RBG and Gentle Persuasion

Many people have noted the strength and effectiveness of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Her gentleness was also noteworthy.  She learned about this quality from others.  From her mother-in-law, she learned that “in every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little bit deaf.”  Ruth applied this advice in her interactions at work, not just in her marriage.  Her reason was practical; she said, “When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out.  Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”  She believed that collegiality was essential to the mission of the Supreme Court.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
from the Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States,
Photographer: Steve Petteway / Public domain

She learned about gentleness from some of her professors.  At Harvard Law School, Professor Benjamin Kaplan used the Socratic method in class “always to stimulate,” she said.  “Never to wound.”

On the Supreme Court, despite their differences, Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsburg had a warm friendship.  She believed that to do the job that the Constitution demanded of the Court, it was often necessary to do as Justice Scalia often said: “Get over it!”

 As she was growing up, Ruth’s mother persistently reminded her to “be a lady.”  Ruth explained that by that, her mother meant to “conduct yourself civilly, don’t let emotions like anger or envy get in your way.”

All of this advice is important to communicating persuasively;  keeping the audience in mind, attempting to understand the other’s point of view, and not drawing lines and building walls by offending or taking  offense.

But this attitude, young Ruth realized, was for more than persuasion; it is essential to ensuring that the world survives.  In the aftermath of the first deployments of the atomic bomb, she wrote in her school’s newspaper, “It is vital that peace be assured, for now we have a weapon that can destroy the world.  We children of public school age can do much to aid in the promotion of peace.  We must try to train ourselves and those about us to live together with one another as good neighbors for this idea is embodied in the great new Charter of the United Nations.  It is the only way to secure the world against future wars and maintain an everlasting peace.”

All this advice may seem simple and obvious, but think about how difficult it is to be “a little deaf” when insults are hurled at you.  Yet if we could react a little less, perhaps our country would not be as polarized as it is now.

I know I have a tendency to be hurt easily; then I want to withdraw to safe territory.  But I can’t accomplish much from there.  I’ve been working on it for years, and I’m better at being a little deaf now, but I still have a way to go.

Taking offense gets in the way of understanding the other side.  In my favorite college class, Persuasive Communications, Professor Donald Cegala taught us that to persuade, we need to understand our audience’s goals, and convey a message that is sympathetic to some of those goals.  That’s hard work, and it is work that Ruth did well.  She was able to do it well, because she was a little deaf, and slow to take offense.  That was part of her strength.

Source:  My Own Words, by Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Simon & Schuster, 2018.


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