Sunday, May 01, 2011

Rumination on communication, and how reflective listening can go astray

Belaboring the obvious, 2011.

Most communication really isn't an exchange of information, even when we want it to be; we're bonding, or we're establishing a pecking order, and often we're talking past each other, & often trying to "win" rather than jointly reach a greater understanding.
(To help avoid sterile arguments, see the flowchart to help you determine if you’re having a rational discussion, and the Code of Conduct for Effective Rational Discussion, although IMO our conclusions should be written in pencil, not in ink.)

So in talking to people of differing views, especially when you are trying to communicate information, I'm a big fan of reflective listening - where you repeat, in your own words, your understanding as to what the other guy's just told you, so any misunderstandings can be corrected rather than built upon.
(Note: I'm not so sure I do it well; I just think we should do it, even though in the flow of the moment this awareness all too often goes out the window.)

But there's a catch: the dynamic of reflective listening looks identical to a dynamic of informal conversation in which the conversational norm is the complete opposite. Thus if the "reflectee" (whose meaning's being rephrased by the listener) isn't aware that the dynamic in play is "reflective listening" rather than "conversation", miscommunication will occur, and it'll occur under the "reflective listening" imprimateur, enabling the listener to say "but you did agree that this was what you meant".

Plus this "conversational norm" is somewhat different in writing, from what it is in spoken conversation. And people who aren't attuned to social communication norms, or someone hearing a second-hand report of the exchange, may not recognize these differences, since it's something grasped at a subliminal level.
Thus, to repurpose Folklore Barbie: Communication is hard. (both when someone is communicating or reporting in bad faith, and when a participant's social skills are (sufficiently) differently abled.)

The conversational norm is this:
When you're talking to someone, and your attentive listener chimes in with his/her take on what you've just said, you don't stop, focus your rational mental faculties on what they just said, & consider "is that pretty much what I meant - or my motivation, or the implication of my words?", & then respond with a clarification of any perceived divergence - instead, you treat this informal response as kind of an application of social adhesive, as their sending an "I'm with you" message, and our tendency is to agree with the listener, not because we necessarily do agree, but because it violates social norms - it feels offensive, and disagreeable - to disagree. To disagree would be to strip off the adhesive, to send the message "no, you're not listening very well", "no, you misunderstand me", "no, you're not with me".

Plus if you-the-talker are off on a trajectory of thought, and the listener is reflecting a side trip instead, it feels unnatural to have to stop your train of thought, ruminate on the side trip's appropriateness, express your evaluation of that, then go back & get the train started again.

I'm fairly sure that all of this is just belaboring the obvious, but there've been several instances lately in informal conversation where I've found myself responding "agreeably" to someone else's "reflection" that I wasn't really comfortable with - which got me thinking about these communication norms & pitfalls.

That is all...


frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...


Yep, sometimes I catch myself 'agreeing' when I don't agree. But I'm not sure it's always due to 'social norms'.

Sometimes it seems to me it's just an effect of hearing only what we want to hear, so when someone says something that's not quite right to us, we fail to spot it. There's a difference between 'What, he said something disagreeable? Dang, I didn't realize that!' and 'OK, he said something that's sort of disagreeable. Yep, I spotted it. But I'll let it slide.'

(By the way, it's spelt "imprimatur". I was about to let that slide. (-: )

-- frank

Anna Haynes said...

(thank you Frank; for weighing in, and for the spellchek.)