Two words that can help navigate conversations: “No comment.”

I’ve been thinking about how to honestly and appropriately respond to conversations in which I disagree with what is being said.

For instance,

      • I was talking with a friend who veered off into a controversial political issue. I guess he just assumed I agreed with his convictions on the topic, but I didn’t. Should I have jumped into the fray? If I don’t say something, he might assume my silence means I concur with his thoughts. But pushing back might lead to an argument.
      •  I was part of a conversation in which someone energetically shared about a certain topic, but her facts were wrong. Should I have corrected her?

In these and many other conversational situations, I’m trying to discipline myself to respond appropriately. There are several options.

      1. Sometimes I need to speak up and challenge what is being said, even if it leads to an uncomfortable conversation. I must be kind and tactful with my pushback but I should be straightforward in sharing my thoughts, even if it may produce an uneasiness or even tension. 
      2. At other times I should simply not respond. Sensing the larger purpose of the conversation, I might realize that the comments being made are not central to the overall thrust and direction of the conversation. Or, I may value the relationships of those involved so much that I should not push back because doing so might sully the relationships. 
      3. Or, (and here’s the trust of this post) I can say “No comment.”

“No comment” can mean several different things:

      • I don’t agree with what’s being said but I don’t want to get embroiled in a lengthy, potentially combative conversation.
      • I don’t have an opinion about the particular subject or scenario.
      • I don’t have time to pursue this topic right now.
      • For whatever reason, I want to stop this part of the conversation.
      • I do have a lot to say, but I don’t want to offend you.

So by saying “no comment” I’m actually commenting. 

What are your comments? (respond below)

“My mother’s kiss made me a painter.” The power of affirmation.

Benjamin West was just trying to be a good babysitter for his little sister Sally. While his mother was out, Benjamin found some bottles of colored ink and proceeded to paint Sally’s portrait. But by the time Mrs. West returned, ink blots stained the table, chairs, and floor. Benjamin’s mother surveyed the mess without a word until she saw the picture. Picking it up, she exclaimed, “Why, it’s Sally!” And she bent down and kissed her young son.

In 1763, when he was 25 years old, Benjamin West was selected as history painter to England’s King George III. He became one of the most celebrated artists of his day, becoming president of the Royal Academy of Arts. Commenting on his start as an artist, he said, “My mother’s kiss made me a painter.” 

What if she had responded differently; what if she had rebuked young Benjamin for the mess he had made with his paints? What if she had scolded Benjamin and taken away his art supplies? Years later it might have been said, “His mother’s rebuke crushed his artistic gift.” 

Perhaps his gift would have emerged either way, but isn’t it grand that his mother’s kind and encouraging words affirmed and gave momentum to his talent.

Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” West’s mother’s words were fitly spoken and unleashed Benjamin’s prodigious talent in painting. 

We all possess a powerful asset that doesn’t cost us anything to dispense and it’s self-replenishing—words of affirmation. When spoken at critical moments, they are powerful enough to change a person’s life. 

I’m grateful for times when I was the recipient of life-giving words. 

    • When I was six, my grandfather saw me playing with random pieces of wood and nails and said, “Look what Don is doing; he knows how to figure things out.”
    • When I finished my year as president of my church youth choir, my minister of music wrote me a letter, commending me for strong leadership.
    • In my first job directing a church choir, a physician in the choir approached me and said, “You really get a lot accomplished in rehearsals.”

Of all the millions of statements I’ve heard in 70 years, why do I remember these three? Because they impacted me deeply and changed the trajectory of my life.

Your words are extremely powerful, especially when you’re in a position of authority. Parents, grandparents, employers, teachers, persons in uniform, elected officials…use your position and the power of your words to encourage, stimulate, and inspire people.

Benjamin West painted his sister’s portrait on the furniture and floor. Because of his mother’s careful response, he would someday paint portraits of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and English royalty. 

At the top of this post is a picture of his famous painting: The Death of General Wolfe

What are your thoughts about this essay?

Understand the dangers of “Echo Chambers”

In her must-read memoir, Educated, Tara Westover tells her story of being born into a family of  survivalists in the mountains of Idaho. Her father was an extreme and controlling Mormon fundamentalist. He distrusted the medical establishment so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. He distrusted government; Tara had no birth certificate. The family was isolated from educational opportunities. All seven siblings had been indoctrinated by their father’s crazy beliefs.

Tara was raised in an echo chamber.

The book recounts the fascinating journey of how Tara escaped her echo chamber, eventually earning a PhD from Cambridge when she was 28 years old. [You really should read the book.]

So let’s talk about echo chambers.

An echo chamber is an environment in which a person encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own, so that their existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas are not considered. They merely reinforce a set of beliefs that a particular culture deems sacred and not able to be challenged. They can lead to narrow-minded thinking and can increase social and political polarization and extremism. 

Echo chambers can create misinformation and distort a person’s perspective, making it difficult to consider opposing viewpoints and discussing complicated topics.

Echo chambers proliferate in these areas:

      • Politics – in America, we have two pronounced political echo chambers: the Republican and Democratic parties. Imagine the profound echo chamber that is present at their annual conventions.
      • News outlets – In news media an echo chamber is an insulated environment in which listeners encounter beliefs that amplify or reinforce their preexisting beliefs. For instance: Fox News and MSNBC. These two cable channels have so much echo, I wouldn’t even call them news channels, they are political tools.
      • Social media – Facebook, Twitter, Tic-Toc can easily morph into echo chambers. Lisa MacLean, a psychiatrist with Henry Ford Health says, “Almost anyone can quickly find like-minded people and perspectives via social media. And with social media algorithms that ensure we only see media that fits our preferences, we find ourselves scrolling through comfortable, self-confirming feeds.”
      • Religion – all major religions are echo chambers. Seldom will one religion encourage people to pursue exposure to other religions; most encourage proselytizing. 

To avoid echo chambers and to mitigate their influence: 

      • Consult multiple news sources to ensure you’re getting complete, objective information.
      • Seek out people who have different perspectives than you. 
      • Intentionally identify ways in which your echo chambers could be wrong.
      • When you’re exposed to a new idea or thought, consider the source. Is it coming from an echo chamber? 
      • Practice constructive controversy. Use phrases such as, “I’d like to hear more about why you feel that way.” Or, “This is a safe space. We don’t all have to agree all of the time, I’d love to learn from you.” Or, “I respect that you feel that way; this is what I think about that.”
      • Remember that just because you want something to be true doesn’t make it fact.
      • Read books about experiences completely different from your own. The more we read about others’ experiences, the more empathetic and understanding we can become.
      • Participate in Idea Labs – An Idea Lab is the opposite of an echo chamber. It is the intentional gathering of people who hold differing views. Participants see each other as experimenters and view their ideas as experiments. Idea Labs value independent thinking and diversity of viewpoints. 

These questions will help you personalize this essay.  

      1. Identify several echo chambers you live in.
      2. What are the advantages of echo chambers?
      3. What are the disadvantages of echo chambers?
      4. Have you ever left one echo chamber for another, or for a more moderate position?
      5. Is it possible to avoid being influenced by echo chambers?
      6. Consider this: what is the probability that your echo chambers are 100% correct? Are they 80% correct? Are you open to discovering areas in which your echo chambers are wrong? 

What do you think?

Avoid the “curse of knowledge”

The “curse of knowledge” occurs when a person has such mature and advanced knowledge in a specific area that he cannot remember what it’s like to not have this knowledge. This makes it harder to identify with people who don’t have this knowledge base. It also inhibits our ability to explain things in a manner that is easily understandable to someone who is a novice.

Some examples will help.

      • I learned to read music when I was 18 years old. Fifty-two years ago. Currently, when I direct an amateur choir I sometimes get frustrated at mistakes the singers make because I have forgotten what it’s like to not be able to read music. 
      • When I turned 60 my personal physician told me to start taking a baby aspirin every day. I asked, “What is a baby aspirin?” He looked at me like I had just fallen off the back of a turnip truck. He knew what a baby aspirin is, but I didn’t.
      • In graduate school I took a course in statistics. The professor was a well-known expert, but he was a bad teacher. He knew the material so well, he just couldn’t fathom what it was like to not know principles of statistics. I soon dropped the course.

When you suffer from the curse of knowledge you assume that other people know what you know, which causes you to think that people understand you a lot better than they really do.

In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, December 2006, Chip and Dan Heath wrote: 

“In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton illustrated the curse of knowledge by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: ‘tapper’ or ‘listener.’ Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as ‘Happy Birthday,’ and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song.

“Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two. Why?

“When a tapper taps, it is impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to her taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet the tappers were flabbergasted by how hard the listeners had to work to pick up the tune.

“The problem is that once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.”


      1. When you’re functioning in your area of expertise—particularly if you’re relating to people who are not experts in your field—don’t fall prey to the curse of knowledge. Try to communicate to them as if you had just learned the subject.
      2. Periodically, enter into situations in which you’re the beginner, which will remind you of what it’s like to be the neophyte.
      3. Our understanding of the “curse of knowledge” syndrome should inform our approach to communication, reminding us of how very difficult it is to communicate well (“What I’m saying is clear in my mind; why aren’t you getting it?”). 

The first step to avoiding the curse is to recognize that it exists and how difficult it is to overcome. Psychologist Steven Pinker said, “Anyone who wants to lift the curse of knowledge must first appreciate what a devilish curse it is. Like a drunk who is too impaired to realize that he is too impaired to drive, we do not notice the curse because the curse prevents us from noticing it.”