The Limitation of Communication Techniques

November 2014

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When I was a graduate student studying for my Masters Degree in Marriage, Family and Child Counseling, I was taught the deceptively simple art of active listening. In active listening, the listener repeats back what she thinks the speaker said in her own words in order to demonstrate that she heard and understood what the speaker said. When practiced skillfully, active listening contributes to mutual understanding, and can be a valuable practice for those who tend to get distracted formulating their own postured response before they have actually heard what is being said to them.

There is no question but that good listening skills are essential to good communication, and the noble intent of active listening is to foster good listening skills. In practice, however, I often found the technique rather annoying. I never felt comfortable using it, and I often cringed when someone did it to me.

Why? Because unless the listener actually cares what the speaker has to say, no amount of technique can compensate for a lack of caring. The technique can be taught, but the caring cannot be. Caring is a feeling for another that arises out of being. Genuine caring can and often does lead to a meaningful expression of being in action. But it is not something that can be simply be manufactured by doing a particular thing, or practicing a particular technique, if the feeling is not there. When the genuine sense of caring is missing, the technique alone feels like someone scraping their fingernails on a blackboard where it is written 100 times “I must listen carefully.”

Since those days, there have arisen many techniques designed to foster better communication. Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) is an approach to communication developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder based on the idea that the skills of successful communicators can be modeled and then translated into a set of skills that can be learned by anyone. Interest-based models of conflict resolution, negotiation and mediation – not unlike those I witnessed at the Trinity Forum in the late 1980s – developed by the Harvard Negotiation Project; the Gordon Model for Effective Relationships and Parent Effectiveness Training developed by Thomas Gordon; and Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) theories and techniques are all based on well-intentioned attempts to address the question, “What makes good communication?” – just as I am asking in this blog series.

All of these inquiries, and the techniques that evolve out them can, in certain situations, be useful; and can potentially at least lead to a set of attitudes and intentions that can blossom with practice into instinctual skills that work well in facilitating genuine communication. The problem arises when – as is apparently our common human tendency – we begin to approach these techniques as though they were a magic formula and become rigid or routine in our use of them, or worse still, adopt them as a façade for a distinct lack of genuine communication skill.

As with any set of techniques, when used formulaically, any of these well-intentioned ideas can become tools of manipulation by those who lack good intentions, would usurp common ground for themselves, could care less about the well being of those with whom they communicate, are intentionally dishonest, inauthentic, unwilling to be vulnerable, wedded to their masks and committed to the superficial appearance of things, unwilling to engage the unknown or reveal the hidden agenda behind their communication. Even in the hands of those who intentions are pure, to be taught to rely on technique for good communication resigns any communicator to a bike with training wheels.

What makes someone a good communicator is not technique but depth of being, and willingness to live from that place. This cannot be faked, nor will technique ultimately be a believable substitute for its lack. Consider this advice, taken from an actual website for job-seekers (that I will spare the embarrassment of naming):

"A relaxed, open stance (arms open, legs relaxed), and a friendly tone will make you appear approachable, and will encourage others to speak openly with you. Eye contact is also important; you want to look the person in the eye to demonstrate that you are focused on the person and the conversation (however, be sure not to stare at the person, which can make him or her uncomfortable)."

Have you ever encountered someone with a relaxed stance who was not actually relaxed; someone with a friendly tone to their voice but the glint of a con artist in their eye; someone with practiced eye contact; or a smile that was obviously disconnect from any real sense of warmth or genuine feeling? I don’t know about you, but such encounters have made me feel a bit queasy and claustrophobic. When they are practiced as technique, rather than something that naturally emanates from a sense of compassion, tempered in the crucible of a life whose challenges have been well met, such an approach to communication invariably sets up an invisible barrier to the very thing it is meant to achieve.

That is why the most polished communicator with all the right training and all the right skills can often fail to do more than manipulate and persuade, while the unpracticed person of genuine goodness can win hearts and minds. Which would you rather talk to?

As P. T Barnum is reputed to have said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people all of the time. But you can’t fool all the people all of the time.”

And, I would add, those that attempt it with good communication technique will in the end find their spiritual laziness a foolish choice.

The next post in this series is The Quest for Common Language.

To read more blog posts, go here.