Epistemic status: Original work, explanation of a mental model that I developed for a few years that brings together knowledge from existing fields.
Is all communication manipulation? I hear this sentiment frequently expressed and want to explain in this article that there’s nonmanipulative communication by using protein folding as an intuition pump.
It is common knowledge within molecular biology that proteins fold into their native state. That native state is the folded shape that possesses a minimum of free energy. Finding global minima is however a hard problem. For bigger proteins, it's at the time of writing - still impossible to calculate the shape.
Even in vivo protein folding is a hard problem. Cells are densely packed with many different molecules that push against each other. Frequently, resources are wasted when a protein misfolds into a shape that's not its native state.
Nature is clever and developed a way to help proteins fold into their native state. Cells produce chaperones. A chaperone surrounds an unfolded protein to protect it from outside influences to help the protein to fold into its native state. A chaperone doesn't need to know the native state of a protein to help the protein fold into that state. Instead of manipulating the protein like a sculpture, it holds space for a protein to be safe from outside influences, while it folds into its native form.
This allows a chaperone that works in an uncomplicated way to achieve a result that very complex machine learning algorithms currently don't achieve. The machine learning algorithm tries to figure out the best way for the protein to fold while the chaperone just lets the protein find this way by itself.
The psychologist Carl Rogers advocated that good psychologists act in the same way nonmanipulative with their patients. In his view, it's not the job of the therapist to solve the problem of their patient by manipulating the patient into a healthy form. A good therapist isn’t like ta sculptor sculpts a sculpture. The job of the therapist is rather to hold a space for the patient in which the patient is safe from certain forces that prevent the patient from finding their healthy authentic native state.
I don't intend to argue for nonmanipulative communication from a moral perspective. In cases where you know how to fix the problem of the person you are talking with and are confident that the other person will follow your advice, go ahead. If you don't know what will help a person, taking a nonmanipulative approach is often more effective than giving the person advice that they have already heard a dozen times.
If you tell an obese person that they should lose weight again, you add additional stress which can make it harder for them to think about the issue. In the Rogerian model effective change isn't about creating enough pressure by telling the obese to lose weight till they finally get it. For an obese person who feels shame for being obese, it can be hard to clearly think about the issue when they are alone. Providing the person a space where they can speak about their challenges in a way where they aren't feeling judged can help them to make progress for themselves.
There's a mystic quality to being nonmanipulative. Even Carl Rogers, who proposed the ideal, that all interactions should be nonmanipulative, sometimes fell short of it. For practical purposes it's often more useful to do what makes sense in the moment and what helps the other than to live up to an ideal of being perfectly nonmanipulative.
On the other hand, having a mental model of what it means to be nonmanipulative can be very helpful to understand communication practices like Rogerian psychotherapy, Gestalt Therapy and Circling.
I invite you to explore communicating in a way that holds the space for others to find themselves.