The Power of Communication and Understanding: A Whackadoodle review of the listening-to-understand process, as well as a few new tools that can help you deal with gaslighting, deception, deflection, and more. If you have entered this story in the middle, click here for the table of contents.
My student brought a care package with her to our next lesson. “I looked at that list of foods high in potassium that you linked to,” she explained. “Everything in this trail mix is high on the list. I mixed it myself. You’ve got sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews, banana chips, dried apricots, even some peanut M&Ms. I want you to keep it next to your computer, and the next time you feel too tired to cook, just grab a handful.”
“This is really thoughtful, but you really shouldn’t be spending your money on me,” I said, carefully accepting the gallon size jar.
“I consider it an investment in my future education,” she said waving past me and into the hallway. “Depressed tutors are no fun,” she added over her shoulder as she continued down the hall to the table where we held our lessons.
She started immediately reviewing what she remembered about the listening-to-understand-process. “I know that about seventy percent of how people communicate is through body language, and you recommend one technic for reading body language that you call,” she looked up questioningly. “I don’t remember what you called it.”
“I don’t remember calling it anything,” I shrugged. “I simply compared reading body language to obeying traffic lights. If you see open, green body language, you can pretty much figure that your communication and understanding if flowing well, but if you notice yellow, warning body language then you are in danger of running a red light if you ignore the signals. You need to slow down, and uncover the communication barrier before continuing.”
“So you are looking for body language that signals boredom, misunderstanding, confusion, objections, and things like that, right?” she looked up to confirm.
“Right,” I agreed, then added as an afterthought. “You should also keep an eye on your own body language.”
“You never recommended anything like that in your book,” she said.
“An oversight on my part,” I smiled. “Remember that understanding tends to breakdown in one of four places within the communication cycle.” I counted them off on my fingers, as I continued. “First, when the speaker is trying to find the clearest way to express something. Second, when the receiver is trying to correctly interpret what was communicated. Third, when the receiver is trying to figure out the best response to what they received. Four, when the original speaker is trying to correctly interpret the response. That means that both speaker and receiver have to be open if communication is to flow.”
“Right,” she nodded. “It reminds me of the other day of when my Grandfather’s friend came over. He started lecturing me on not letting my Grandfather use his electric bike any more. ‘He was getting older. It is too dangerous. He could get hurt,'” she mimicked the friend. “He went on and on about it, telling me stuff I already knew. I mean, like I have the right to tell my Grandfather what to do. I couldn’t even look the guy in the eye because I knew he would be able to see my eyes rolling. I was getting so angry, so frustrated; but saying anything felt disrespectful. The funny thing is, I think he somehow recognized that I was getting upset, but he couldn’t figure out why, and just kept on pushing. He acted like I should be grateful for his advice, and I think that he started to get upset because I wasn’t showing gratitude.”
“What did you end up doing?”
“After about ten minutes of holding my tongue, I made some excuse about having to make Grandpa’s lunch, and walked out on him.”
“Yep,” I nodded. “Sounds like you said a lot without saying a word.”
“But nothing was actually communicated, and we sure did not reach understanding,” she said glumly.
“Not every communication needs to end with understanding,” I reassured her. “Just the ones that are important to you.”
“I suppose so,” she murmured, and looked down at her backpack. “I guess that brings us the thirty percent of how people communicate–emotional tone. Do they sound irritated, interested, bored, sarcastic, serious, scared, frustrated, doubtful, open, curious, guilty, contemptuous? Stuff like that.”
“What was your emotional tone when you finally opened your mouth and excused yourself to make lunch?” I couldn’t help but ask.
She thought back, “I didn’t say anything mean, but my voice was very tight. I was short with him, and left before he could say anything to stop me.”
I watched her sit in silence for a moment, and eventually prompted, “And what about the final ten percent?”
“What,” she looked up startled. “Oh right, the final ten percent of how people communicate is in their words.
“And what do we need to keep in mind with regards to words?”
“That many of the words we use are subjective and have more than one meaning, so we need to make sure that both the senders and the receiver are using the same meaning.”
“Can you cite an example?”
She thought for a moment, “I suppose BML is a good example. If you know what BML means, you can use the acronym, but if some doesn’t, it is best to use the the full term, Black Lives Matter. On top of that, some people define the BLM movement as a group of people trying to protest and draw attention to the police brutality suffered overwhelmingly by young black people; while other people define the BML movement as a group of violent radicals bet on uprooting a system they depend on.”
“And why does that matter?”
“Because if you don’t clarify what you mean by BML, you are going to end up struggling over semantics, rather than reaching a common understanding. I mean, I don’t think that anyone agrees that an innocent unarmed black man should be shot in the back by a police officer ever; but what what people end up arguing about is the BLM movement, rather than the injustice that brought about that movement.”
“So what would you do if you ran into a situation where you defined BML one way, and they defined it another, but you still wanted to reach an understanding?”
“I suppose I would stop using the word with them, and start taking about police involved shootings, so that we could communicate with definitions be both share. I might even ask them what they thought people should do when they saw an injustice.”
“Good” I smiled. “It’s important to avoid weaponized words when trying to reach an understanding.”
“What do you mean weaponized?”
“Words which are often used to create division rather than create understanding. Words like Nazi, Fascist, Radicalized, Liberal, MAGA, Woke. Those are just a few that I’ve heard tossed around lately. They work fine if you are trying to get the people who are already on your side worked up, but they don’t really broker understanding among people with conflicting definitions.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well you end up arguing over what it means to be Woke, and whether or not calling someone a Fascist is an appropriate use of the word. Much better to focus on any specific actions that might make you want to use those words, especially when dealing with conflicting definitions.”
“Hum,” she grunted with a nod. “So I guess that we have just two more steps to review. People need to listen reflectively, which basically means to consider how what they’re saying might reflect their worldview. In fact, you think this step is so important the you have a whole other rule about the power of reflection,” she paused for a moment, and then finished with a grin. “Finally, when in doubt paraphrase what you’ve heard, and ask if you have understood correctly. This confirms accurate understanding before continuing.” The look she sent me spoke volumes. I could almost hear her thinking, “Aren’t I a good student?“
“They aren’t really separate steps, you know,” I grinned back. “You’ve got to get so good at all five parts, that you can can accomplish all five at the same time automatically. Plus, you forgot one.”
“What do you mean I forgot one?” she asked with a tinge of outrage.
“To be more accurate,” I held up my hands in surrender. “I forgot one. One that I have only recently decided to add considering our Whackadoodle times.” That seemed to pique her interest.
“Okay,” she said, and waited for me to explain.
“I have decided that you also need to listen for their motivation.”
“Motivation,” she repeated uncertainly.
“Yeah, you know. Are they being sincere, or are they try to gaslight you? Are they hoping for feedback and advice, or do they simply need to vent their frustration? Are they seeking approval, or an opinion? Are they trying to provide a valuable service, or are they just trying to get money out of you? Are they using words to heal, or are they using words to enflame? Are they being direct and truthful, or are they trying to deflect, deny, delay, distract, deceive, deflect, defame, or delegitimize.”
“That’s a lot of D words,” she commented drily.
“I know,” I admitted. “Can you tell that I’ve been working on the list?”
“Ha,” she snorted. She began playing with one of the cords that hung from her backpack. “So what do you do if run into situations where people are trying to deceive, or deflect, or any of those other D words?” she asked almost shyly.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” I assured her. “And I’ve decided that the first step is to simply notice their motivations. I’ve also decided that the best way to do that is through something that I am going to call critical listening.”
“Critical listening?” Her brows furrowed. “You mean like critical thinking?”
“Yep, just like with critical thinking, you need to objectively consider whether or not you can accept what they are saying at face value, or if you need to dig deeper for the truth. And In order to do that, you need to ask yourself a number of questions.”
“Well”, I paused to think. “Are the people you encounter able to consider alternate explanations, or are they just pushing one agenda? Are they offering rumors, hearsay, and speculation, or they providing examples, proof, and evidence? Are their words designed to clarify, or to distract. Are their arguments logical, or strewn with fallacies?”
“As I recall,” she began a bit nervously. “There are an awful lot of fallacies.”
“Then it might be a good time to break out your copy of Teaching Logic in a Whackadoodle World, and have a bit of a review.”
“You just want people to check out your book,” she accused.
“Nice,” I laughed. “You picked up on my motivation.”
“You still haven’t explained how to handle someone who has questionable motivations,” she reminded me.
“True,” I acknowledged. “But what you should do has less to do with listening, and more to do with influence and persuasion. So I say, let’s call it a day, and pick up on the what you should do next week.”
“After I have had a chance to review the fallacies?” she teased.
“Obviously,” I said standing up. “Now get out, and go see if you can find something fun to do for the rest of the day.”
“Aye, aye,” she saluted laughing. She was still laughing as she walked out the door.
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- Navigating Life in a Whackadoodle World
- Finding Sense in a Whackadoodle World
- Teaching Logic in a Whackadoodle World
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