Dear Tristan: I Hear You

Dear Tristan,

Yesterday I spoke about coercion, and how too many of us use it to short-circuit the pursuit of our desires, instead forcing others to do as we wish, say what we wish, or believe what we wish them to think.

Today, I want to write about an alternative means of pursuing your desires. Today I want to write about effective communication.

See, there is something very important to realize about coercion . . . about being in a position to force others to do, say or think as you wish them to.

The ability to coerce someone does not make you right.

Instead, if you really value truth, and if you really wish to share that truth with others rather than beating them over the head just because you can, you need to be an effective communicator.

This is something near and dear to my heart, as I’ve spent much of my life, including my entire adult career, seeking to discover more of what it means to be an effective communicator. Your mom and I have already written about effective communication as part of our letters on other topics like empathy. But here I wanted to address the broader issue of communication as a whole, and what I hope for you with regard to communication.

To begin with, the starting point for effective communication is effective listening. Part of this is, as we’ve discussed in other letters, taking on the perspective of the person with whom you’re communicating and empathizing with them. Another part is foregoing coercive communication (the antithesis of the “non-violent” communication your mom and I have both written about). Coercive communication manipulates the other person in the conversation by means of the carrot/stick methods we’ve already talked about . . . the carrot of praise and the stick of judgments. There are times when the use of force in communication is warranted, just as there are times when physical force is warranted . . . but there is a tradeoff in both cases, as both physical and rhetorical violence are antithetical to building and nurturing relationship. Therefore, they should be used sparingly, and are counterproductive when the goal is to nurture your relationship with the other person in the conversation.

In addition to these NVC-derived ideas though, there is another aspect to perspective-taking that is important to keep in mind. I can tell you from personal experience that it is all too easy to slip into the habit of listening with the intent to rebut what you hear . . . that is, not really listening so much as taking notes in order to form a more effective argument in response. This instantly turns the conversation into a debate – and the point of a debate is entirely different than the point of a conversation. The point of a conversation is to share what’s on your mind or heart with another person. the goal of a debate is not to persuade the person with whom you are debating, but to demonstrate to a third party that your position is superior to that of the other party to the debate. So conversation nurtures relationship, while debate inhibits it. Depending on who is listening, there are times when debate is still a productive form of communicating your perspective, but if there is no third party and all you are doing is debating the other person, then all you are doing is starving the relationship between the two of you. There is no up-side!

That said, I intend to teach you the principles of effective debating for several reasons: First, there’s a lot of overlap between a persuasive debate argument and a persuasive perspective shared in conversation. They’re framed differently, but built on a lot of the same foundations. Second, I want you to be able to recognize bad arguments when you come across them, rather than being persuaded by them. Third, I want you to be able to effectively persuade third parties when the opportunity does arise, and finally, the biggest up-side to learning how to effectively debate is that doing so requires you to recognize the good and bad points on both sides of an issue . . . so being an effective debater can also make you more effective at the perspective-taking and empathy we’ve discussed in other letters, if you let it.

Here’s something that might come as a shock to you. Each and every one of us is communicating. All. The. Time. Maybe not with words, but with our facial expressions . . . our gestures . . . the sounds that we make . . . the looks in our eyes . . . even with the words we don’t say. We are always communicating something. And what I’m communicating will often tell you a great deal about how to effectively communicate back with me. After all, effective communication with me looks totally different than effective communication with your mom, which in turn looks totally different than effective communication with you.

There are three main building blocks to effective communication: Logos, Ethos and Pathos . . . logic, ethics and passion. Logos speaks to the coherence of the argument: Is it internally and externally consistent with what you know to be true, or have observed to be true? Ethos speaks to a shared values system between the communicator and his or her audience, and therefore relies heavily on the credibility of the speaker. Pathos speaks to the emotional appeal of what is being communicated. Each are necessary in order to communicate effectively.

Personally, I tend toward overreliance on logic, at the expense of ethics and passion. This can lead me to write very dry, boring, academic-sounding communications . . . perhaps you’ve even thought that about some of these letters! An overreliance on ethics, at the expense of logic and passion, can make a persuasive attempt very vulnerable to the personal foibles of the speaker . . . and since we’re all human, and therefore flawed, any communication that relies too much on ethos shares this vulnerability. An argument that relies too heavily on passion, on the other hand, is very easily undermined by pointing out simple facts that run counter to the (very passionate) point being made.

All three of these building blocks are necessary, but crafting an argument to appeal to a particular person will require, in each case, a different mix of the three. Determining the appropriate mix is a matter of listening, both to what is said, and what is not said, by the person or people with whom you are communicating.

Poor communication, then, might just blurt out whatever it is trying to communicate, without listening first to determine how that information will be received. (Pathos) As my dad always used to tell me growing up, “think before you speak!”

Fair communication, on the other hand, might listen to the other person and use their preferences to craft a persuasive argument that appeals to their own sensibilities and preferences. (Pathos + Ethos)

Good communication, though, will seek to communicate the truth in a powerful, persuasive way that is tailored to the listener’s sensibilites and preferences. (Pathos + Ethos + Logos)

So I hope to teach you how to become an effective listener, on the way to becoming an effective communicator.

Part of that process will, I hope, be modeling effective listening for you, by effectively listening to you. This goes back to what I was trying to share yesterday about the way we often treat children. There is this belief, very strongly ingrained in our culture, that “Children should be seen and not heard.” Like I said, though, we are all communicating, all the time. So too often, we adults block out the communications from the children around us, as though they weren’t even there.

I don’t want to do that to you. I want to have empathy for you, and to be honest, for myself as well. I may not remember what it’s like to be seven months old, but I remember what it was like to be a child . . . to be rebuked in public as a proxy for the undesirable behavior of a whole roomful of kids; to be cut out of conversations and have my perspective dismissed – even on issues where I’d had the opportunity to form a real, well-informed opinion – because I was supposedly “too young to understand”; to be told that this was not the “time and place” for a particular type of behavior, even though all the older people around me were engaging in precisely the same behavior . . . I hope I never put you through these things, as some of the adults in my childhood did for me.

I hope I never stop listening to you. For in truth, you’ve been communicating with me since before you were born. I remember putting my head down next to your mom’s tummy and urging you to “come out and play with dad” . . . and I remember your little kicks in response. Now, even though you can’t yet communicate with words, nobody who spent two minutes with you would mistake that for an inability to communicate at all. Your cries, your gestures, and most of all those amazing eyes that light up whenever your mom or I enter the room, are always communicating something. And I always want to be open to “hearing” that, and working to try to understand what you’re trying to say. That’s why, when you’re crying inconsolably, I don’t see it as “throwing a temper-tantrum” . . . but as the only way you can presently communicate displeasure. When you’re getting into things I’d rather not have you playing with, I don’t see it as “misbehaving” . . . but as your only option for communicating boredom. When you wake up crying at night, there are certainly times when it’s difficult for me to pull myself out of my groggy state and help to calm you down . . . but what I feel most is compassion for the fact that you are scared, or lonely, or hungry, or uncomfortable, and have no other way to tell me.

So as hard as it is sometimes to run upstairs and hold you after you’ve woken up from a nap for the fourth time in twenty minutes, I hope you never stop communicating with me. I know so many children who have a wonderful relationship with their parents as toddlers and small children, but who shut down and stop sharing life with them when they’re teenagers or older. I sincerely hope that by keeping the lines of communication open with you now – by teaching you how to effectively express your feelings, needs, opinions and beliefs . . . and by always being open to having you share them with me – I can still have a relationship with you into your teenage and adult years that is based on trust, openness, candor and mutual respect.

I’m doing the best I know how to do, trying to lay the foundation for such a relationship right now.


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