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Reacting to Trump’s Bloviating BS with Radical Candor

Today I turn for inspiration to Daryl Davis, the R&B musician who helped persuade Roger Kelly, Imperial Wizard, to quit the KKK.

“While you are actively learning about someone else you are passively teaching them about yourself. So if you have an adversary, an opponent with a opposing point of view, give that person a platform. Allow them to air that point of view regardless of how extreme it may be. And believe me I’ve heard some things so extreme at these rallies it will cut you to the bone. Give them a platform. You challenge them. But you don’t challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way, chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform.”

(You can hear him talk on this podcast. His book needs to be re-printed!!)

Like so many people watching Trump’s press conference yesterday, I woke up this morning with a pit in my stomach. Did the President really defend white supremacists yesterday? How have we elected a man with so little understanding of what is great and what is shameful about our history that he puts Robert E. Lee, defender of slavery which defines the very worst of what we did as a nation, with George Washington, who symbolizes our highest ideals?

Trump’s words are putting my ideals and philosophy to the test. I believe in Radical Candor–challenging others while still caring about them as fellow human beings. Do I really have to care about Donald Trump? Since I don’t know him, I can’t care personally. But is showing common human decency in the face of his bloviating bullshit even desirable?

Yes! One of the most evil, and oldest political tricks in the book is gain power by sowing fear and hatred in the population at large. I’m saddened but not surprised at what Trump said yesterday. What alarms me most is how many ordinary Americans have reacted to it by hating each other. In his book On Human Nature, EO Wilson explains the danger of dividing ourselves into artificial tribes, democrat and republican.

In all periods of life there is an equally powerful urge to dichotomize, to classify other human beings into two artificially sharpened categories. We seem to be able to be fully comfortable only when… humanity can be labeled as members versus non members, kin versus nonkin, friend versus foe. Erik Erikson has written on the proneness of people everywhere to perform pseudospeciation, the reduction of alien societies to the status of inferior species, not fully human, who can be degraded without conscience.

That’s why I am so alarmed when those who find what Trump said abhorrent, as I do, resort to hurling insults and saying that everyone who voted for Trump is evil. The reaction will allow him to gain more power by sowing hatred in our country. Trump’s press conference set off an explosion of “degrading each other without conscience.” When we fight hatred with hatred, when hurl insults at one another without regard for our common humanity, we are risking everything we hold dear.

It doesn’t begin and end with one man, unfortunately. But both of our political parties have contributed to the mess we are in. Michael Porter and Katherine Gehl explain why politics is failing America. The more fear and loathing of the other party there is, the more money each party raises. The more cooperation in congress there is, the more the American people benefit, but the less money each party can raise.

But it’s not just the political parties. It’s all of us. Too many of us, those who agree but also who disagree with Trump, have followed his lead in how we Tweet and how we talk to each other. We “pseudospeciate.” We divide all of America into two groups, and assign all kinds of traits to the other side that justifies our very worst behavior.

This is especially dangerous because our country has broken itself down into super-majorities by region. Even when a supermajority sees itself as committed to civil discourse, if you’re in the minority, you’re likely to feel shouted down by sheer numbers. And in today’s political environment, both the left and the right seem more committed to unmeasured vituperation rather than open dialogue. So you probably don’t just feel shouted down, you probably are, literally, shouted down with rude and painful insults.

In San Francisco-Hayward-Oakland, 76.7% of people voted for Clinton; in Silicon Valley (Sunnyvale, San Jose, Sana Clara), it was 72.9%1. In the Bronx it was 88%, and in Manhattan it was 86%2. In Birmingham, AL 58.6% of people voted for Trump; in Oklahoma city it was 58.5%3; in Staten Island, it was 57%4. In metros with less than 250,000 people Trump won on average 57% of the vote. But major metropolitan areas are not the place to look for a conservative supermajority. It is places like King County, TX (west of Dallas, east of Amarillo) where 91% of people voted for Trump5.

It’s hard to be a minority voice in a supermajority. It is hard to be a conservative in Silicon Valley. And I imagine it was hard to be one of the five people in King County, TX who voted for Clinton. This difficulty is tearing our nation, our companies, our friendships, and our families apart.

Today, try to have a radically candid political conversation–one in which you challenge somebody’s political position but still show you care about that person. Choose a topic you have strong views on, but not one that makes you see red. Choose a person whom you respect and get along with easily. Start by asking why they have the opinion they have on some policy. Listen with the intent to understand. Repeat what they’ve said to you to make sure you understood correctly. Ask more questions. Then ask if they’d like to hear about your point of view. Only if they seem genuine when you proceed should you continue. Explain your position. If the conversation is going reasonably well but you still don’t agree, try switching sides. Ask the other person to take your position, and you take theirs.

Don’t judge the success of the conversation on whether you change the other person’s mind, or change your mind. You just have to be willing hear the issues from the other person’s perspective, and to express your point of view with respect but with unstinting clarity–all the while, not losing sight of the fact that you actually like the person you’re talking to, even if you don’t agree about abortion or healthcare or gun control, even if they don’t share your feelings about what Trump said yesterday.

This conversation going to feel unnatural. Why should you have it?

Because it’s your job. If you are an American citizen, you are a leader. The founding fathers made each and every citizen of this country a boss. It’s the job of all of us–we the people–to choose our executives, legislators, and judges carefully. It’s our ability to hold them accountable for good governance. And it’s our job to elect somebody different if they are failing us. In other words, we hire, hold accountable, and fire the team who governs this nation. That’s a very basic job description of a manager. You might not want to be a manager. But if you vote (or even if you should’ve voted but didn’t), you are one!

If we can’t lead by example–if we can’t discuss the important topics of our time with each other in a civil way–then it’s going to be difficult for us to insist that our elected officials do so. History is as much a bottoms-up process as it is top down. Your words matter.

If we can’t find a way to disagree while still seeing the person we are disagreeing with as a fellow human being, our democracy may fail. Too many people seem to think that in order to challenge effectively, we have to hate. Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to challenge ideas we disagree with, find abhorrent, or even evil, we must not ourselves become evil. To be effective, we must bring our full humanity to bear, and see humanity in those with whom we disagree, as never before.


An Open Letter to James Damore

James, you’ve touched the third rail that is gender. I’m writing not to add to the abuse pouring down on you, but because I believe that third rail is hurting not just you but all of us. I’m writing an open letter because I know that there are a lot of others who believe what you believe but are remaining silent. I think this stuff is better out in the open.

I’ll admit as a liberal, a woman, and a former Googler who led a 700-person team, I can knowledgeably – and vehemently – disagree with most of what you wrote.

But, I’m also glad you wrote it. Seriously. When you say what you really think, you give others a chance to challenge your thinking. And in return I promise to be open to giving you a chance to change my thinking.

Let’s start with where we agree: “We all have biases which are invisible to us. Thankfully, open and honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us grow.” Amen!

I also agree that “Google has several biases and honest discussion about these biases is being silenced by the dominant ideology.” I have several conservative friends at Google. While I don’t share their politics, I hate the reality that they often feel invisible and unable to speak their minds. This shouldn’t happen at a global champion of free expression that prides itself on building a reasonable culture where people are expected to disagree and argue fiercely and respectfully. Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai and pretty much every leader I know there is deeply committed to making sure everyone has a voice at Google. But they’ve got a ways to go; I have total confidence openness to diverse views will continue to improve there. Conservative Googlers have both Sundar and you to thank for that.

If you have views but can’t give voice to them you don’t have a sense of psychological safety. Getting fired certainly didn’t contribute to your feeling of psychological safety. I care about psychological safety in general, and your psychological safety in particular. I wish you’d had a boss or a mentor who could have helped you to find a more productive way to express yourself, and to challenge some of your views.

To that end, and in the spirit of Radical Candor, I’d like to explain where I think you mis-stepped, and to offer some ideas for how you can find a way to share your opinions more productively in the future. In general, it’s better to criticize in private, but when an issue is so public an open letter will scale. However, I’m also happy to have a private conversation.

Of course, you probably thought you wrote in the spirit of Radical Candor as well. But Radical Candor gets measured at the other person’s ear, not at your mouth.

When you make an argument that shows no concern for the people you’re talking to, and exhibits little awareness that your argument is more an ensemble of opinion than proven science or fact, others will experience your words as Obnoxious Aggression.  This makes them reluctant to engage in productive conversation with you—you’ve lost credibility and hurt your relationships all in one fell swoop.

In what you wrote, you didn’t quite come out and say that you thought the gender problem in tech is that women are stupider and more neurotic than men.  But you came pretty damn close–“the left tends to deny science concerning biological differences between people (e.g., IQ and sex differences)” and “Women, on average, have more neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).”

When writing about IQ, you alluded one body of research showing men have a higher IQ, but failed to acknowledge the other body of research that shows they don’t. More importantly, the real world suggests IQ doesn’t matter in the way you assert that it does. As EO Wilson wrote, “Isn’t the cutting edge a place only for geniuses? No, fortunately…in most fields most of the time, extreme brightness may be a detriment.”

When you imply that the problem with women in tech is the size of the female brain, you are ignoring both your intellect and your emotional intelligence. I have no doubt you are a rational thinker, and that you are a decent human being, but what you wrote about IQ/neuroticism and their role in the small percentage of female tech leaders was neither smart nor true.

Of course, you are far, far from alone in your assumptions. My own son asserted that boys were smarter than girls when he was six. He now understands that’s not accurate and the dangers of gross generalizations and prejudice. I just hope I’ve educated him with love, not by pressing his hand to the third rail. Perhaps you have some advice for me there?

I would be interested in having a conversation about whether or not it makes sense to mandate unconscious bias training for all promotion committees, and a number of other suggestions you make. BUT I’m not eager to have that conversation with a person who indicated, perhaps without meaning to or even really believing it, that I’m likely to be stupider and more neurotic than he is.

Not being obnoxious doesn’t mean you have to become Ruinously Empathetic, as you indicated in what you wrote. I agree that it’s a terrible mistake to be so concerned for somebody else’s feelings that you can’t point out a problem when you see one. But thinking you must choose between Obnoxious Aggression and Ruinous Empathy is just a false dichotomy. You don’t.

Of course much worse than caring so much we don’t challenge or challenging so hard we forget to care is Manipulative Insincerity, what happens when we neither care nor challenge but fume silently. And all too often the current climate of gender politics pushes both men and women to be manipulatively insincere on the topic. I am guessing that is in part what you were reacting to and why you wrote as you did. In today’s legal climate, it’s hardly surprising that Google fired you for writing what you did; if your words had gone unchallenged many people would have felt the company was not doing enough to prevent a hostile work environment. I’ll confess I wouldn’t want to work as your peer or your employee after what you wrote. However, my offer of coaching does stand if you’d like it. That’s because I believe the laws that have been put in place to protect women from discrimination sometimes make open conversations in which we explore ideas (and get some things wrong) too dangerous. That is a shame and I’d like to find a way forward. And get your thoughts on that as well.

You don’t have to become emotionally unengaged to avoid Ruinous Empathy. When you pretend the emotional factors that govern all of us–even you–don’t exist, you don’t become more rational, you just fall prey to self-deception and become a worse communicator. You don’t need to choose between your mind and your emotions. You can be the master of both. You can care and challenge.

Google’s founders showed how to do that at a company meeting in 2004 when an engineer asked why Google’s executives were spending so much time getting a daycare set up. Why was it such a priority? There were a lot of abstract reasons given, but the best answer was Larry’s. He said, to the best of my memory, “Well, Susan just returned from maternity leave. We love working with her, and if she wants to come back to work, we want to make it as easy as possible for her.” Susan figured out how to make brand advertising work at Google, a multi-billion- dollar business, and she’s now CEO of YouTube. I’d say that explaining the decision through an anecdote was more effective than stats, and that building the daycare center paid off, wouldn’t you?

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