Rational Communication

by Swimmer9635 min read10th Sep 201138 comments

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Personal Blog

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. 

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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.

Several months ago, I spent some time with a person who was able to guess that I'm on the autistic spectrum (something that I generally prefer not to talk about, having trained myself to a point where most people can't tell,) and she said that one of the main tipoffs was that I seemed like I had studied and practiced active listening, rather than having grown up never thinking of listening as a skill to be learned.

It put me in mind of My Fair Lady, where a linguistics expert concludes that the main character, a Cockney woman who's undergone intensive training to adopt upper class speech, must be a non-native speaker, because she sounded like she had studied the language academically.

she said that one of the main tipoffs was that I seemed like I had studied and practiced active listening, rather than having grown up never thinking of listening as a skill to be learned.

What's the difference? What exactly do you do and sound like, and what would somebody who it came to naturally do and sound like?

Well, if I knew exactly how what I do differs from someone who learned naturally, I would try to do that differently, but she was pretty vague about it. It sounded like she thought I was too consistent about using physical and audible "I'm listening" cues though.

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.

A model:

Most people parse out 'why' questions as a request for them to give the narrative they've constructed surrounding an incident or set of incidents. In most cases where a person is upset about an incident, it's largely because they haven't worked out an acceptable narrative about it yet, and in such cases asking the person to relate that nonexistent narrative will just upset them, primarily because it comes across as judgmental ("you should have an answer to this question, and it's bad that you don't"). In situations where a person is not upset, but is explaining something or relating a story (even a personal or emotional one), asking 'why' will work much better, because the story being requested already exists.

My impression is that asking "why" tends to sound like "do you have a reason which will convince me that I should agree with you? I'm dubious about what you're doing".

(nods)

I generally assume that people will understand "Why did you X?" to mean "You should not have Xed"... as a challenge, rather than a request for information, since such challenges are frequently expressed as questions of that sort. So if I genuinely want to invite people to reflect on their reasons, I find I have to reframe the question.

Depending on the particulars, that might be "When did you first decide to X?" or "What was your inspiration for X?" or even (though this is a dangerous one, as it skirts the edges of challenge) "What led you to reject Y in favor of X?"

[-][anonymous]10y 0

Do you have some more evidence for this? Most of the things you said don't strike me as clearly true.

Not especially. It's the model I use, but it doesn't suggest behavior much different from other models, like NancyLebovitz's, so the fact that it works for me doesn't say much about its accuracy. (I prefer it because it's relatively nonjudgmental and because it primes for 'people construct narratives which may or may not be related to reality', which is not a concept I find especially intuitive in practice.) It was more intended as an instrumentally-useful suggestion for people using models that do suggest that asking 'why' about peoples' emotional states is a good idea.

“Obviously this is important to you. Do you think you can tell me more about it?” No way to take offense from that.''

I would expect offense. Something along the lines of "I came here to talk to you, not be spoon-fed lines from a communication textbook".

I've found most people will pick up on stilted/unnatural lines, yes. I've also found that most people will, after some practice, turn the lines in a communications textbook in to something that sounds natural for them. It's the sentiment, not the exact wording, that matters. And I've found that the sentiment of "You seem to care about this, so I'm interested in listening" goes over very well if you can make it sound genuine.

These are perhaps good pointers for communicating with normal people, but go against a number of useful things that you should be able to do to communicate more efficiently, with someone you can cooperate with in that regard, or teach to get better at eventually:

  • Interrupting to fix (point out) a technical problem with reasoning, that would be forgotten and ignored as insignificant otherwise. Persisting at this leads to gradual improvement. (For example, fighting the many faces of rationalization the moment it's detected, or problems with misusing words.)
  • Interrupting an explanation that doesn't help you, that you don't accept and won't benefit from for one reason or another, getting the conversation back on track or reframing it.
  • Make sure you understand details of the described idea, and not just the outline. Summarizing at the end only checks the outline and ignores the texture.
  • I concur that approving/disapproving is not a good idea, but for a different reason, for you should point out considerations that you think relevant and expect the other didn't take into account, which can change the conclusion.
  • Confronting emotionally-driven reasoning helps with developing a measure of immunity to it, and ability to notice. People can be at their craziest when driven by emotion, so it's particularly important to notice when you are so influenced and take sufficient precautions to confound the craziness.
  • Above all these is, of course, educating people about the basic concepts that would allow communicating the nature of the problem when it manifests.

Good points. That is the easiest way to quickly communicate with someone and figure out why, if at all, you aren't coming to the same conclusions. That being said, with 90% of the people I know, speaking in this way wouldn't help the conversation and would annoy them. Back before I had realized this, much fewer people liked talking to me.

Interrupting to fix (point out) a technical problem with reasoning, that would be forgotten and ignored as insignificant otherwise.

If I can find a good place to interrupt (a pause or break in the explanation), and I'm speaking to a "normal" person, I'll say "sorry, can you go back to X again? I don't think I get it." Or "I think we might be using the word 'value' for different things. What do you think it means?" Which, to 'normal' people, doesn't sound as much like "your logic is flawed, you idiot."

for you should point out considerations that you think relevant and expect the other didn't take into account, which can change the conclusion.

No reason not to do this. Most people don't find it rude or confrontational, AFAICT.

Interrupting an explanation that doesn't help you, that you don't accept and won't benefit from for one reason or another, getting the conversation back on track or reframing it.

I will do this, as gently as I can, in an intellectually-driven conversation. The number of people I can have intellectually driven conversations with is already significantly less than the total number of people I know. I will not do this if the conversation is in any way a person seeking advice or empathy about their personal life. It's their life. They get to decide what parts are important. (And yes, I do value being someone who people come to when they want advice or empathy. Not only does hearing about their inner emotions help me better understand people in generally, but it makes me feel valued.)

Confronting emotionally-driven reasoning helps with developing a measure of immunity to it, and ability to notice. People can be at their craziest when driven by emotion, so it's particularly important to notice when you are so influenced and take sufficient precautions to confound the craziness.

Nurses are supposed to do this, too. Usually you would do it by making an observation like "You seem angry. Am I right?" "..." "Do you think maybe you're thinking X because you're angry?"

with 90% of the people I know, speaking in this way wouldn't help the conversation and would annoy them.

This. Code-switching is important. As a social work student, there's a different way I speak to clients (especially irrational clients) than I would to someone I think is more capable of reasoning.

It's their life. They get to decide what parts are important.

They don't. They might emotionally detest any disagreement or the audacity of thinking about the question (to the point where at a particular stage a conversation wouldn't work, without extensive background work), but there is no magical rule that makes particular people right about particular questions. It doesn't matter who judges, only which questions have which actually correct answers.

It depends how she meant it. What is important to them depends entirely on them, not intrinsically on what Swimmer963 thinks or the way the rest of the world is.

But they don't get to choose what parts are important. If it's important to them how the world is (as humans, they do), then they can be wrong and rightfully judged wrong, exactly as you say.

In a similar vein: correctly diagnosing at what level someone is confused. It's way too easy to correct a surface level imperfection when you know that they're moving in entirely the wrong way. Teaching people how to play chess or how to play guitar probably helps with this since everything is so concrete; it's extra important to do right when philosophilizering or whenever you're discussing something abstract.

Interrupting an explanation that doesn't help you, that you don't accept and won't benefit from for one reason or another, getting the conversation back on track or reframing it.

Going back to the fork in the argument, the point at which one first began to disagree, is helpful and the main way I would put that. For me, reframing usually comes after going back to the fork doesn't work.

I find that "misunderstanding" describes the difficulties in the process of actually trying to communicate better than "disagreement". "Disagreement" is not so much a failure mode, as a way in which to focus on the questions that you need to form better mutual understanding about. So you abort a line of conversation not because of disagreement, but because of misunderstanding, while disagreement refocuses the conversation.

To everyone in general, I would be very interested in any suggested books or textbooks that cover this subject. How to win friends and influence people is a somewhat related classic.

They're technically about dealing with kids, but I like How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk and others by the same authors.

Andrew Gelman also recommended that one. Now that two people I respect have recommended it I may have to check it out.

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.

I think we can add to this: Don't ask why someone did something if they were pretty clearly acting mindlessly -- or at least certainly don't make it sound like you're asking for a justification. (I suppose that last part applies to asking about doing anything the person realizes was stupid.) Or rather, only ask this if both:

  1. They're sufficiently self-aware that they can recognize in retrospect what mindless processes screwed them up
  2. They know that you are prepared to accept such an explanation (and are not asking them to justify what they know was stupid)

I'm glad you added that. It occurred to me that most of the time when I am guilty of that, I actually expect the other person to examine their own thought processes like I do, when in reality that is clearly an unpalatable course of action for them. I'm thankful for this article in general, many here like me can benefit from "obvious" social advice.

[-][anonymous]10y 2

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don't interrupt.

Which I found incredible hard.

As a rule, I try not to openly disapprove of anything a casual friend or acquaintance tells me in conversation.

This segment I find rather sad. I disagree about the usefulness, but it saddens me to see someone be stuck in a situation and not be able to even tell them about it. It took a while to find a way to deal with that.

I deal with it by finding some non-critical, non-judgmental way to get THEM to admit that they're stuck in a less-than-ideal situation. Most people know that they have problems, and are more than willing to talk about them if they feel comfortable and not defensive. One thing I have to STOP doing is making passive-agressive comments that imply I disapprove but without saying it outright.

How do YOU deal with it?

Misogyny or changing the topic. I basically 'assume' that if they would actually care about resolving the issue they would put out a stronger effort which would be visible. In such a case I would probably be more supportive.

I have some people in my surrounding that stumble into very similar problems all the time and do not like to be pointed to that being the case.

Also it was really important for me to understand that I am not here to correct things I perceive as wrong in others. I changed my worldview to account for that. But I am not really able to describe that yet or to recommend it.

For a while I lived under the motto of 'friends tell friends the truth' which turned out to be a really stupid idea.

Possibly: misanthropy.

"Misogyny" makes the sentence funnier.

For a while I lived under the motto of 'friends tell friends the truth' which turned out to be a really stupid idea.

Only if imposed unilaterally. Making it clear to your friends that you expect them to tell you the truth on a particularly important matter, in my experience, works quite well.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

Great points. Especially the "no interrupting" and the gentle criticism if any, especially in more formal situations.

However, these points are hard to learn without previous experience. Communication skills are not "sit and study" skills, I think. Also, these skills are much easier to talk about than to actually do. Finally, shouldn't there be a difference between talking to people with different statuses? People shouldn't talk to top bosses the way they would talk to a coworker. They wouldn't talk to coworkers the way they'd talk to a high school student, etc.

Sometimes -- especially in a lab environment -- you need overcome another researcher's biases and teach them something. How can you do that successfully if you are younger (and therefore at a lower social status)?

I just know that the more time I spent working in the real world (as opposed to school), the more I realized how hard communication really is.

Many of the underlined words feel like they're supposed to be links. Did something go wrong?

No. Just emphasis. Although I could link to the Wikipedia articles...

Ah. I was expecting underlined nouns to be links to LW articles that expand on points, since that's done pretty commonly around here. Could I suggest that you use italics and bold rather than underlines for emphasis? (Personal preference.)

Agreed on the preference against underlining for emphasis :)

Agree. Also, nice post.

(There are no associated URLs in the HTML source, so it's not something I can fix. PMed this thread to the author.)