Rational Communication

bySwimmer9638y10th Sep 201138 comments


As I've probably mentioned elsewhere, I am currently studying nursing. My third year started off with a bang today: a six-hour workshop on communication skills to prepare us for our month-long psychiatric/mental health placement, scheduled for October.

The workshop would have been a lot more useful if we’d, for example, done role-playing scenarios instead of watching a series of PowerPoint presentations. Like most of the skills involved in nursing, and like many of the skills involved in rationality, communication skills aren't well transmitted by book learning. The specific techniques we are supposed to learn are for "therapeutic communication", as opposed to "non-therapeutic communication". However, my first impression, as someone who has always found social skills a little bit challenging, was "wow! This is something I can use "all the time!"


Good Communication Techniques

One of the major skills that we've talked about in class, and tried to practice in our hospital placements, is active listening: trying to really listen to what a person is saying and, maybe more importantly, appearing as though you're really listening. I'm sure that to some people, the non-verbal, body-language half of this is as automatic as breathing. It wasn't obvious to me. However, here is a helpful acronym from this site.  

  • Sit squarely facing the client.
  • Observe an open posture. 
  • Lean forward toward the client.
  • Establish eye contact.
  • Relax.

The verbal half of this is: don't interpret and don't interrupt. Nod and use filler words like "uh-huh" and "yeah" to show that you're still paying attention. If they seem stuck or blocked, repeat their last sentence with "and then?" or encourage them with "go on..." or "I'm listening" The goal is to accept what they are saying and listen without criticizing or judging, whether or not you agree. Pretty much everyone likes to be listened to, and prefers it if their listener is attentive. I've been practicing this with my friends and family. Not quite to the point that it's automatic, but I have a reputation as a good listener.

There are a few other techniques that I've tried to work on and that seem to improve the quality of my general communication. If a person's train of thought doesn't make sense to you, or if their explanation seems muddled and overly complicated, use clarification: try to explain what you think they mean in your own words, and see if they agree. Focusing is another technique: if you would really like to understand one particular point that they’ve passed over, then bring the conversation back to that point. (“Can you tell me more about X…?”). Exploring is similar, but encourages someone to broaden rather than narrowing the scope of their argument. At the end of the conversation, you can restate their points and yours. This is a good way to make sure that every thread of the conversation was followed up and that the meaning they took from your arguments is the same meaning that you intended.


Bad Communication Techniques

There is a time and a place for approving or disapproving. There are plenty of times and places when doing will only hold up the conversation and distract from the actual topic. As a rule, I try not to openly disapprove of anything a casual friend or acquaintance tells me in conversation. Even if I really want to. It doesn’t help. Casual acquaintances don’t care enough about my opinion to stop doing something that I disapprove of, and most people have an instant “dislike” reaction towards anyone who criticizes them, even if they try to compensate for it. Some of my closer friends will actually listen to my disapproval and update on it, but when it comes to my best friend, I’ve learned that she will almost always respond defensively.

Yes, it's annoying. Yes, it’s irrational that people respond this way. It’s the way things are. In my best friend’s case, I really do wish she would exercise more and eat a healthier diet, but I put a higher value on being friends with her than on making her change her lifestyle. And there are gentler, more positive ways to point this out to her. Most people know about their problems, and likely spend their time trying to avoid thinking about them. Passing judgement really, really doesn’t help.

This surprised me, but “why?”  is generally not a good question to ask, at least not when the topic is someone’s emotions or personal life. I think it’s because, to a lot of people, emotions just are. They feel less like part of the mind and more like part of the environment. Asking one of these people “why are you upset about Bob and Sue’s divorce?”, especially in a demanding-an-answer sort of  voice, is less likely to produce a calmly reasoned explanation, and more likely a defensive “I just am!” and a strong feeling of not being listened to. Again, this is kind of annoying, especially because I always found why to be a neutral word. But there are more neutral ways to fulfill your curiosity: “Obviously this is important to you. Do you think you can tell me more about it?” No way to take offense from that.

The other examples of bad techniques in our textbook that I’ve found applicable in real life are: changing the subjectfalse reassurance, and using stereotyped or clichéd comments to steer a conversation away from whatever it is you want to avoid. Yeah, sometimes my friends talk about things that make me uncomfortable, that scare me, or that I just don’t care that much about, but they care. I owe it to them to listen attentively, whether or not I have anything useful to add. I try to extend that courtesy to acquaintances, too, since in some ways it benefits me: anything that makes me uncomfortable is probably a topic I can learn more about.


Application to Rationality and Winning

I’ve found it much easier to help people change their minds (as opposed to making them change their minds) since I started following these simple rules. Almost everyone will learn more by focusing on their own arguments and finding the flaws than from having those flaws pointed out in a disapproving manner. And the level of enjoyment I get from day-to-day conversation and small talk has definitely risen. I might be able to say whatever I think to my parents or my brother and expect a reasoned and interesting response, but most people aren’t as obliging, and if I’m going to be sitting in the pool office at work anyway, I might as well hone my social skills and not be bored.

As I said before, I expect these skills come naturally to a lot of people, at least when they’re talking to someone who they like. I try to communicate in the same way with people I like and people I dislike, since learning more about someone’s life generally means I will stop disliking them (and if they disliked me, they will like me more when I am trying to be my nicest possible self). Since enemies aren’t something I like to cultivate, this is always a good thing.

In short: being a good conversation partner is useful, whether you want to change people's minds or just have fun, and being a better listener will help with that goal.