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The Power of Virtuous Communication

Most if not all progress happens through conversation. New ideas need to be brought before colleagues. Concepts get discussed around boardrooms and back rooms. How we communicate with each other regarding ideas and concepts makes a big difference in their success or failure. How companies discover, discuss and implement solutions to problems ranging from implementing new technology to providing better customer service often makes or breaks the business. One could say that the most progressive companies can identify issues, and find solutions through communication and adaptation, quicker than their counterparts.

Successful communication is also the key to happy relationships. In a relationship with a spouse or significant other, the manner in which we resolve differences through communication can mean the difference between happiness and heartbreak.

The successful resolution of problems hinges on how we communicate. It is more than the words we say. What is the motivation behind our communication? What is our end goal as we communicate? Do we resist great ideas from colleagues because of petty rivalries? Do we undermine those around us because we want credit for new ideas and for finding the best solution? These kinds of attitudes are real and present in the workplace. It costs untold millions of dollars in lost opportunities and lost customers for businesses when company leaders remain focused on personal agendas rather than the ultimate good of the company. Do we resist honest communication with our significant other because we would rather defend our position to the bitter end than see it through their eyes and move forward together?

One definition of virtue is to fulfill the purpose we were created for. To help a company or spouse achieve their stated goals – their unique level of excellence – should be the end goal of our communication with those we communicate with. But how can this be accomplished?

Aristotle has provided a recipe to help us discover how to understand our world better, and achieve more progress, by communicating on a higher plane. This can be used to improve a relationship with a spouse, or to assist a particular company achieve new levels of success. Aristotle says that the best communication comes from those who can see things as they really are. And, the ability to see things as they truly are only comes to those of a good, moral character. The ability to contemplate things as they really are brings bad thinking to a stop, and lets good thinking begin. The key to this type of communication is to have what Aristotle calls “the beautiful” as our motivation.

The “beautiful” is not specifically defined by Aristotle, but he uses the Greek phrase “to kalon” (translated as “the beautiful”) to mean a certain moral rightness. It is what someone that has “right desire” and “right thinking” working together truly desires for himself and those around him. According to Aristotle, “the beautiful” is the end goal of virtuous actions. Therefore, those that can create the habit of virtuous action in their lives, keeping the end goal of the moral rightness and righteous desires – “the beautiful” – in mind, will be able to communicate on a higher plane. They will see things as they truly are, not through muddled, habitually bad thinking.

Working within this framework allows us to break out of bad habits. Instead of already having made our judgment based on our habitual way of looking at things, it allows us to wonder at the situations we find ourselves in. We wonder because we need to get away from our animal, instinctive responses of already knowing. With “the beautiful” as our motivation, there is no more defensiveness and self-preservation in our communication. It keeps us from forcing everything into supporting our self-serving opinions and our preconceived theories. Following Aristotle’s method frees us to stop thinking in a habitually bad way, and lets real thinking begin. We slow down our knee jerk reactions, and allow for time to find the communication that is truly lifting. Stephen Covey speaks about the short instants between environmental input and the response we choose to make. This means we have a reaction time in which we can choose to communicate in the best possible manner, reaching for “the beautiful.”

We can’t couch our communication behind hidden agendas of “what am I going to get out of this”, or “this will make me look really smart”, or “I’m going to prove I’m right no matter what.” When we have motivation other than “the beautiful” behind our communication, people can sense our lack of sincerity. Aristotle says that “the beautiful” is perceived by the senses: it is simply ‘just known’ when it exists or occurs. When we communicate within our hidden agendas, people can sense whether or not you truly have their best interests in mind. It doesn’t matter if you are using all the correct words. If the right motivation is not present, it can be sensed. Right reasoning and right desires both need to be present. The things we say and the stands we take depend on our moral virtue to make our aim right.

Following this pattern enables us to find the best path forward through our conversations. If our motivation is genuinely good, we will repair and maintain good relationships even if our choice of words is not always the best. We will also be able to find the intersection – the common ground – between different parties goals and purposes. Finding this common ground allows us to reach resolutions quicker, build bridges faster, and repair strained relationships that so often limit progress.

Russell Kirk says that order in the world starts with order in men’s own hearts. If there is right order in our own hearts – morally virtuous thoughts and desires – it will be manifest in our actions and communication because, as Aristotle states, virtue manifests itself in action.  Keeping “the beautiful” as the motivating factor in our interactions with our spouses and colleagues will allow us to reach new levels of progress and live happy, fulfilling lives.

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  1. Jeff
    April 22, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    The root of the word ‘converse’ is “to turn together” (Latin IIRC). ‘True’, or – since we’re using it – “beautiful” conversation is where we come together with someone else to find out what is there together. Impossible to do if we are: 1) too sure too soon that we ‘know’ all the available data (we don’t), 2) too sure that our ‘way’ or interpretation is the Truth (it isn’t), 3) aren’t aware that humans (all) frequently ‘explain’ facts as a way of quickly dealing/categorizing with new situations, and that our observational biases are often hidden from ourselves (“facts” are hard to find and deal with unless we are vigilant about keeping our ‘stories’ about those facts out of the conversation; i.e.: wife says to husband, “…you weren’t listening to me because my opinion isn’t important to you…”), and 4) we aren’t looking for a way to connect with the other person’s view, interests, needs, etc.

    It is hard work, but it is worth it. The people I know who are best at it are world-class contributors at whatever they do. Mickey Connolly of Conversant Solutions comes to mind. There are others, and they make a huge, positive impact on the people they are in conversation with.

    • April 23, 2010 at 8:17 am

      Yeah, but isn’t it interesting? When I read this section in Nicomachean Ethics, I immediately thought of Conversant and the other high priced consultants (not that high price is a bad thing) in the business world today. Some of the things I have heard about Mickey are really incredible. But it also made me think: Aristotle was explaining this stuff in 350BC. There is no new thing under the sun… (Ecc. 1:9)

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