The perils of communication

I’ve believed for a long time that miscommunication is basically the single cause of every possible conflict in the world. It’s not, but it might as well be. If everyone could just fully grasp and comprehend the exact position and argument of their opponents, perhaps we could come to better mutual agreements. If everyone understood exactly what everyone else meant, perhaps we could avoid those horrible situations where you said something to me and I think you’re being really mean when you say it and then I get angry and say something back that you totally misconstrue and we argue about the issue for hours or days and then maybe if we’re lucky finally realize that in fact there was never a disagreement to begin with.

I’ll give you an example that isn’t a great example because I can’t remember the concrete details of the story because it happened something like seven or eight years ago. But in high school, friends of mine and I decided we wanted to make a movie (after our recent success in a grade 8 drama project in which we did a remake of Monty Python and the Holy Grail for drama class — the whole hour and a half movie). The problem was, in order to try to keep everyone happy we made the whole thing a democratic process where everyone involved (I think there were eight of us?) got a say in what the movie was about and what happened in it and everything, and as Wilfred Laurier taught us, compromise just ends up with nobody happy. (Canadian history!) Also, we were eight boys in grade nine, why the hell did we think we’d be able to agree on anything?

But I digress. There we were, sitting in one of our rooms, discussing something to do with what we wanted from this movie we were clearly going to make and finish (SPOILER: it never got made) and we erupted into an argument. One segment of the group was arguing passionately for one thing and another segment of the group was arguing passionately for something else. (Here’s where I lose details.) And I was sitting there in the middle of this argument, listening to one side and the other, and they were getting really worked up about it, and at some point we all said okay, we’re not going to make a decision on this right now, let’s calm down and move on and we’ll deal with it later. We might have played video games instead.

Meanwhile, I started thinking about what they were arguing. And I turned to the spokesperson of one side, and I asked a couple clarifying questions about their position, and then I turned to the other side and did the same, and then I said, “Why don’t we just do this?” and proceeded to outline a solution that worked perfectly for both parties. Because I had realized that the something the one side wanted and the something the other side wanted weren’t mutually exclusive. But because of some kind of miscommunication, they thought that the two somethings were opposing somethings and only one of the sides could be right.

(The group ended up having other irreconcilable differences, partially revolving around some parties not really being interested in actually putting much work into the project.)

I like to pride myself, in general, on my diplomatic skill, my ability to recognize when those miscommunications might be happening and try to help diffuse the problem. Sometimes I get too caught up in the argument myself and it becomes nearly impossible — yes, I have faults too (gasp!). But it’s such an integral part of being social animals, of living with people and — especially? — working with people that I do what I can. (Or at least, when things fall apart, I can say, “That happened because we weren’t communicating effectively,” even if it’s too late to do so.)

This is one reason I like text-based communication. When I’m talking to someone using instant messaging or email, I feel like I can better take the time to explain my position is as much detail as possible and thus hope to avoid that deadly misunderstanding. Furthermore, it’s easier to keep a level head when you’re not yelling in someone’s face. I like being able to organize my thoughts on the screen, go back and reread what I and others have said, and give everything the analysis it deserves.

On the other hand, textual communication lacks a lot of the subtleties that human-to-human communication has developed over the last million years. Like tone of voice. Or facial expression. (Sidenote: which is why I’m actually a fan of emoticons [when not overused]. I used to think they were superfluous and kind of stupid, but they can actually go a long way towards getting across the intention of one’s words. If I end a mean-sounding comment with a smiley face, it becomes clear that I’m teasing and not actually being a dick, for instance.) And without those subtleties of communication, meanings can get lost. Sometimes, things just sound a lot more mean in text.

An example: If I’m part of a project that’s suffered something of a setback, and I send an email to my group outlining some possible options we have of dealing with it, it might come across like I think I’m in charge and saying, “Ok, here are our choices, period.” It might come across like I’m impatient and want to get moving — “Here’s what we can do, let’s make a decision and go.” It may come across like I think I know best.

But in reality, I’m sending them with the friendliest of intentions. I’m saying, “Hey guys — I know we’ve just suffered this setback, and we all need to chew on this a bit before we can move forward. We all need to explore our options, think about how we want to proceed, meet with the various people involved and make as informed a decision as we can. And I don’t want to make a decision until we’re all on the same page and have as much information as we can get. But, I’ve had some crazy stuff go through my head recently and I thought I’d just put it out there — here are some options we could think about, things that maybe we could do, but maybe there are other choices too. I just want us all to have them in mind so we can really discuss them later — once we’ve all had some time to think about it.”

And I don’t know if the people I’m emailing will actually take it badly. Maybe they do take it how I meant it. And then they email me back saying, “Yeah, those are some options.” And what they mean is, “Thanks for sending those out, we’ll keep them in mind, I have some ideas of my own, and we’ll totally discuss it all later once we’ve had some time.” And what I read is, “Your ideas are crap, and we can’t make this decision yet, so give us some damn time.”

I like to think that all people are generally good and kind and understand how to work with others and understand the flaws of textual communication. So usually it doesn’t actually become an issue. But sometimes I think I should include a note at the end of every email I send that says, “Everything in this email is meant in the nicest, most open-minded, agreeable way possible. I’m not angry or upset or terse. I genuinely want to understand or help or just open a dialogue, and I want to hear what you have to say. Keep smiling.”

But then no one would take me seriously.

Life, Musings , , , ,

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