About communication, I guess I ought to know about all there is, by now.
My first job was right here, at Ragan Communications. I came to work here in 1992, for Mark Ragan and his father Larry, who had founded the company in 1969, the year of my birth. I immediately read everything the old man had written.
The only thing automatic about Larry’s manual typewriter was the tough prose it regularly rattled off.
In columns in the weekly communication trade newsletter, “The Ragan Report,” Larry stood out by telling the truth, rather than the professionally polite.
He once mocked a prissy academic study that offered a brittle definition of “excellence in public relations” with a column headlined, “Does selling scads of brassieres constitute ‘excellent public relations’?” You really didn’t need to read the rest. (But you did.)
In 1974, Larry explained that communication problems usually stem from behavior problems. Of Haldeman and Ehrlichman and Nixon, he wrote: “Boys, you weren’t good. Bad PR.”
Larry was at his toughest when he was bringing communicators up short. It’s easy, when you’re in the position he was—at the center of a community of professionals who want to feel virtuous and important—to tell people what they want to hear, and collect their checks like so many thank-you notes.
Larry loved communication more than he loved communicators. Or maybe he loved communicators enough to tell them uncomfortable truths. And one of those truths, I remember receiving like a punch I never saw coming: Communication is not the solution to every social problem, Larry said, adding that the communicator who thinks it is, is sentimental and simple-minded.
I’ve been chewing on that fist for about a quarter century.
I’d been brought up—by two writer parents at the dinner table and by Phil Donahue on TV—to believe that communication could solve anything.
It wasn’t only me: My whole American generation was led to believe that racial tensions would be eased by a “national conversation.” Environmental problems could be solved if only everyone could be made to understand the facts. Psychological problems could be solved by talk therapy, and encounter groups. The nightly news was full of “labor talks,” “disarmament talks” and “peace talks.” The noisiest social issues would one day be resolved, with patience and communication. And if they couldn’t, then good people could at least agree that “good people can disagree.”
So it was hard to hear from as trustworthy and honest an observer as Larry Ragan that some disagreements might be beyond what words could resolve, some problems were too fundamental to be talked through.
Now? As the nation staggers from one of the most contentious elections in its history to the next, it’s starting to seem as if communication can’t solve anything.
Now talk therapy is a supplement to Prozac, not the other way around. We’ve had national conversations about race until we were blue in the face. Online discussions instantly devolve into attempted rhetorical murder. People dread their family holiday dinners and exchange tips on how to avoid controversial—read, meaningful—subjects. And woe to the pipsqueak who suggests that the contentious political issues of our time can be resolved if only we can open our hearts and minds and listen to one another.
Members of this society frequently aren’t even able to agree to common set of facts—and we haven’t been, actually, for longer than we remember. In fact, I remember Larry Ragan after an employee lunch table conversation about the O.J. Simpson trial, grumbling as he retreated to his office, “It makes a mockery of reality.”
Inspired by Larry and Mark and my writer parents and hundreds of serious communicators I’ve known, I have given my whole career to communication, writing on political, business and personal communication for more than 25 years.
Words aren’t all we have, said W.H. Auden. They’re just all we have to work with. And I’m not willing to give up on words yet. And if I know communicators—the writers and editors I’ve been drinking with in Chicago taverns and hotel bars around the country and the world—you’re not willing to give up yet, either.
How many times have you and I pounded the happy-hour high-top in frustration that if only CEOs and politicians, church leaders and parents knew what we know about communication, our workplaces, homes, communities and country would be a better place to live?
Maybe, in what promises to be a rhetorically riotous run-up to the 2020 presidential election, it’s time for communicators to put our money where our mouth is.
I’ve collected my own toughest and most candid writings on communication, and edited them into a book that that I hope will help Americans communicate more effectively with the people they love, the people they work with and even the friends and strangers against whom they rage, across the political divide.
The book is called “An Effort to Understand.” Perhaps you’ll recognize those words. They were drawn from the speech Robert Kennedy gave in the immediate wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Kennedy said that in this particular country, we need to make an effort to understand one another. Which starts, of course, with understanding ourselves. As the subtitle of my book suggests, I believe we need to go one further, and “stop shaking our heads at one another and start communicating more honestly with ourselves.”
And that’s what I hope this book will help us do: Listen more carefully. Choose battles more wisely. Avoid insulting people accidentally. Think more generously. Argue more productively. Repair relationships worth repairing (and stop trying to fix the Hindenburg). Use humor as a salve and not a hammer. Make peace in your life, contribute to a more cohesive family, community, workplace and society.
So if you believe that professional communicators have some wisdom that the world could use—and if you trust this well-taught, longtime observer to share it—then maybe you’d like to read An Effort to Understand.
And if you think you’d like to read it, I hope you’ll pre-order it. The book is being represented by the hot crowdfunding literary agency Publishizer, which uses pre-orders to show publishers that a book has an enthusiastic readership.
I think of this not as my book, but as our book. As our own last-ditch effort to help our fellow citizens understand what we understand about communication—its limitations, and its capabilities—to save a civilized, humane, democratic society that seeks to finally fulfill Robert Kennedy’s half-century-old appeal: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another.”