Knowing Your Skills & Your Limits

"A man's got to know his limitations," Clint Eastwood (as Harry Callahan) famously observed. Of course, so does a woman.

All of us are subject to many unconscious biases. Some of us recognize this, and some of us don't. One of the most pervasive biases is the optimism bias. According to Wikipedia, it is common and transcends gender, ethnicity, nationality and age. Most of us overestimate our abilities, and this often includes our ability to successfully reach across divides and have productive conversations. We overestimate our strengths, and underestimate our weaknesses. In short, we often don't know our limitations.

Since we don't always recognize our limitations, we stumble into conversations for which we are fundamentally unprepared. Since we see ourselves as persuasive, we are shocked by our failure to communicate.

Since we don't expect failure, we fail to prepare ourselves with the skills and attitudes needed to be successful. Since we expect success to be easier than it often proves to be, we fail to prepare ourselves to make the efforts required.

Ironically, people who have attempted to communicate in spite of being unprepared (and that's many people), often react by deciding that communication is hopeless, explaining it entirely by pointing to the unreasonableness of the "other side." They compound the error of lack of preparation with the error of holding themselves blameless for the failure to communicate.

We can do better, but only if we are willing to start by admitting our limitations and committing ourselves to learning the skills and cultivating the attitudes that would make success possible. We must hold ourselves accountable for the failure to communicate, and prepare ourselves for the difficult job of reconciliation that lies ahead.

Who Are You & How Do Others See You?

"Know thyself" is timeless wisdom, articulated by philosophers from Socrates and Plato to countless similar contemporary thinkers. Easy to say, hard to do. Your effectiveness as an advocate and activist can grow if you understand how others sometimes experience you and adjust your words and tone to eliminate any unnecessarily abrasive content.

We may be blissfully unaware that others experience us as arrogant, patronizing, judgmental, or otherwise insulting. Others may experience us this way because, well, we sometimes behave this way. Our critics are not always wrong.

Real-time self-awareness (in the heat of debate) that we are not always right about everything, coupled with the humility to admit our limitations, can make us vastly more able to communicate with those who disagree with us the most.

Elements of Your Socially Embedded Self

Attitudes - Most people who are politically engaged, who are paying attention, feel a significant level of anger. This is true on both sides. Are you caught up in this? Do you feel yourself to be under the influence of reflexive hostility and suspicion? How about feeling superior? Do you find yourself thinking that "they" must be very stupid, or at least very gullible? Or, do you find yourself able to converse and even empathize with people on "the other side" without too much emotional difficulty? If you are feeling hostile or superior, you probably aren't the best candidate to talk across the divide. But, as noted elsewhere, attitudes can change. Self-understanding can yield a new attitude, and with this, you will be much more effective.

Preferences - Some people like talking in front of groups. Other people hate it. Some people enjoy the process of healing conflicts. Other people find it painful and unpleasant. Some people like going door-to-door, others really don't. In general, it isn't a very good idea to try to overrule your preferences and force yourself to do things that make you unhappy. Your likes and dislikes matter. Since hopefully yours is not a short-lived involvement, it should be enjoyable, even fun, at least some of the time. If it isn't, you'll likely not be able to sustain it for the long-term effort circumstances require.

Skills & Abilities - Are you articulate? Can you anticipate or spot quickly the types of arguments and controversies that are counterproductive? Are you good at avoiding such conflicts? Do you have a high level of "emotional self-control?" You should make a careful inventory of your skills and abilities as a communicator, as a facilitator of group processes, as a conciliator, among other roles. And, of course, whatever the level and type of your current strengths and weaknesses, skills and abilities are very amenable to significant improvement.

Roles - Consider the distinctive opportunities that go with particular roles you may play (building or remodeling contractor, public sector manager, business owner, corporate manager, teacher, nurse, doctor, lawyer, minister, therapist, retail store owner/manager, policeman, firefighter, active duty military, national guard reserve, journalist, writer, elected official, appointed public administrator, community or transportation planner, business planner, realtor, investment advisor, retirement planner, on and on). Each role presents particular opportunities. For example, doctors with elderly and respiratory compromised patients should advise those patients of the need to protect themselves in heat waves. Good care requires such advice. A doctor can choose to tell her patients the rest of the story, which is that people just like them are dying from worsening heat waves and declining air quality in larger numbers because of climate change.

Networks - Networks are just organizations or informal groups you are part of that overlap with other groups you are also part of. The result, if you graphed the person-to-person connections, would look like a network. Don't worry about the word itself, but instead consider how these interconnections offer opportunities for communication and constructive engagement. Finally, networks today are often a mix or hybrid of face-to-face and online social media interactions. If you use social media, consideration of how you could utilize this tool should also be a part of your self-assessment.

Reputation - Your reputation as an activist is vitally important to your effectiveness. If you have been an activist or community leader for some time, you likely have a well-established reputation. You may want to consider where that reputation will help you, and where it may need some attention or repair. If you are early in your journey as an activist or community leader, cultivate a reputation that will help you succeed. You want people say these sorts of things about you as an advocate: "Listens to everybody. A straight shooter. No hidden agendas. Honest. Fair-minded. Practical. Makes things happen. Calm in a crisis. Balanced, doesn't lose perspective." If that's how people see you, they are likely to view you with respect. You are always either building or diminishing your credibility as an advocate. The Golden Rule of Leadership suggests that you should ask what kind of person you would follow as a leader, and then strive to be that person.

Almost everyone can improve their effectiveness as an advocate. And many can cultivate within themselves the more positive attitudes and emotions that make building broad community support much easier.

Published: June 2019
Revised: May 2023

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