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No wonder organizations are asking for my expertise on civil discourse. It’s getting tougher all the time, isn’t it, to explore differing perspectives on issues without sinking to negativity and name-calling.

I’ve been developing ideas about that since my days as a talk show host, and I had a chance last week to share them with some savvy professional women.

My WLS program director used to yell at me for being too nice. “You gotta be mean, CJ.”

That wasn’t much fun. I did learn some things as a broadcaster, though, that have served me well.

My last radio gig was with John Landecker. I’d known John for years, but not well. So, when they hired me to join his morning show, John and I were really getting acquainted.

And before long, John was mocking me mercilessly about … well, about a lot of things, as you might guess. And in particular about the way I said, “Interesting.”

He pointed out that my default response to almost any comment, no matter how outrageous, was, “Interesting.” With a Very Serious Face and a Thoughtful Tone.

John and the guys thought it was hilarious. He’d imitate me with exaggerated gravitas—a phony voice and a scrunched-up face.

Here’s the thing. It might have been repetitive – I’ll give him that. But “Interesting” is a way better default response than “You’re an idiot!” or “How could you possibly believe that?” or “What planet are you from?”

Or any of the other things that people say or Tweet or post when they hear a point of view that doesn’t match theirs.

Try it sometime. You’ll find “Interesting” is more than a way to stall for time while you frame a response that’s not a personal insult. It helps me shift into a state of curiosity. I’d much rather be there than in a state of outrage, wouldn’t you?

That’s the basis of my talk From Furious to Curious: Cordial Conversations in a Polarized World.

How did I get to that notion of staying curious … to stay away from furious?

Join me in the way-back machine … this started for me way back at Western Illinois University in a General Semantics class. I was captivated by this principle:

The map is not the territory.

Alfred Korzybski said it first—he was a Polish scholar who arrived in the US after fighting in the Russian army in World War I. He based General Semantics on the belief that our knowledge of the world is limited by our nervous system, by the way we process what we see, hear, and feel. And by our language … the way we describe what we see, hear, and feel.

“The map is not the territory” is shorthand for that. The description of a thing is not the thing. The conversation about an event is not the event. The labels we slap on a person … they’re not the person.

They’re all just maps. Useful, perhaps, in providing some information about the territory they represent. A map helped me find my way to some friends’ home in Wisconsin. But I didn’t drive on the map. The map was an image I took in and processed so I could get there.

And what do we know about maps?

  • They can be outdated. Maybe the highway was expanded, closed, or moved since the map was made.
  • They can be incomplete. That short cut I could have taken isn’t even on the map.
  • And they’re not universal. My map of Chicago won’t help me get around Boston.

In fact, if my map of “city” is streets laid out on a grid, with alleys in between them … the territory of Boston will be a problem.

And the more I learned, the more obvious it was that my map is mine. And your map is yours. And neither one of them is the territory.

No wonder we’re at cross-purposes so much of the time.

You and I can be looking at the same person. But each of us has an entirely different map of that person, based on our life experience and all the other people we know, and the language we use to think about that person.

And here’s where communication can get crazy. We’re both certain that our map is the actual person.

This is a useful way to think about the enormous differences in the way we might characterize Joe Biden. Or the Supreme Court. Or the Illinois candidates for governor.

We hear people talk about those individuals—and everything else—and we think, “How could they possibly feel that way? Don’t they see what I see?”

No, they don’t. They’re looking at a different map.

That’s the important thing to keep in mind.

We each have our own map of everything. And none of the maps are what they represent.

Your map is just as good as my map, of course. But neither of them is the actual territory.

“The Map is not the Territory” can help us take a step back when we’re in that place of being ready to blow a gasket because someone is being a moron, and they really should know better, and I’ll have to straighten them out.

Instead, we might think … it’s not that they’re willfully ignoring reality, twisting the truth, or distorting the whole situation. They honestly don’t see what I see. Because they’re looking at a different map.

If we’re feeling adventurous, we might step right into their map.

Go ahead and give it a try, and not necessarily with a political issue.

  • Maybe your colleague wants to take a work project in a much different direction.
  • You disagree with your spouse about appropriate screen-time for your kids.
  • You and your friends can’t settle on where to spend your reunion weekend.

See if you can step into their map of the world.

Crank up your imagination and try to really feel what things are like over there. What are they seeing and hearing? What’s the experience for them?

It’s different, isn’t it?

That simple exercise can help when it comes to contentious issues and difficult conversations. While it won’t automatically settle a dispute, it can at least put us on the road toward mutual understanding and civil exchange.

And that’s heading in the right direction—on any map.