sk David Murray, BA ’91, and Tom Gillespie, BASc ’92, what they thought of one another when they met as first-year students at Kent State University’s Van Campen Hall in 1988, and you’ll get very different answers.

Murray swears that—in the way water repels oil—he and Gillespie just didn’t mix. He says he found Gillespie cocky and annoying, someone who constantly got on his last nerve.

Gillespie, who had transferred to Kent State later in the year, says he knew immediately—without a hint of a doubt—that he and Murray were best friends. His only gripe about Murray? That several months into meeting one another, Murray wouldn’t lend his car to Gillespie so that he could purchase Billy Joel concert tickets.

“I was like, ‘You don’t get it,’” Gillespie recalls telling Murray. “‘You’re my best friend and I’m your best friend. When I ask you for something and it’s important to me, you do it. That’s how this works.’”

According to Murray, “He was a reckless b—tard, and I didn’t trust him with my car. What can I say?”

Two years later, in 1990, Murray and Gillespie had moved out of the residence hall and into a house they shared together with three or four other guys, depending on the day. Murray had thawed to Gillespie, but still didn’t hold him in the high esteem that Gillespie says he always held Murray.

Then, later that year, Murray’s mother died.

It’s at this point their stories begin to meld. Sure, they still disagree on the details. But both versions boil down to the same essence: They communicated together in an authentic way.

While “everybody else ran from that situation,” Murray recalls, Gillespie leaned in, peppering him with detailed questions about his mother and his feelings. “It was the truest, first source of our bond,” he says.

Gillespie doesn’t think he asked that many questions. Instead, he remembers that the conversation flowed naturally as the pair discussed something they had in common—their mothers’ shared struggles with mental health—over several games of pool in the basement of the house they shared. “It was a different connection on a soul level,” he says. “That’s when we became brothers.”

“It was a different connection on a soul level. That’s when we became brothers.”

Tom Gillespie

You can read Murray’s version of their friendship’s origin story in an essay on grief in his recent book, An Effort to Understand: Hearing One Another (and Ourselves) in a Nation Cracked in Half (Disruption Books, 2021). The collection of essays, published in the wake of the most recent presidential election, imparts the importance of quality communication and better conversations. Gillespie edited it.

On editing Murray’s book, Gillespie laughs, “He normally doesn’t like me to edit his work. I have to kind of force my way in. I would say he probably takes 10% of the bigger edits I suggest.”

However, in the book’s acknowledgments, Murray excerpts an email he sent to Gillespie after receiving his edits: “I was amazed at how many of these essays (like almost all of them) were influenced by our conversations over 30 years, about all these subjects: communication, friends, family, politics, work. You and I live such different lives, and come at many things from such different points of view, that if there’s a truth that holds in your life and my life both . . . then it’s a truth we can both have some confidence in.”

Tom Gillespie (left) and David Murray during their college days
Tom Gillespie (left) and David Murray during their college days.

It’s true their lives took different paths—although, as Gillespie says, “For two goofballs, we did okay for ourselves.”

Murray owns Pro Rhetoric, a company that promotes responsible rhetoric and helps leaders communicate effectively. It hosts a bevy of other businesses under its communication umbrella—including the magazine Vital Speeches of the Day, which Murray edits and publishes, and the Cicero Speechwriting Awards. He also heads the global Professional Speechwriters Association. An Effort to Understand was Murray’s second book. His first, Raised by Mad Men, is a memoir about his parents, who both worked in advertising. He lives in Chicago with his wife (Cristie Bosch, whom he met at Kent State University) and daughter. He’s agnostic and liberal.

Gillespie owns Gillespie Environmental Technologies Co., which focuses on ecological conservation, and TEG Properties, a collection of restored historic rental properties—more than 15 to date. His work has garnered awards for economic development and historic preservation. He lives in Cleveland and has a son and daughter. He’s Catholic and conservative.

“If a line or an essay can pass both of our bullsh—t tests, it gives me a lot of confidence in it, because he and I come from different places,” Murray says. “But we have a sensibility in common. [His editing] was a valuable exercise, and he made the book a lot better.”

The essays in Murray’s book are pulled from more than 3,800 posts on his daily Writing Boots blog. As Murray tells it, he sat down “for a number of nights in a row with a gin and tonic” and systematically read through each post until he found words that resonated five or 10 years after he’d written them.

He was re-reading those essays as the 2020 election and the COVID-19 pandemic came to a head—a time, he says, when the conversations across the nation felt more divided than ever.

“The book’s title is taken from a phrase Robert F. Kennedy repeated several times in a trembling voice in a speech at another harrowing moment of division,” Murray writes. “Hours after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Kennedy spoke of ‘polarization.’ He called on Americans to make ‘an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend’ one another—‘an effort to understand with compassion and love.’”

While the book is topical on the state of American politics, the promise of political togetherness is “not what it delivers,” Murray says. “Its best stuff is interpersonal stuff.”

Murray notes that he and Gillespie don’t see eye-to-eye on politics but “we see each other four times a year. So, it’s like, let’s not get into an argument.” Instead, they have learned to focus on the things they do have in common—including a devotion to International Harvester Scout trucks and a love of adventure travel (perhaps until the arduous 10-day motorcycle tour of Ecuador they embarked on in 2019).

In part, the book attempts to impart wisdom on a kinder type of communication, which is something Murray admits he didn’t try to do three decades ago as a recent Kent State graduate working at a provocative trade newsletter called The Ragan Report.

At the time, he subscribed to a philosophy sometimes attributed to an Irish proverb: “If you want to draw a crowd, start a fight.” “And I wanted to draw a crowd,” Murray says. “I wanted people to read my stuff in professional circles.”

He followed that same approach when he launched his own personal newsletter, The Murray Meaning, which he snail-mailed to 50 subscribers once a month for $10 a year, for three years, until 1996, and later, his blog. “I felt that if you want to get people’s attention, slap them in the face and provoke them with an unpopular opinion,” he says.

“But we’re now in a moment where everybody’s totally stirred up,” he continues. “Everybody’s totally upset, screaming at each other at the drop of a hat. They don’t need me to make it worse. And so, my writing—and who I’m trying to be as a person—has naturally evolved from one to the other, from trying to start fights to trying to find common ground.”

“My writing—and who I’m trying to be as a person—has naturally evolved from trying to start fights to trying to find common ground.”

David Murray

Murray says he practices “imaginative listening,” in which he challenges himself to go beyond simply absorbing others’ words and tries to feel what they are feeling. And he embraces scary conversations.

“All conversations are scary: asking your spouse whether she’s happy, asking your boss whether you’re doing a good job, asking your sister whether she thinks you drink too much,” he says. “This is why we frequently don’t have these conversations. Instead, we talk, we persuade, we bluster, we block, we tell yarns. But that’s not communicating. Real communication is scary because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“Communication professionals are the first to mix up what communication is,” Murray notes. “They think it’s communication when you send somebody an email because you communicated with them. Bullsh—t. That’s propaganda.”

However, Murray says he didn’t write the book just for communication professionals. It’s for everyone.

“I’m not going to be the guy who tells you that if we could only communicate better, the world would be better,” he says. “I don’t actually believe that. I believe it’s more complicated than that.”

But, he adds: “Listening and truly exchanging ideas and responding to one another’s words and thoughts and actions and expressions and eyebrows—all of that—when that happens, that’s the most profound thing in life, as far as I know.”

Better Communication Starts Here

For the full effect of Murray’s better-communication tips, you’ll have to read his book. Below, he shares excerpts from some of his favorite sections on imaginative listening, embracing scary communication and more.

Imaginative Listening

Communication requires listening as much as it requires speaking. And deep listening. And constant listening. And careful listening. And imaginative listening. And repeated listening. And in our own time, if we are going to have a society that is worth living in, we must learn to listen, to hear, to sense with the tiny cilia of our ears and the tenderest membranes of our hearts— not just the words of our friends and family, coworkers and leaders, but their intent—their deepest intent, and emotional source. With the assumption, so hard to sustain in the daily madness of American life, that the other person came by her views as honestly (or maybe as dishonestly) as you came to yours. And with the belief that with an effort, you can understand.

Communication Is Scary

As much as I love communication, I dread it, too. I dread it because at least half of it is out of my control, which means all of it is out of my control.

I dread it because it happens so fast, and because it can get out of hand and it can go all the way bad.

I dread it because it involves bodily fluids and electrical impulses and rhythm and God knows what else.

I dread it because it is unpredictable—like a big argument with your wife, or sex with not your wife, or opening the envelope, or hearing the test results, or feet on the stairs, or death itself.

I dread it because it is communication.

And I love it because it is communication.

But if it’s not a little scary, it’s not communication.

Not Civility Itself—But Civil Communication

Civility, all by itself, never achieved one good thing.

Civility is a cold civil war.

Civility is a hiss.

Civility is a cowardly mutter, “I bet you’re a racist.”

Civility is the new “tolerance policy.”

Civil communication, on the other hand, is: I might be wrong. I might be blind in one eye or deaf in one ear. There’s something I might be missing. Even though you voted for an idiot, I just saw something in you that I deeply admire. We are all brothers and sisters—even the guy I saw on the street the other day wearing a cowboy hat and those weird running shoes with the toes.

If I’ve Told You a Thousand Times, I’ve Told You Once

Leaders grow tired of hearing themselves talk—and of hearing themselves say the same things over and over again. And they rack their brains for new themes and messages on the grounds that, “I said that last month.”

When you remember the lessons your parents taught you, you say, “My mother always said. My father always said.”


Not once.

Not twice.

Not often.

Always said.

It’s not just what you say. It’s what you always say. 

Real. Leadership.
As toxic and confused as our national politics seem to almost all Americans at this point, if you’re leading an institution in America—or in any position of influence there—you should think of yourself as leading America itself. To the people who work there, the customers who shop there, the recipients of your service or charity, the people you partner with—the ethics, the manners, and the quality of your institution’s work are the most concrete manifestation of what this nation is.

American institutions are America itself. And they can be an example of what many people of all political stripes have come to loathe about the country—elitism and inequality, bad taste and intolerance, materialism and disregard for the individual. 

Or they can be an island of American decency, pride and good sense—paying people fairly and treating them like adults, building a sustainable business model, and in deed and word, demonstrating how they work for the common good.

Communicating on Eggshells

It’s said that in an unhappy marriage, loud arguments frequently erupt, or cold silences commence because in an unhappy marriage, everything is about everything. “Pass the salt” means, “You’re a terrible cook.” “I’d rather not go until Christmas Eve” means, “You hate my family.” “Let’s wait ’til next month to buy the duvet cover” means, “You don’t trust me with money!”

All of society is starting to feel like that. Now we are reading serious articles advising us on safe topics of conversation at family dinners, and we focus our precious human imaginations on the art of being amusing, yet sufficiently banal so that no one could object.

First, Do No Harm

When you accidentally insult someone, you are embarrassed. You made a joke about how stupid church is and grandma was standing right behind you. Luckily, it was only grandma who you upset with your careless remark. She knows you and loves you and she knows you love her. You told her you were sorry and she could see by your red face that you really were, and she forgave you.

And at no point did it occur to you to call her a “snowflake,” or to compose a screed about how easily offended some church people have become these days.

Now, thanks to social media, even the less influential among us can insult hundreds of people all at once—on purpose, or by accident, and without ever knowing we did.

We’re doing it all the time—and we should be more careful.