A rant on effective communication
No claims here to being a great communicator, but the beam in my own eye still allows me to see the motes in some others.
I once knew someone who, in the course of a fairly long conversation, would start nearly every sentence with “No”. When I called him on this, he seemed completely unaware of it. Since he was an “insecure” sort of personality, I’m guessing that the “no” was an indication that he wasn’t getting the kind of response he wanted to an earlier statement, and was taking that “not exactly what I wanted” as a contradiction. This might have happened to him often enough that the “No” became an unconscious habit.
I’ve also known people who seemed to end every sentence with “so” or “and”. This can be very frustrating. (“Are you finished talking or not? I’m not going to interrupt you.”)
Then there’s the much-abused “Know what I’m saying?” (“Yes, I know what you’re saying, but that says nothing about its merit.”)
We all have some bad habits in our speech. I’m not talking about bad grammar (only really visible in writing), but really annoying stuff that we can take lifetimes correcting: sloppy communication that indicates sloppy thought. It comes in several varieties. Here are a few:
(1) Semiconscious time-fillers:
“Uh”, “like” “mm”, “you know”, “ok”
Enough has been written about these that there’s not much for me to add, except that the one I use most, “uh”, actually has a couple of good uses:
— To connote slow, deliberate thought, where it seems to be otherwise absent: “You want to skateboard off the roof? Let’s uh, stop and uh, think about that for a minute.”
— Place holding: Some day I might have a trio of trumpeters follow me around and play a little flourish whenever I decide to join a conversation. Until then, I’ll just hum “Uuumm” to announce that I’m about to say something, but don’t want to start the real speech until everyone is listening. There’s another class of bad habits that might serve this same purpose sometimes:
(2) Inane introductory question, refusing to continue until it’s answered:
— “You know what?”
(What does that question even mean?)
— “Could I ask you a question?”
(You just did.)
— “Will you do me a favor?”
(Do you really expect me to agree to do something without knowing what it is?)
That last one, the “do me a favor”, brings up a whole class of communication that seems to appear in activist circles a lot. But first, let’s remind ourselves about another habit that can get out of hand sometimes:
(3) Phatic communication:
All the “How are you?”, “Thank you.” “You’re welcome” “Nice dress” “What do you do?”, etc. that once had a purpose, and occasionally still has a purpose, but is mostly just ritual. The better you know someone, the less phatic communication is likely to occur between you.
What linguists might not have yet recognized in this “phatic” category is much of what politicians do. When a public official is asked to say a few appropriate words on National Woven Cotton Shoelaces Day, do you really think his words mean anything to anyone? No, it’s just talking for the sake of talking. No one with a life would show up to hear it.
Also in this “ritual” category is a large part of what goes on on the floor of Congress, if you’ve ever listened to it. Congresscritters are obliged by the interests supporting them to verbally defend those interests. No member’s opinion of a bill under consideration will ever be changed by hearing a speech, and it often doesn’t matter what anyone says in public about the merits of the bill. It’s a pantomime that the office holders are expected to act out as part of their job.
What brings this up
Ok, I recently sat and watched for a while (through webcast) as a bunch of Greens, independents, Libertarians, and others at the U.S. Social Forum discussed (one more time) whether they can agree on some common goals and “work together”. Many of the speakers were familiar to me. More than that, nearly everything said was familiar to me. In the end, they were supposed to come up with some resolutions to which they could consense. I didn’t stay for that, seeing how it was shaping up.
It was a big déja vue for me since I’ve sat through meetings like this ten or twelve years ago, and occasionally ever since. Little comes of it, since the people never get around to saying what they really need to say.
Yes, progressive Dems have some goals in common with Greens. Anyone who doesn’t know that is an idiot. Yes, they have some disagreements that will never go away in my lifetime. Anyone who doesn’t know THAT is an idiot. The same is true of any pairing from a cluster that includes Libertarians, Reform Party, centrist independents, Naderites, Ron Paul Republicans, etc. So it makes sense that groupings around issues, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof, can “work together” on occasion. It also makes sense that there will be some limits on the nature of that cooperation. This is so obvious that I’m really surprised at people even discussing it on the level of abstract generalities.
But some things are NOT settled i.e.:
— On a given issue, WHO will do WHAT work? Describe it.
— On what issues is it a given that we will NOT agree, and thus they should not be part of the discussion?
— How should each side treat members who show up to some issue-based meeting devoted to something that we agree on and insist on talking about what we don’t agree on?
Such things could easily be settled by people who are aware of each group’s positions and capabilities, but somehow the discussion never gets around to it. It usually stays on the abstract “We have much in common, we can work together.” level, and never gets beyond that.
See above: phatic communication.
I believe this mantra of “working together” is simply a way of saying “Hello” for some activists. They’ll show up at “the opening of envelope”, so to speak, just to say it to you, and move on to glad hand the next person.
So why were a couple of hours set aside for a same-old discussion on that theme? Most of the participants were activists whom I’ve seen around for years. I know they can do good work.
My S.O. thought it might be for the benefit of newbies, but I spotted very few in the group who might have been political noobs.
Ah, but then someone spoke up who wanted to talk about disagreements. It was a self-proclaimed Nader supporter who was so dissatisfied with Greens that he wanted to start a whole new political party. (If Nader himself is interested in this, it’s news to me. I thought he wanted to avoid parties altogether, and that’s why he never registered Green.) This whole-new-party advocate launched into the mantra: “You won’t support us on THESE issues, so why should we cooperate with you at all on anything?”
So there’s always someone playing that part, like the heroine’s girlfriend in every romcom who tells her “All men are pigs”. (We are, but if that were a reason to avoid us altogether, there would be no movie.) Is that why no one ever gets around to who will do what, and how will we do it? There comes a time when you need to say: “Most of us agree to do this, and anyone who doesn’t agree can buzz off.” That point must be reached somewhere in order to get moving on the actual work. In most conversation, something like “I can’t work with you.” is immediately followed by leaving the scene. Somehow, this doesn’t seem to happen much in activist circles. People will hang around just to say “I shouldn’t be here”. This is unfathomable to me, and I can only conclude that it’s meant to waste everyone’s time.
But what’s the “this” that we’re mostly agreeing on? That we can “work together”? Sorry, that doesn’t cut it for me. I want to know the nature of the operation that someone is proposing.
— What issue(s) will we treat under what kind of group auspices?
— What form will that group take: an informal coalition, a new 501(c)(4), a new 527?, what?
— What will it do that existing groups don’t already do?
— What are the strategy and tactics that we can agree on?
(See http://www.aforcemorepowerful.org/resources/nonviolent/methods.php for some choices.)
— Who will write the literature and who will speak for us, and what kind of rationale will the advocacy consist of? What are the rules for our communications to avoid
misrepresenting some of the group?
— Where will we get funding for things like mailings, venues, speaker expenses, etc.?
— Who will answer the phone messages and emails for the group?
— What mailing lists will be used? Will the new grouping have its own, or simply expect the member groups to mail to their own lists? If the new group has one of its
own, who will maintain it? Who will have access to it?
— How much time is it likely to demand from how many volunteers?
— Will it hold regular meetings? Where, and in what format?
I want to know all this before I agree on any “working together”. The wrong answer to any of the above could make it impractical for some of the possible participants.
It’s that “Will you do me a favor?” question all over again. Tell me what the favor is first.
Unfortunately, people take questions about such things differently. Some take it as a show of interest in the project and conclude that I’m agreeing and volunteering. Wrong. Some take any question about how it will be done as a complaint that it can’t be done or demands too much. Wrong.
It’s called “wanting information before making a decision”. Ever heard of it?
But maybe this is a failing in my own communication. Phatic communication’s main function is to “signal a mood” or smooth rough spots. So how long do we have to signal moods and compliment each other before we can get on with what needs to get done? Over the years, I’ve heard far too much of “Will you support our efforts?”, “Will you endorse us?”, “Can we work together?”
Say what you want from the people, answer their questions, and then shut up and listen to their answers. If people aren’t interested, they can leave, or you can leave. Is that so difficult?
If anyone wonders why I burned out on some of my activities over the last few years, above might be a partial answer. There’s more, of course, and much of it is about the manner of communication in these circles. Other communication-related topics that I might try to treat later are:
“I’m special.” — expecting everyone to read one’s own
email without oneself seeing all the traffic on a listserve
“Ooo, computers are so intimidating, I just want to talk!”
— refusing to discuss things electronically when that’s clearly
the most efficient way to do it
“I don’t have time to think about how to actually organize
anything.” — no response at all when a decision pretty vital
to the group’s existence or functioning is on the table
“What, you talked about something while I was away?”
— skipping several business meetings, and then showing up
for one and expecting all business to stop while people fill
you in on what happened in your absence
“I just told you. Don’t you remember every word I say?”
— refusal to draw anything up in writing
“I don’t have time to read anything, just tell me again.”
— refusal to read the minutes from meetings, email
announcements, or anything
“Let’s tell the world how screwed up we are. That’ll bring
new members!” — criticism of the group itself, in broad
terms, in media that are open to the public, while still
pretending to be a “member” of that group
Not saying you should stay tuned for any of these. I haven’t felt like writing much lately, but maybe some comments from readers could expand on communication themes. Again, no need to use your real name in comments.