It was hot, humid, and yet incredibly dry that summer. 


I was excited to celebrate our nation’s Bicentennial, a great celebration of democracy, with friends and fireworks that Saturday night.


The heat of the day accentuated the smell of brats on the grill, and the sweetness of buttered corn on the cob, as we walked around the small downtown square.


Red, white, and blue bunting hung from the classic, rural firehouse as we took in the excitement of the crowd and the swirl of carnival rides. Later, the fire truck took off, its sirens calling out in celebration.


Near sunset, a local official offered remarks about the importance of this day in history. He spoke of the freedoms, rights, and responsibilities we have as citizens of the United States, including our freedom of speech.  


Not long out of Vietnam, when free speech was severely challenged – President Nixon claimed that antiwar protesters ought not be allowed to drown out the “silent majority” of Americans – I was strangely moved.


 I experienced a strong sense of what I’d call patriotism.


Recognition struck me, perhaps for the first time, that I, too, was a part of the grand experiment of democracy. Belief in free speech not only resonated with me, ‘knew’ it was my responsibility uphold. 


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Free Speech – A Responsibility to Pause & Listen  


Today, I’m troubled by the surging tension around free speech.


Free speech has been acknowledged as one of the most precious rights in our democracy, one predicated on mutual respect across a diverse public — people for one another and for our government – We the People. 


We’ve seen relentless pressure applied to our freedom of speech in the past few years – attacks on the press as enemies of the people, professors fearing for their lives, social media frenzies triggered by billionaires and beyond, the January 6th uprising, rebukes by Supreme Court Justices in response to integrity and ethics breaches, and the list goes on…

Last year the New York Times Editorial Board wrote:

… freedom of speech is the bedrock of democratic self-government. If people feel free to express their views in their communities, the democratic process can respond to and resolve competing ideas. Ideas that go unchallenged by opposing views risk becoming weak and brittle rather than being strengthened by tough scrutiny.


What’s really going on? Moreover, what’s our individual responsibility in matters of free speech? 


The chaos around the true meaning of free speech has re-opened unhealed wounds, leaving us more brittle than strong. We’re out of balance in our speaking to listening ratio.  


It’s well-documented by those who specialize in healthy relationships that there must be five positive feelings or interactions to every one negative, dismissive, or critical one.


I think that’s true on all levels of interpersonal engagement:

“When the masters of marriage are talking about something important,” Dr. John Gottman says, “they may be arguing, but they are also laughing and teasing and there are signs of affection because they have made emotional connections.”

Applying the Magic Ratio 


Ok, so 5-1 is the way to go. It’s clearly important to focus on that positive, emotional connection as a means to effective engagement with our neighbors.


But what does this mean in practical terms, especially when we’re so polarized, with emotions running high, on just about every important civic topic?


A recent poll indicates that more than 55% of us feel hesitant, even exposed, in our conversations. We’re holding back because we’re wondering, ‘With all the tension, how can we protect our sense of safety to freely speak?’ 


We’re in a ‘crisis of confidence’ relative to one of our most basic values.  Freedom of speech and expression is vital to human beings’ search for truth and knowledge about the world.


Yet, can we be open and honest? What about hate speech? Are there any areas of common ground to be found?!


I hold that it means that it’s a 5-1, I’m-open-to-learning more vs. I am absolutely right perspective we all would do well to cultivate.


It will be tricky, and it will take practice. Being shut out, or shutting others out, not only doesn’t feel good, but it also sets us up for more of the violence so many of us disdain.


It’s important to develop guidelines that serve as scaffolding for real, authentic conversations. In short, they’ll set the tone for how we can engage with each other.


Here are steps we can each take, starting today: 

🔷 Practice listening – be curious and listen to understand. Conversation is as much about listening as it is about talking. Remember the 5:1 ratio.

🔷 Show respect and suspend judgment, yet be yourself.  It conveys respect and openness.

🔷 Note any common ground, as well as any differences. Where you focus matters.

🔷 Be purposeful and to the point. Be concise and conscious of sharing airtime with others.

🔷Practice pausing when you find yourself emotionally reactive. Let others speak their mind and hold space to respond – not react.

🔷Check your own speech. Is it aligned with your values, and respectful of others? If so, great; if not, clean it up with a pause, an apology, or an opening for others to speak.

🔷Own and guide the conversation. Take responsibility for the quality of the conversation and be proactive in getting yourself back on track.

🔷Know when to let it go. Establish up front that if the dialog starts getting off-track or harmful, you mutually agree to respectfully end it.


I’d love to hear from you as you put these points into practice, so do drop me a line:


This July, I’ll enjoy lots of conversations rooted in freedom, respect, and active listening.


ABOUT THE CREATOR OF The Leadership Pause 

I’m Dr. Chris Johnson, psychologist, executive coach and author of The Leadership Pause: Sharpen Your Attention, Deepen Your Presence and Navigate the Future available on Barnes & Noble, Bookshelf, and Amazon. (Btw, the Kindle version is on sale now for $1.99).

I drew content from my book in crafting Calm the Chaos for Busy Professionals, an online course, and Are You Willing to Go First: Conversational Keys to Leadership Success, two of my popular course offers. I publish The Leadership Pause newsletter bi-weekly on LinkedIn. If you’re not already subscribed, click the Subscribe button to follow me too!

This month, in honor of the first-year anniversary of my book, I’ll be hosting The Leadership Pause Reset, an online offer you can check out here: (23) LinkedIn – love to have you join!

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