(Right off the bat, let me just set the record straight—please don't say I love you to your colleagues, critics, friends-of-friends, or whoever it is you want to influence unless you have a real fondness for awkward scenarios.)
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of gathering with some lovely, talented ladies as part of an early lean-in circle hosted by the Clayman Institute and the Op-Ed Project. There were many things to take away from that experience, but one thing that has stuck with me ever since, like bubblegum to shoe-sole (except imagine if that were a good thing) was what Op-Ed project director Katie Orenstein said about crafting a persuasive argument. Now, certainly you'll want to start with a topic that stirs your passion, for which you've honed a razor-sharp point of view. And you’ll want to frame it up proper and throw in some tasty anecdotes and statistics to make it nice and weighty. Oh, and your argument should be well-delivered—that much is a given.
But beyond all that, there is this additional secret sauce, this extra little dash of advice. There are three words you should never forget, three little words that can reshape the way you think, bolster your argument, and elevate the discussion.
To. Be. Sure.
Synonymous with indeed, or certainly, or of course, To Be Sure is like Yoda: small but powerful. The very idea of it forces you to reconsider what you might have shoved aside in your single-minded determination to tell the world about your startlingly brilliant point. To Be Sure taps you on the shoulder and says very quietly but seriously that you look ridiculous with those blinders on. What about the rest of the world?, To Be Sure asks. What will they think when they hear that startlingly brilliant point of yours? Might some folks be concerned? Might they raise counter-arguments? How about addressing some of those points right off the bat?
Here is an example:
“The world is flat.”
“To be sure, I'm drunk.”
To be sure, that was a frivolous example. Here's another one: say someone said that we should be teaching the Bible in public schools.
If you're like me, right off the bat, your hackles are raised. You might be thinking, “This is stupid. What happened to separation of church and state? Clearly, this is an example of one particular group trying to push their personal beliefs onto the diverse melting pot of everyone else.”
Let's say the speaker then lists off a bunch of arguments for why teaching the Bible in public schools might be a good thing. Like, the Bible is arguably the most influential book in the world, it's so deeply a part of Western culture, look at the Sistine Chapel, all those paintings by the Masters, you can't understand Shakespeare without it, etc.
Fine, so maybe these are valid points. But if you’re like me, your arms are still crossed, and you are still glaring at the speaker with one eyebrow raised, Colbert-style (which I can’t actually do, but again, imagine). What about the concerns regarding hidden agendas? And religion infiltrating a space that should be strictly about education?
To which the speaker smiles—and without any prompting—adds, “To be sure, teaching the Bible is a touchy subject. And many people feel strongly about the separation of church and state. But you know, there is a lot of value in studying the Bible for its literary and historical qualities. In fact, there’s even Supreme Court precedent for the Bible being studied as part of a secular program. There are many atheists who appreciate the Bible for its literary and cultural qualities but who reject its spiritual claims.”
Suddenly, if you’re like me, your stance relaxes. Regardless of whether you are completely sold by the argument, this acknowledgement of concerns—the fact that the speaker understands that his point will be controversial and has thought through and prepared a rationale to ease those concerns—inspires confidence that perhaps he isn't the idiot you first imagined him to be.
And that's the power of To Be Sure. It's a nod that there will be disagreement, that others will oppose the point you're trying to make with good, valid reasons. And that in order to make progress, those reasons will need to be considered, acknowledged, and responded to.
The example of teaching the Bible in public schools? It's a real op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal last week. And my reaction after reading it was more or less what was described above. Now, of course, (to be sure)—I'm not saying this particular op-ed is the be all and end all of op-eds. There are numerous other counterarguments left unaddressed. (For instance, should we teach the Bible in addition to other influential religious texts like the Koran and the I Ching and the Vedas? And should it really be mandatory versus an elective? And is it really practical to assume that this sort of teaching can be done effectively, in a way that's perceived as unbiased when taking into account the beliefs of students and teachers?) Had the op-ed addressed some of these other points as well, it might have gone even further in swaying readers.
At the end of the day, the world we live in is replete with ideas. Few of these ideas are universally accepted as truth. Many more will have their fair share of opposition, and that's okay. You won't be able to convince everyone of everything. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. If you do happen to have an idea that sets you alight, why not polish it until it shines? Why not consider the views of those who might oppose it, fairly and thoughtfully and openly? To Be Sure, at the highest level, is about empathy. It's about giving any idea the best and brightest chance it has to take flight in this lovely, mad, diverse world of ours.
Use it, and use it well.
To be sure, you don't actually need to use the exact words to be sure. Of course or certainly work just as well. And you don't even need those. To Be Sure is like the Force, more of a principle than an exact science.