Once sent, the damage is done and these instantaneous communications have a long shelf life in the memories of the recipients.
While communication was far from instantaneous in Lincoln’s time, the written word carried remarkable weight. If you were Lincoln navigating the greatest crisis in the country’s history without much of a playbook, every diplomatic communiqué was impactful, particularly those that could turn an already miserable situation into one that was incomprehensible.
Lincoln’s deft handling of a likely inflammatory and potentially history-altering letter is instructive for all of us.
In the excellent book, Team of Rivals-the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the author describes Lincoln’s handling of a letter drafted by Secretary of State Seward, intended to be read to Lord John Russell, Britain’s foreign secretary. The topic was Britain’s potential overt support of the south. The implication was a potential escalation of conflict that resulted in the shattered country facing two wars at one time.
In Kearn’s words, “Lincoln recognized immediately that the tone was too abrasive for a diplomatic communication.” Lincoln’s masterful adaptation of the language of the letter likely averted a situation that had the potential to change the course of the nation.
From Team of Rivals:
- Where Seward had claimed that the president was “surprised and grieved”…Lincoln wrote simply that, the “President regrets.”
- Where Seward threatened that “no one of these proceedings will be borne, Lincoln shifted the phrase to: “will pass unnoticed.”
- Where Seward had indicated that the letter be read directly to the British foreign secretary, Lincoln insisted that it serve merely for guidance and should not “be read, or shown to any one.”
- Still, the central message remained clear: a warning to Britain that if the vexing issues were not resolved…then a war between the United States and Britain “may ensue,” caused by “the action of Great Britain, not our own.”
The letter worked…it held Great Britain at bay for a period of time and ensured that France, who had promised to act in concert with Great Britain, remained out of the war as well.
6 Lessons Lincoln Might Have Suggested for Our Own Difficult Communication Situations:
We all know words are powerful and inspire response and in some cases reprisal. Our challenge as communicators is to craft the words that communicate clearly without inviting escalation or unintended consequences. The strong, threatening message might feel good in the heat of the moment, but your goal is to pursue your interests, not bludgeon the other party into submission or inviting them to align with others against your interests.
Here are 6 easy to remember suggestions prompted by Lincoln:
1. In the heat of the moment, take your hands off the keyboard. Walk away. Turn off the computer. Think before you write.
2. Draft off-line. Turn off Wi-Fi, pull the network plug, or better yet, pull out the legal pad and hand-write your first draft.
3. Have a neutral 3rd party review and react to your words.
4. Seek out and strike language that incites an emotional response. These are the phrases that might make you feel better, but that serve no real purpose in communicating your interests.
5. Don’t compromise on clearly sharing your interests No one is suggesting a weak response here…just kill the unnecessary bluster and bravado and offer clarity.
6. Do all of the above…craft your message and then invite the other party to sit down and talk it out. No one said you had to send something.
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