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How to Discuss Important Things


I’ve been at uni this year. It’s been a fairly mixed experience (though the down sides hardly rate as serious on a scale of suffering. Just the pettiness of bureaucrats, academics spouting contradictions (without realising) – that kind of thing.).

I did a uni subject on aid programs. There were the usual academic articles and also a doco done by World Vision. The doco was about some entrepreneurs trying to help an African village. (They didn’t have much of a briefing, from what I can gather: so they were set up a bit, I think.) The doco was goodish, it won’t be revolutionising documentary making any time soon. It simply showed the story of these people struggling with the situation in the village (the usual egos, conflicts, incomprehensions, miscommunications and so on). After watching it, reading the academic articles felt lame. The doco showed far more of the complexity of the situation; and the real struggles that development work deals with.

This reminded me of something I’d learned when I was younger. Probably because I was introverted and heady, I’d have trouble communicating my thoughts and feelings. So I’d try and use abstract systems to explain (it was my personal experience that people were having understanding; so I’d remove myself from the picture and talk more generally; trying to use a system of understanding we could both share). It gradually dawned on me that this didn’t work. That what communicates most powerfully is what is most personal (most individual).

This goes against what is taken seriously as informative in our society – abstraction, generalisation, facts and figures. (These are essential, it is how we communicate them that I’m talking about.) It is when the individual is removed that something is taken seriously – which makes it less interesting (and so boring ourselves comes to be valued – ‘discipline’).

But we should be most engaged with what is important. Which means that we tell human stories about it. They do need to be about important things, and they do need to be well told – but the best communication happens humanly not abstractly (and surely the important things deserve the best communication).

There are two broad ways to do this:

  • personal experiences (our own or others) – an incident from your life, or stories from others’ lives (whether as a documentary or in whatever form).
  • ‘typical’ stories. By which I mean things like medical diagnostic case studies. Done well these aren’t just lists of symptoms, but they give a sense of what the human experience of the condition. (It needn’t be medical. It could be the way of life of a particular group, or exploring how a system of philosophy impacts a way of life. It could be a narrative about the difficulties of learing a particular discipline.) These aren’t stories about any particular person; but they do give a sense of the human experience involved.

If something is important; it is worth trying our best to communicate well about it. And this means talking about human experience.

I'm Evan Hadkins. To find out how to live a more satisfying life you can download my manifesto on living authentically. It is a book of exercises to guide you to finding, nourishing and living from the core of who you are.

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