Friday, July 01, 2011

Interpersonal Communication: Climate Control

This is a continuation of a series.  Look at the dated archive to find parts 3.1 and 3.2

Communication climate control.  Because we are different, there is a great deal of possibility for conflict.  We’ll look at conflict more deeply when we get to the unit on small group communication, because that is where it happens the most, but a large part of dealing with conflict is to control the communication climate.  Think of it this way:  you can be the thermostat in your communication system, not just a thermometer.  A thermostat works to control the environment; a thermometer just indicates the temperature.  This is how.

Gibb’s classification. Communication scholar Jack Gibb is credited with distinguishing between communication behaviors that create a supportive environment and those that create a defensive environment.  Each is created by certain phrases that many of us say habitually and without thinking, but it’s more likely that our habitual verbal behavior will create a defensive climate between people than a supportive climate; for that, we have to consciously choose to change our focus and the way we frame our words.  He listed the behaviors in pairs.  The supportive behaviors won’t necessarily eliminate all defensiveness, but they can help. Each one of these pairs focus on a particular aspect of the relationship/metamessage aspect of communication. 

Defensive                                                        Supportive

Evaluation                                                       Description

Control                                                            Problem-orientation

Neutrality                                                        Empathy

Superiority                                                      Equality

Certainty                                                         Provisionalism

Strategy                                                           Spontaneity


In evaluation, the speaker’s words judge the character, value, or essence of the person, not his/her actions.  Descriptive verbal behaviors try to put an objective (as much as possible) response to things by describing what actually happened or was seen.  Because we do not always see the whole picture, it is easy to see that our evaluative statements are incomplete and hasty.  If in a group meeting, Jane says to Joan, “you’re wasting our time” or “you’re disorganized,” that’s evaluation, because there is no specific behavior mentioned, and it’s Jane’s perception.  If she said, “Joan, I’m not able to follow the flow of this meeting. (stating the situation from her perspective).  We started talking about X, then skipped to Y, and now we’re on a totally different subject. (specific behaviors noted)  Could we return to the agenda items? (suggestion of solution)”  Joan may still get defensive, but at least she knows why Jane is confused (and the others are getting antsy).
The second pair notes the difference between someone who wants to regulate the flow of communication and the circumstances and someone who wants to solve a problem.  There’s an old saying, “There’s no telling what can get done if no one is concerned about getting the credit.”  Someone who wants the credit, who wants to know what others are doing, or who limits other people’s choices unreasonably is exerting control over people rather than focusing on ways to address circumstances in ways that engage other people and move forward.  A sense of being watched and controlled is an immediate step to being defensive, and when we are defensive, we do not talk freely, feeling our freedom of speech is being squelched. A leader who does not take suggestions about aspects that would make meetings, timing, and projects more convenient for people is exerting control for the sake of control and not allowing others their ability to solve problems.
The third pair notes those who basically say, “I don’t care about what you’re thinking, saying, or feeling” vs. those who do show concern or empathy for the other as a human being.  Statements like, “I’m not interested,” “this doesn’t affect me,” or “What’s that got to do with me?” suggest neutrality.  Statements such as “Tell me what’s going on with you,” or “What can we do to help you do your job better?” shows empathy and concern for another; of course, those statements with no real back-up fall into another kind of defensive verbal behavior, strategy (trying to manipulate someone).  
The fourth pair differentiates between messages that say, “I’m in a higher position than you; I’ve got more status and importance than you, I’m morally better than you,” versus those that seek for commonality.  Just speaking in terms of “we” instead of “you” is an example.  “I don’t understand how you got yourself into this situation; I would never do that, make that choice, etc.” communicates superiority, whereas “Could you explain the process that got you to this point?” sends a message of equality and non-judgment.
The fifth pair indicates the difference between someone who has already made up his/her mind and believes he/she needs no help, advice, or information from anyone else, as opposed to someone who has kept an open mind until other persons’ views have been expressed.  Of course, too much provisionalism leads to indecisiveness.  But phrases such as “We don’t need to meet; I know how to solve the problem” communicates certainty.  People who prefer to work alone can fall into this mode, even unconsciously; we communicate that we don’t need other’s input.
The sixth pair notes the difference between manipulating people with a hidden agenda and going into a meeting or conversation with a belief that something fresh and new could emerge.  If a supervisor calls his department together and gets opinions on a new policy only in order to make them think he was really going to listen to them, that’s strategy; it would make more sense not to waste their time or his, since it’s already been decided. 
Obviously, these different pairs bleed over into the others; a communicator who is certain will probably be strategic too (since they are not open to others’ opinions but know what’s best).  A communicator who is descriptive will probably be open-minded and provisional, too.  For example, Jim walks in late for a meeting with Tim and five others.
        Tim:  Why are you late?
        Jim:  Oh, just one of those things.
        Tim:  I don’t appreciate being held up.
        Jim:  I know, but you don’t know the circumstances.
        Tim:  You’ve always got circumstances.  Lateness is a constant state with you. You’re never on time.

First of all, Tim is being critical in public and forcing others to be involved.  Second, he is emphasizing his feelings and inconveniences, not the group’s.  Third, as we’ll see later, meetings should start on time and people who are usually late should not be noticed or caught up; it only sends the message that it’s ok and we’ll accommodate you, so why should the latecomer change?  Fourth, Tim falls into the “always” and “never” trap; those two words are guaranteed to make anyone immediately defensive (under certainty and superiority). Fifth, in a private setting or after the meeting, Tim should note the time he arrived (descriptive), ask calmly about the circumstances (empathy), and discuss ways for this to stop happening (problem-orientation).

Defensive communication is one of the main reasons for conflict in groups and teams and dyads; we will discuss conflict in more detail in the unit on small group communication.  However, a few comments here.  Communication books will always say, “Conflict is good,” but they mean conflict over ideas and perspectives, not over personal agendas and temperaments.  Since most people have a hard time distinguishing conflict over ideas and conflict over personalities, anyone who is going to be in a leadership position must have a plan for dealing with conflict and a healthy view of it. This entire lecture is relevant to the overall theme of resolving (working through to eliminate) and/or managing (finding ways to keep it from being too central) conflict.

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