Saturday, December 10, 2016


293. The rhetoric of trust

Rhetoric can make or break trust. It can be positive and negative. Positive rhetoric seeks to achieve mutual understanding. Negative rhetoric seeks to twist or hide the truth, or to dispose the other to one’s advantage, surreptitiously, hiding it.

Intuitively, one is inclined to say that the positive is good for trust, the negative bad. I think that is largely correct, but some cases are less clear, such as framing and priming. I will come back to that.

As discussed previously in this blog, trust requires openness and voice. Openness about errors, receptiveness to explanations, in an attention ‘to work it out’ when problems arise.  (See item 259 on parrhesia). Positive rhetoric is needed to cross cognitive distance, trying to achieve mutual understanding and moral compatibility.

In communication, one will in the first attempt try to assimilate what the other says and does into one’s existing cognitive framework (in a wide sense, including moral considerations). If that fails, in the second approach one may try to accommodate one’s framework to enable assimilation. Creative use of metaphor by the other helps.

Since trust is at stake when expectations are not fulfilled, one should not elicit unrealistic expectations, not pimp one’s promises. That is often what rhetoric is tempted to do, and the intention may be positive, but the effect is likely to be negative. Intentionally false promises are outright negative. Politicians, in particular during elections, are tempted, and thereby lose trust. Negative also is the inability or refusal to listen, or to listen only to what one wants to hear, such as false promises.

An effective negative ploy of rhetoric is the following. When confronted with inconvenient criticism or a difficult question, do not respond to the substance of it but retaliate by making the other’s motives suspect, or conducting an attack dressed up as a rhetorical question. ‘Are you serious?’. ‘ Do you always conduct such aggressive questions?’. ‘Who do you think you are to ask me questions like that?’ This ploy has a triple benefit. It avoids the issue. It turns a challenge to defend into an attack. And how can the other possibly prove that his/her intentions are good?

I was recently confronted with this ploy. I responded with a challenge to respond to the question I had posed. The dialogue ended in a shouting match. I was wrong. Shouting is always wrong. And I should have framed my question more sensitively, avoiding any tone of aggression or condemnation that may have lurked in it. That also is part of  positive rhetoric.

Another negative form of rhetoric is projection (a notion derived from Freud). It entails seeking to see and interpret the actions of the other according to how one would have acted oneself. This clearly blocks understanding the other.

Yet another, related, negative form is pre-emption: anticipating the other to react before he/she does it. In particular when it is a pre-emptive strike. ‘Of course you will not agree with me …’.

Now, how about framing and priming? One may frame a discourse, prompting a response, or prime the interlocutor, so as to create a disposition in your favour. This can be done with the choice of setting, mood, wording, and expression.

This can be positive and negative. Manipulative when crafted to dispose the other in one’s favour. Positive when honestly trying to provide the basis for mutual understanding. But does one always recognize which it is, in the other and in oneself?