Leadership Lessons from Confucius: know your audience

子曰:「詩三百,一言以蔽之,曰:思無邪。」
The Master said: “There are three hundred poems in the Book of Songs, but the meaning of them can be summed up in a single phrase: ‘Don’t stray from the right path’.”

Know your audience. This is a basic rule that is all too easy to overlook as you scramble to put together your PowerPoint slide deck for your next meeting or conference. If you don’t have a clear idea of who you will be talking to, you risk putting them off with your choice of language or tone. While there are some people who may love to listen to your ideas wrapped up in the latest buzzwords and jargon, others will just want you to get straight down to brass tacks and tell it like it is. Better to figure out the right approach beforehand rather than being rebuffed by a roomful of faces buried in their smart phones.

Confucius was a master in modulating the way he spoke with his followers and students to make sure they understood the message he was delivering to them. He was also an absolute maestro in manipulating the rich, poetic, and often obscure language of the Book of Songs (1) and other ancient texts to capture the attention of the high and mighty at court.

Being able to pull out an apposite and preferably witty rejoinder from under your hat was a critical ability to possess in an age when etiquette required that officials and ministers had to quote from the classical cannon at court when giving the ruler the benefit of their wisdom rather than directly voicing their opinions. Thanks to years of hard study and his natural eloquence, Confucius was one of the few people to have this talent as exemplified by this pun (2) he makes in the second chapter of Book 2 of The Analects.

As a result of his reputation for clever repartee, Confucius secured far more than his fair share of invitations to the palaces and mansions of the ruling class not just of his home state of Lu but also the ones surrounding it. What a pity he forgot who his audience was at the moments that really counted and alienated them with his bluntness and outspokenness.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 2 of Book 2 of The Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 2 here.

(1) The Book of Songs actually has 305 poems.

(2) The pun Confucius makes in this chapter has caused a delicious dispute over the true meaning of the phrase “思無邪” (sīwúxié) that has exercised the brains of scholars for thousands of years and will no doubt remain unresolved until the end of time.

According to the language used in the time of Confucius, the meaning of the three characters in the phrase is: “think > no > evil.” However, according to the language that was current when the Book of Songs was compiled (between the tenth and seventh centuries BC), the first character sī still hadn’t become a verb and was used as an exclamatory particle similar to 吧 (ba) in modern Chinese, while the third character xié was used to describe a horse-drawn chariot deviating from its path. As a result, the literal translation would be: “Hey>do not>stray>[right] path.”

The irony is, of course, that both phrases have essentially the same meaning, which makes the dispute rather academic. But his double-entendre does give us a glimpse of how clever Confucius was as a wordsmith, and why he was at least given a hearing by the various rulers he visited.

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Beijing.

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