Nurturing Abilities That Build Success

There are some important abilities that really aren't skills. They are difficult to train for, test for, or measure. And yet they are vitally important to building your effectiveness, especially in working with groups. We call such "soft" skills abilities. There is no hard and fast line between what is teachable and what isn't, so that makes the discussion of these abilities challenging.

Speaking Positively

Yes ButtonUsually when other people speak for more than a few seconds or a few words, they will have expressed several ideas jumbled together. If you are clever and if you want to, you can usually find something to agree with, and if you start there, that's speaking positively. After that, you usually have a choice in how you respond to the other parts of what a person is saying. You can respond by explaining your disagreement, or you can respond in a way that allows the other person to see the possibility of the discussion having a positive outcome. So, leaning positive, you say, "What you're suggesting is one way we could decide to go. It's important to me that whatever we decide to do actually be good for everyone involved. I can see your goals, and I think we could hash this through to where we can agree on a path forward that everybody would support because they would see how it would benefit them." Or you could say, "I really disagree with what you're suggesting because if we did what you say, it would hurt a lot of people."

Avoiding Unnecessary Offense

Venting negative emotions is often just emotional self-indulgence, and people who indulge often leave a trail of offended or at least put off feelings. Whether your negative emotions take the form of anger, or scorn, or mockery, or sarcasm, or belittling, or condescension, or just being a patronizing jerk, they reliably give offense. The rub is that a good portion of the time people give offense, it isn't an intentional or premeditated result. It is instead an accident, the product of thoughtlessness, carelessness, or arrogance. Seldom will giving offense advance your goals. Using tact and diplomacy offer a much wiser and more useful path, but for most people, this doesn't come naturally.

Recognizing Unfair Arguments & Fallacies

Recognizing "unfair" or irrational arguments, both those coming at you and those coming from you, is very helpful. Otherwise intelligent people can easily slip into very dumb arguments when they get angry. For example, angry people will often use ad hominem arguments, and often don't even recognize what they are doing when they do. The most important application of this ability is to prevent yourself from using credibility destroying unfair or illogical arguments. The second important application is in promoting fairness in group discussions. Far less important is defense. Most of the time, crying foul will sound like whining, but recognizing such arguments may help you avoid getting sucked into an unproductive dispute.

Recognizing Counterproductive Conflicts

When conflicts involve mostly a clash of egos, it isn't difficult to tag the interaction as likely counterproductive. Giving the disputants a face-saving way to climb back off the ledge is often hard, however. Many conflicts are driven by a combination of semantic differences and ego attachments for or against particular labels. An obvious example is tagging someone whose ideas you dislike as a "far right-winger" or as a "socialist." This certainly is a way to express disapproval, but because such terms are so often poorly defined, their use usually devolves to even more petty name-calling. Recognizing quickly the emergence of arguments and controversies that are counterproductive, and then avoiding or damping down those conflicts, is a priceless talent when the point is to get something done in a group.

Recognizing Hidden Agreement

Because of our contentious natures, our tendency to attach our egos to our words, and our lack of appreciation for the difficulties of communication about ambiguous but important things (like values), we often overlook opportunities to establish agreement. We overlook them because we just don't see them. Ego plus anger often produces a temporary blindness. If you listen carefully and pay attention to the back story present in local conflicts, you may see past the noise and understand that there is much more smoke than fire, much more splashy conflict than actual disagreement. Big opportunities open up when we recognize that the arguing parties are both partly right but talking past each other. Teasing out elements of agreement from the noise of conflict is an art.

Seeing Yourself Through Others' Eyes

Understanding how you appear to others is harder than it sounds. When we look in the mirror, we see only a tiny fraction of our repertoire of facial expressions. We don't see what we look like when we are angry, or sneering, or sarcastic. More often than not, people don't realize how they appear to others. We are also often under the illusion that we are hiding our feelings, when in fact, from the outside looking in, they may appear plain as day. Evolution has equipped us humans exquisitely to read the feelings of those around us, so if you are looking down on others, or harbor various negative emotions toward those with whom you are working, those feelings are likely much more apparent than you think. Coming to understand this can be unsettling. How, we wonder, can we succeed if our emotions are so visible? Oh, and you can also expect that any other unfortunate inclinations you may possess, to ego display, to holier-than-thou moral posturing, to lift yourself up by putting others down, you can expect all such inclinations to be distressingly visible as well. The only answer, of course, is to develop a new attitude. More on that in the discussion of Understandings & Attitudes.

Emotional Self-Control

The ability to contain impulses to express anger and frustration can keep you from saying things you later wish you hadn't, but of course can't take back. To the extent you feel yourself subject to sudden bursts of anger or frustration, it would be a good idea to look for effective ways to keep such emotions in check. Of course, ultimately the best and perhaps only real solution is to adopt a fundamentally different attitude. In the immediate context, impulse control, or anger management, would be better than nothing.


It is important to understand that you too are subject to great cognitive distortions, that you too engage in motivated reasoning, and that you too may have emotional characteristics that are obstacles to your success as an activist. Seeing these obstacles is generally the first step in working around them. The next article, Self-Understanding & A New Attitude, will examine the benefits of self-understanding in some detail.

Being Self-Aware in Real Time

All of your self-understanding after you stop to think it over won't help a lot. Understanding how others see you, and the insights and wisdom embodied in the abilities described above, won't amount to much if they are not applied to guide your interactions, which always occur in the present moment, and which cannot be redone after reflection. Often there is no getting it right on the second try. Call what is required a form of mindfulness. A reserve is needed, a holding back from passion, so that you can maintain a consciousness that enables you to recognize mistakes before they leave your mouth. The point is to apply your understanding to more successfully navigate the minefields of unproductive arguments waiting to happen.

Building Your Credibility & Influence

If you are going to be a local activist for years, if it isn't just going to be a one-time fling, then it will boost your effectiveness over time to cultivate a particular type of reputation. You do that by ALWAYS behaving in a manner that will be described by others using terms like these: honest, a straight-shooter, no hidden agenda, always bargains in good faith, consistently fair-minded, displays good will toward all, shows community spiritedness, very courteous, respectful, even-tempered, calm under fire, level-headed... You get the idea. You get the reputation you earn. Be a person of honor, be that person whose word is their bond, and your ability to make the world a better place will grow. Maybe a lot.

Published: August 2020
Revised: July 2023

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