding? Then we cannot rest with this! All of the really successful peacemakers knew how to assess effectiveness, and learned from it, and improved their strategies. I agree with Joey Rodger -- it is imperative to learn how to do this!

And learning this requires not only education in nonviolent strategies, but also psychological strengthening -- to face one's lack of success, be willing to change, and try again, and again, and again.

A first step in gaining effectiveness is learning rhetorical sensitivity. Since most of us do most of our peacemaking through words, such as through persuading, negotiating, and inspiring to action, an excellent place to start improving our effectiveness is through improving our communication.

"Rhetorical sensitivity" means clarifying our purposes for communication and being aware of our intended audience and carefully crafting our language in order to reach our intended audience effectively.

Different communications have different purposes and different audiences. Sometimes we are really speaking to ourselves, seeking insight about something, or perhaps seeking the cathartic value of venting. Other times, we have other audiences in mind, and different purposes. We wish perhaps to convey information to others who may seek that information. Or we may want to persuade others to help us with something we care about. Or we may wish to persuade those in power to use their power differently.

When we engage others in communication, it is very important to think about who they are and consider the likely ways they will interpret our attempts to communicate. Are they likely to become defensive? If so, are there ways we can disarm them and build up trust before giving full voice to our request? Or, are they already likely to be sympathetic to our cause? How can we effectively inspire them to help? For example, do we offer specific suggestions, and respectfully offer them choices? Or do we yell at them and order them around? If we are yelled at and ordered around, are we more or less likely to want to cooperate?

It's always good to read back our words (or rehearse important spoken communications), trying to perceive them from the point of view of our intended audience to test whether our communication is likely to be received well.

Blogs are an especially interesting mode of communication, because they can feel a lot like private diaries (especially if you have few readers!), yet they dwell in very public spaces. The audience can be very unclear. Blogging "voices" thus often shift back and forth between diary-like personal/private musings/ventings, and public pleas.

Sometimes I think the intended audience is actually God.

We raise our fists of outrage at all that goes wrong in our lives, in the world, and ask, beg, for Divine Intervention. "Someone! Do something! Fix this!"

So, now I must be reflexive and ask: who is my audience? Why am I writing this, now?

It's not just me (though I am part of my audience -- I do keep saying certain things over and over to myself, to help keep me reminded). I keep hoping I will attract an audience of Concerned Souls who want to do their parts to make the world a better place, and I hope to share helpful thoughts along the way, about how to manage the stresses and strains of this kind of work well, becoming ever more effective.

There are of course many ways to make the world a better place. I appreciate artistic approaches as much as I appreciate direct peacemaking and social action.

Artists are usually already well trained in "rhetorical sensitivity" appropriate to their artistic endeavors. They learn to be critically self-reflective. They constantly hone their artistic skills, trying to express ever more effectively the inspiration they receive.

But using words well is a form of artistry too; and words have great power in changing the world.

I'll probably be developing my thoughts on this more in the coming days, but I'll pause for now.


  1. EXCELLENT - That's all I can say...

  2. Found this post while browsing, and will now aggregate your blog! Nice post on rhetorical sensitivity, and how to strive toward more effective communication. Thanks!