2012-09-06

Good-Faith Discussion

As I previously indicated, there is a real need for someone to write about what I call "total interpersonal communication breakdown." You can find my previous explorations of the topic of communication here, here, and here; as well, to a lesser extent here and of course here.

(We now have no less than five lengthy Stationary Waves posts discussing the nature of effective communication, and why people seem to be failing at it these days. I suppose that means I need a new post label, Good-Faith Discussion. More on that in a moment.)

In the following post, I will explain why successful communication requires the following:
  1. Mutual willingness to communicate
  2. A charitable hearing of all thoughts being communicated
  3. Consideration
  4. Response
Communication Breakdown
Total interpersonal communication breakdown is characterized by the inability of any party within a relationship to convey meaning to any other party. Two people who speak completely different languages are an obvious example; there is no hope to communicate in such a situation. Two people who speak the same language but who disagree on the meaning of the terms being used is another example. (Why else do you think I maintain a lexicon?) In these cases, people would gladly and readily communicate with each other if they could actually do so. Communication cannot proceed until there is a viable medium through which it can occur, be it hand gestures, an interpreter, or any other communication bridge.

When two parties cannot say anything to each other without the other person consciously or unconsciously distorting the meaning of the message conveyed, that is also a communication breakdown.

A conscious distortion is any situation in which one party is motivated to disparage another party. One obvious example is partisan politics, in which every message delivered by one is deliberately turned against it by the other. Another example would be two people who cannot talk to each other without scoffing and arguing with each other.

In this case, both parties consist of normal, healthy individuals who, for lack of a better term, are simply being unreasonable with one another. Here, communication cannot proceed until both parties are willing to be reasonable with each other.

An unconscious distortion is any attempt to have a serious discussion with someone who has a mental illness. Someone with, say, body issues, will be unable to hold a conversation about diet and exercise without turning it into a discussion about weight-loss and body image. Someone with, say, depression will be unable to hold deep, meaningful conversations with anyone without feeling as though it is a personal attack against their private thoughts. Someone with severe paranoia will be unable to look at a conversation without getting the impression that someone else is out to get them.

In this case, one or more party is unable to communicate for lack of sufficient mental capacity, and I might add that it is not their fault. But whatever person or condition is to be faulted for this, the fact remains that communication cannot proceed until the core problem is addressed. One simply cannot communicate in good-faith with someone who is demonstrably incapable of receiving a message in the intended way, for reasons of psychology.

When Not To Communicate At All
It has been said that trust and communication are the bases of all relationships, and while I agree with that in a sense, I feel it is not specific enough. The real basis of all relationships is trust that good-faith communication will occur. If one party does not expect its thoughts to be taken seriously and seriously responded to, it has no basis on which to form a relationship with the other party.

The first thing that must be said about this is that, however unfortunate it may be, there are situations in which communication cannot be restored. In these situations, it is better not to communicate.

The best and most poignant example of this I can give is mental illness. A mentally healthy person simply cannot have meaningful communication with the mentally ill. Any attempt to do so will at best result in a misunderstanding, but in many other cases will actually make the mentally ill person upset. Here, communication does more harm than good.

Please note! I am not suggesting that we cease all interaction with the mentally ill! Of course not! What I am suggesting is that there are important, professional, psychological methods for treating mental illness, and that these are the proper prescription in the case of mental illness. No well-intentioned paladin can march in and restore another person's mental health. It takes a qualified professional to do that, and often over the course of many years.

In situations in which there is conscious distortion happening, it is also best to (temporarily) withdraw. Do not attempt to communicate with anyone who merely uses all attempted communication to feed additional animosity. The patience of Job could not overcome deliberate attempts to upset the communicating party. It is best to leave well enough alone until such time as the distorting party is ready to cease distortion.

Good-Faith Discussion
Real communication can only ever occur when both parties are receptive to it, and are furthermore capable of trusting the other party to reciprocate. As I just described, it is a non-starter to attempt to communicate when there is no good faith.

Therefore, the first requirement for successful, good-faith communication is mutual willingness; that is, everyone must agree that attempting to communicate is worthwhile. Without mutual willingness, either one party is communicating under duress, or one party is simply not communicating at all, by definition.

The second requirement is a charitable reception. That is, one must assume the best of the other person when one is communicating. Failing to do so risks distorting their meaning. If one assumes the worst in the other's message, then one is simply not building a common understanding of the situation.

 A third requirement is consideration. That is, we must not stop at simply hearing the other person out, and then taking our turn. We must not merely hear what is being said; we must also consider it. We must be willing to charitably interpret the message being conveyed and then build that message into our own perspective. Until you have considered the other party's message, you are not communicating, you are merely talking to yourself.

Finally, good-faith discussion demands a good-faith direct response. At the minimum, the other party must understand that communication is occurring, otherwise they will simply proceed as though it is not.

Conclusion
I certainly don't have all the answers in the universe. I am not an expert communicator, nor am I ever going to receive a Nobel Peace Prize for conflict resolution. But I have certainly been through enough failed attempts at communication to have identified what went wrong.

We don't always communicate as well as we intend to. We don't always deliver the best messages, and sometimes we let our pride or our emotions get the better of us in situations where we most desperately need to keep a cool head and show another person that we want to understand them and reach some common ground. Nobody always succeeds at anything, least of all something as fundamentally challenging as communication.

That said, I am reasonably confident that if any two parties wishes to communicate with each other in good-faith, they need to be willing and patient, and need to engage in proper consideration of ideas and respond to them directly. Absent these four things, it is difficult to conceive of what "communication" might even mean.