The Powerful Case for Communicating in Shades of Gray

Gray may be boring but it can lead to communication breakthroughs.
Gray may be boring but it can lead to communication breakthroughs.

We live in a world where everything seems to be “either/or.” It is us vs. them. For or against. My way or the highway. Fragmentation and confrontation occurs in every aspect of our lives. We stare at each other across social, political, ideological and economic chasms that seem to widen every day.

In business, we see and cross these functional divides every day. HR vs. accounting. PR vs legal. Manufacturing vs. finance. What helps us cross that abyss is our ability to get our point across – not to show that we are right, but rather to seek understanding and common purpose. So it can be with other objectives Good communication brings out the shades of gray from the polarized black and white.

Gray is an endangered color. Gray isn’t sexy or bright. It doesn’t tap the same emotional chord. Quite simply, gray is a boring workhorse quietly existing among its flashy hue partners. But don’t be deceived by its humbleness. Gray has tremendous power to bring things together and unite the space between black and white for dialogue, compromise and understanding. Gray is the epitome of “both and” thinking.

Psychologists talk about the confirmation bias, where we seek out information and ideas that align most closely with our views and perceptions of the world. It is a survival instinct. We tend to want to eliminate that which is different from us – the aspects (even people) that frighten us, threaten us or irritate us. As humans we have a fundamental need to avoid pain and that which we believe is negative.

The negative exists everywhere. You don’t have to look far to find scandal and wrongdoing in business. Volkswagen’s emission test rigging, Toshiba’s inaccurate accounting reports and Wells Fargo’s sign-ups for credit cards and mortgages that customers didn’t want or authorize are just a few recent examples. But there are also examples of companies that have taken the negative and created an enterprise of value. Symantec guards against bad internet actors. Merck introduced statins to fight heart disease. These offer alternatives to bad things and, by so doing, change the narrative and the conversation – and build astronomical amounts of return for stakeholders.

So what solutions and ideas can we derive from the negative? When developing communications strategies, we start with our audiences. And frequently, we begin only with those who are in our circle of supporters. But we can’t stop there. We have to expand the circle to draw in more people – even those who actively oppose us – so we change minds and shift thinking.

There are some targets we will never reach and we certainly won’t reach them by constantly hitting them over the head with strident black and white messages. But as our perspectives become more finely honed, we can move towards commonality – towards the gray. It may not be where the heat initially lives. But gray is smoldering. And it is where the potential for our biggest impact may yet live.

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