Dear class,

It is almost the last day! You have been such engaged learners. 🙂 I hope the labor of the class will not outweigh its value as you each move on into your own futures.

We have one more major task to accomplish. You may have noticed that the actual description of the class names a bunch of communication theories which we have not even mentioned. My strategy has been practical, first, and theoretical second. This is a bias I have regarding education, most people simply call it hands-on learning. Now that we have had our hands (minds and hearts) “in it” for the past five and a half weeks, we really must take a peek at the ways different theories propose to make sense of interpersonal communication (this real thing we do with each other). The editor and contributors to our textbook are generally in agreement with each other; as I have mentioned before, there is a bit of a problem with such a total package. Not everyone examines IPC in the same ways, nor seeks similar goals from it, nor even values it with comparable priority in relation to other aspects of human social life.

For instance, a specific theory called The Coordinated Management of Meaning identifies a hierarchy of meaning based on source – what we might call using John Stewart (our textbook author) metaphor of breathing, all the things we inhale. But the meaningfulness of all those inhales are directed by two rules that guide our exhales so that we stay within whatever we think is normal for that interaction.  One of the originators of this theory teaches in the Communication Department at UMass.  Professor Cronen tells an anecdote about a couple receiving couples counseling using the CMM theory: they consistently <i>misunderstood</I> each other but the meaning they made together worked for their relationship!

A more general field of theory that encompasses a range of variations is known as the ethnography of communication. My first theoretical training was in this area, with its emphasis on communication patterns based in/upon some common codes that are shared by/within groups. I was fascinated by the attempt to make sense of “the interrelationships among language, culture, and society” (Bauman and Sherzer, 1975).

These two strands of theory have different roots. The latter privileges code and group, while the former privileges rule and the individual. The distinction between “code” and “rule” occupies plenty of abstract theoretical attention, but the locus of communicative activity as being either the group or the individual is a crucial and determinative matter. Neither theory (nor their advocates) would attribute linear causality to one or the other, but they do privilege one over the other – as do most of us. Be honest! Do you imagine that interpersonal communication begins with you (what you say, what you mean?), or do you believe that interpersonal communication begins with everything everyone else says and means? (Recall the chicken-egg debate! Or was it egg-chicken?!)

We have talked about how communication influences – even creates – identity; and we have also noticed the differences between the relationships that happen with interpersonal communication occurring online (as we have been doing, sometimes called “computer-mediated communication“) and IPC that occurs IRL (in real life), or face-to-face (f2f). We steered away from relational communication with intimates (family, spouse, etc), while focusing on impression management (especially following Goffman).

The theory that has actually guided my decisions about what/how to teach are those that relate to discourse, in particular, I am most drawn to and inspired by critical discourse theory. It is the attention I’ve paid over the years to discourses that contributes to a sense of trust in certain patterns of interaction, my teaching (and communication, in general) is shaped by intuitions concerning which patterns are in play at given junctures of group development. I am rarely “right” in any definitive way, and I am often surprised – which keeps things alive and fascinating. The surprises during this course have been delightful: I am not exaggerating to applaud the ways in which each of you rose to the occasion and challenges of this class. We have created something special together – I hope you are as proud of us as I am!

Don’t be shy about coming back, whenever. I’ll be doing this work for the rest of my life. 🙂

Sometimes, how things happen amazes me. “Things” – that word is about as vague as possible, yes? Yet, the diction is also the most broad: there is such extreme unpredictability about conversation, and yet – if one steps back a bit, just far enough to perceive the current, then the contours of dialogue (technically, an interweaving of discourses) do become apparent.

This morning I logged in to class to assess the progress of five teams on their “midterm” projects. (The course officially ends in four days, but there will be a separate “final,” and a few more assignments related to the major Team Projects – links posted below.) There are dynamics I recognize from the usual stages of group development, including the increasing challenge I face in drawing connections between theory and practice, and continuing to provide opportunities for skills enhancement and new comprehension right up until the end. I sit down to type with an idea in mind to weave

  1. student responses to the most recent individual assignment (selecting which chapter/topic to read for our last unit), with
  2. some kind of explanatory context for the Replies (comments) that the students will add to this entry later today (a summary of their Team Project and links to the Project on each of their individual weblogs), and
  3. the basis for what will become the final self-evaluation of cumulative learning about interpersonal communication.

My routine with this course is to check the logistics folder and respond to the group-level concerns first, since these apply to all of us. Today, I discovered a message from one of the students about an assignment I had apparently not graded. Indeed, upon checking, it seems I neglected to evaluate Johnnie Drama’s post about the role of emotion in IPC. (It seems I started the process, as a few submissions are graded, but I must have gotten distracted (!) and never returned to complete the task.) Call this co-incidence what you will (serendipity, fate, synchrony, other), but the relevance of Johnnie Drama’s comments to this moment in our course is beyond words. For one thing, it is one of the first indications of what the Team Projects could accomplish (without links – darn! – and the instances (the evidence) are not presented as communicationally linked with each other, however the potential (!) is all there.) Second, JD took to heart the assignment’s requirement to “Develop the habit of reading to situate your “turn” in the conversation – read whatever has been written (Steph’s original, and any comments) and edit (revise or add to) what you’ve written so that it flows with the logic of a conversation.”

Language shows more than it can tell.

JD writes:

“…in terms of deciphering the nature of a group-mate’s emotion and nexting that emotion, I do have a bit of a concern. Using this online format, it makes our listening and nexting skills infinitely more important due to the possible miscommunications that might occur. A lot of times, especially at a large university like UMass, people of several different backgrounds are attracted to the diversity that is offered, and this will create diversity in classes. Usually, in a “normal” class, diversity can be seen (via people’s appearances), sometimes even heard (through people’s voices/accents), but not here. When reading a comment or a weblog or a discussion post, the way it is written is now more important than ever. The slightest type-o or grammatical error can throw off the reader, and make the reader think that the writer is of a different background than the reader – whether culturally, religiously, socioeconomically, or mentally.”

One of the choices for our last textbook reading is the topic of “Bridging Cultural Differences.” There were two votes for this topic, and three statements against it. SA Boy wrote: “everyone in one point in time has experienced difficulty communicating with people due to cultural differences”, while Memphis Burns argued that there is

a certain gravity to the readings when the

overall goal of the thought process is

a common good that adheres to

no superficial or cultural separations.”

Outer Body Boi is ambivalent: “I’m not sure about chapter 11 either, because the focus is on cultural differences, and although we all do have cultural differences, I believe we changed our words so that it would be a more universal line of communication. From my memory, we didn’t really discuss much cultural difference other than it should be respected.” Johnnie Drama is convinced that even though “intercultural communication difference resolution is more and more a pertinent topic in this day and age, there are simply more pressing issues at hand that should be covered before this topic.” Grant2U agrees, “The only chapter I feel that has any relevance to where we are at is chapter 12…”

To be fair, you need to know that I asked the students to make their selections specifically based on what they felt would most benefit their own Team, given the status of IPC within the Teams as they prepped for the Projects. (Also, most of the quotes are from comments to the previous lecture, “conversing toward team projects,” but I have provided the links to each student’s individual weblog.) Some students kept the “team criterion” in mind while others either did not register it or preferred to make their argument on the basis of individual criteria – such as what they would personally find most useful or interesting. Grant2U’s vote for chapter 12, “Promoting Dialogue,” is echoed by four classmates, and countered by Johnnie Drama, who thinks “It’s too soon.” The temporal reference intrigues me, as if “dialogue” is a steadystate that can be reached in some progressive fashion and . . . then maintained? Lost? Grant2U thinks it “seem[s] like there was more dialogue in the beginning of the class,” and I certainly got excited at the moment earlier in the course when I thought the standard monologic structure was breached.

In supporting the topic of dialogue, OhNOTheCakeisALie “would have just expected more conversation and interaction recently.” Outer Body Boi also seems disappointed, ““we are holding back for many different reasons;” while Beaver asserts a criterion of “be[ing] able to communicate with each with out having some type of argument.” Ninjacook agrees: “my team has been losing steam.” She continues: “our class, particularly myself and my group, has some significant “walls” to “bridge” in terms of opening up meaningful dialogue for the group projects. We seem, my team at least, to be lacking the fundamental “push-pull” dynamic in our conversations when we tend to agree with each other and the material.”

Seven students want to read about “Managing Conflict by Turning Walls into Bridges“, although Outer Body Boi states conflict “doesn’t really summarize our participation.” Deliver Me Summer, The Gymnasium, and Oo Love Shoo are both attracted to the notion of framing conflict as positive and productive, while President Makalele is intrigued by “the concept of realistic and nonrealistic conflicts.” Interestingly – as a juxtaposition of different perceptions – Johnnie Drama says, “What we have learned so far – listening, nexting, inhaling, exhaling, consequentiality, assertiveness, self-disclosure, tensionality, letting others happen to you, standing your own ground – none of it has covered what we should do when we encounter interpersonal communication conflicts.” Spicey Noodle Soup, however, argues that “we should read this chapter because it is about conflict management, which is something I have been learning throughout the class by being more conscious of what I exhale and inhale and why.” Speaking of exhaling, I am fascinated by President Makalele’s assertion: “There is no place for hostility in our class and therefore conflicts with the goal of defeat or hurt are not prevalent. It is all productive conflict for this project from deciding on a topic, to organizing individual work and finally right down to determining a team representative to compile the project for everyone.” On the one hand, I can inhale from this statement the viewpoint expressed by Bridge of Ideas, “our approach to the situation [is what] defines the outcome,” with which I completely agree. On the other hand, what does it mean to ban hostility? Please understand, I am not inviting violence, but what of all those negative emotions that contribute to the expression of harmful exhales and warp the filters of our inhales?

Recognizing Communication Walls” was the preferred topic for five students, several of whom singled out a particular article by on Deception, Betrayal, and Aggression (Stewart, Zediker, & Witteborn). Reasons against this topic were provided by Outer Body Boi (“it doesn’t completely relate to our group”) and Johnnie Drama, who says the chapter “appears to merely give the readers insight into how to discover a problem.” Masr thinks this chapter is “the most interesting” of the choices, and Sports says,

“The reason we have to understand this is because typically this ‘hurtful’ type of communication is that brings about problems in arguments… Especially so we can relate this to our personal experiences with those people who are closest to us.”

Jimi Garcia cites a classmate: “I agree with TennisFan when they talks about how our communication will be like turning bridges into walls. They say, “I think this chapter is important for all of us because we’re all going to have trouble communicating in certain situations.” I appreciate TennisFan’s emphasis on the mutual, co-constructed meaning of lying (for instance): that it is a mutual behavior just like all interpersonal communication. Finally, Top Of The Morn paraphrased the authors’ point that those messages which harm us the most tend to be the exhales to which we are least able to respond. I am reminded, reading these comments, about the use of my authority as teacher to compel our group to conform to my expectations for the enactment of this course. Emotions about the structure and process of this class have definitely been experienced, and some of them have even been expressed. 🙂

“All of this stuff plays into itself.”

So wrote Spicey Noodle Soup.

Now we know why this course is billed as an introduction to interpersonal communication! Oo Love Shoo notes how we have been “slowly learning the otherness of each others,” and Top Of The Morn articulates that we have been “exploring how [IPC] effects real word situations.” Over the remaining assignments, we will do our best with these topics. Now, an odd tangent: remember how I wrote recently about us always being in the position of joining conversations that are already in progress? What about when someone tries to join us in the middle of our conversation?! Here’s an extra credit chance: let Sunrise know what you think of her proposal by replying to her on her weblog – fast! Meanwhile, how about that external audience? We have at least one fan. Thanks Alex!

Ok folks – time to shine! 🙂 I know I will be proud of your work.

Back in the unit on “exhaling” (1/2 of a breathing metaphor for interpersonal communication), we began to talk about ideas for the Team Projects. As I wrote individual feedback to each of you, a process of negotiation began – a dialogue, if you will – about how to craft the criteria for this project in ways that make the expectations clear and the content suitable to the course objectives.

Here is one of my first explanations of the project: “If you/your Team can select a topic and trace its development across many examples and instances you might be able to show how one thing leads to the next. For instance, if you took “assertiveness” and found examples and analyzed each example for evidence of “listening, nexting, and consequentiality,” in the end you might be able to say something about longer-term effects (of repetition, or context, or accumulation, or who knows what but something that makes sense in the context of interpersonal relating).”

The examples are to come from our course and the public archives of the Group Dynamics course that I taught last spring. The evidence are the actual words, phrases, turns and developments in conversation that justify the example. The relational connections are what makes the subject matter real. Outerbodyboi wrote something that resonated with my vision for this Team Project:

“. . . we are communicating about communicating too much. People seem to be at a stand still, and are just continually repeating ourselves over and over again. I first felt that I was learning a lot, now I am not so sure. It’s not very fun to listen about listening or communicating about communicating. I think we should start discussing real issues, then analyze how we went about the communication flow, and what we could have done better. I feel that the discussions are almost becoming too abstract and without substance.”

Now that you have seen the Group Dynamics course archive, and you’ve been through most of a semester with me, you realize that what you leave behind (your accumulated “exhales” for this course) are a resource for the future. (As you may recall, you can delete your WordPress weblog after the course is done, although I – quite selfishly, I admit! – hope that you will not. Even more ambitiously, I hope you might return! “Fat chance of that,” do I sense a grumble…?) 😉 The point is, your communication has an existence: in cyberspace the evidence can be obscured, but the consequentiality persists.

Jumping ahead a few units to the initial data collection from the Group Dynamics course, several of you generated some excellent models. Ninjacook invites us to take a little journey down the path of anticipation. She takes us through a series of entries, starting with what I wrote about different kinds of anticipation, to King’s House, who mused, “…you can say what you feel and what you want to achieve, but that is not the same as communicating it.” Ninjacook loops back then, to something else I said about the link between anticipation and consequentiality, before moving on to AP1115’s comment that going through stuff together is part of what generates relational bonds. Finally, Ninjacook’s trip down consequentiality lane ends with a corroborating statement from ontherecliner. The path involves five people (three people cited once, one person returned to twice, and the author) who are saying something that – taken in isolation, by which I mean, read separately later, by someone not involved in the conversation – can be shown to have some interpersonal communication principles in common. Here’s what I wrote back to Ninjacook:

“If you can trace some kind of turn-taking or exchange among several people over a period of time that illustrates the theme – THAT is the ultimate goal!”

Does that make sense? If the team that includes Ninjacook decided to study the anticipation-consequentiality dynamic, for instance, the ideal would be to identify four or five people and track their actual dialogue over time, pulling out the quotes that show evidence of (in this case) anticipation in the exhale and evidence of (in this case) consequentiality in the inhale. Then, do this two to three times with our class material, and two to three times with material from the Group Dynamics course. In other words, a total of 4-6 examples, 2-3 each from our course and the Group Dynamics course, with each example as developed as possible from the beginning to the end of the whole conversation/interaction. (This is not the whole Project, but we are becoming increasingly clear on its core substance, yes?)

I gave similar feedback to President Makalele (on a variety of ways to approach self-disclosure), emphasizing that “the evidence and example has to come from people “exhales”. Meaning, don’t just find a bunch of random instances of a particular phenomena – we’re actually after the structure of our interpersonal communication. Jaggerbunny picks on me (!) and my expression of emotion; I replied with a nudge for elaboration. “Another way to think about this might be, what “nexts” follow from mine (in that particular case, and you’ll have to find others).” JimiGarcia actually wrote this exact prescription:

” . . . use the ideas of listening incorporated with how we have progressively been responding to each other . . . If we study through each response made to each other how we have learned to “listen” to each other and use the other terms learned from class to complete our midterm I think we will find success.”

Gym goes deeper into the flow of our communication, as OuterBodyBoi suggested, in terms of self-analyzing her journey along the path of open-mindedness. This allowed me to explain

“. . . how I am using your specific words to show a kind of logic… That logic is what you are to make plain with the team project. One of the beautiful things you’ve done is make a personal reference: you could go back (as an example rife with evidence for the presentation) to the exact quotes you made before and show the evolution in your responses as you have changed during the course of our “confusing” continual complex interpersonal communication process . . . does that make sense? Do you see what I’m getting at?”

Now, I would add that the influences inhaled would need to be part of the chain: you need to lay out all sides of the interaction.

I mentioned, above, that the potential legacy of your work here is not only as a learner, but also as a teacher and a reference for others. OuterBodyBoi found the informed consent process in last semester’s Group Dynamics course – I would like to ask the same of all of you, too. Would you let me try to publish something about the teaching and learning that has been accomplished in this class? (Oh, and I have a note here – for Outer Body Boi and your team, if you’re interested, and vice-versa – that Deliver Me Summer wrote along the lines of time and the development of relationships.)

Finally, I was excited to discover that Spicey Noodle Soup located my colleague’s exceptional explanation of How Words Create Reality. It is a different assignment than our Team Projects, but the notion of “unpacking a simple word” is a related activity. The description explains the process of making a piece or part of lived experience (something normal and taken-for-granted) appear strange or problematic. You might relate this specifically to some of the comments I have made about diction.  The process of deconstruction is similar to the analysis and critique that is required for our Team Projects.

For your replies, please double-check the assignment criteria in the course website. I’ll be looking for questions and insights about what we’re trying to accomplish, and also your advice as to what reading assignments to use for the individual FINAL (which will be done after the Team Project).  Please look in Part IV of our text and make an argument as to which section (not which particular author or article selection) but which entire Chapter, seems to you (today) most indicated as the best reading for us to end with: “Recognizing Communication Walls,” “Managing Conflict by Turning Walls into Bridges,” “Bridging Cultural Differences,” or more from “Promoting Dialogue”?  Give your reasons and include at least one quote from that chapter’s 1-2 page introduction!

Title Quote: SpiceyNoodleSoup

As I write this, students in their Project Teams are far along in their internal dynamics – my comments today reflect back upon where we were nearly two weeks ago, when the small group plummet began. Inevitably, there was confusion. Nonetheless, in fairly short order the new structure of the class emerged, with students ‘nexting’ from the (traditional school-learning) self-focused individual phase into a collaborative ‘oh we’re really in this together’ team phase.

The first team-building assignment (5:3) asked students to read each other’s summaries of a variety of articles on the topic of “exhaling” and my lecture on “nexting.” The idea was to work with (textbook author) John Stewart’s metaphor of interpersonal communication as breathing: as a live, organic process with the qualities of a chicken/egg mutual dynamic. Which comes first (for instance), the team project assignment or the orientation of students to the fact of a project? I continue to teach in the mode of a reflective practitioner, designing the curriculum as a reflective conversation between me with the knowledge demonstrated by students (singly and in aggregate). The second team-building assignment (6:1/6:2) involved reading John Robison’s book, look me in the eye, and figuring out how to continue (now, in the midst of all this complexity and confusion and comprehension).

Note: for kicks (and

to protect anonymity, and

preserve grammar)

I have made everyone’s gender female.

(!)

First, the mechanics: model responses were provided by DeliverMeSummer (for 5:3) and Shiny Ginger (for 6:1/6:2) yet every student made important and insightful contributions. I cannot mention everything (there is simply too much!), so what follows are what struck me as highlights: either for their power of summary or their significance in pointing to present (current, active) dynamics. A different person would select an alternative set of highlights (some quotes/paraphrases might overlap, but definitely others would not, and the overall picture would have a distinctive quality no matter how much commonality exists).

The Gymnasium (as I’ve adapted her blogname to reflect my sense of her foundational contributions to our class as a group), wrote: “Just when I thought I knew enough to successfully communicate, I realize I can still learn much more…” JohnnieDrama is rather more explicit:

you will see the ulterior motives which Steph decided not to express to us. She needed to butter us up before she bamboozled us with group projects.

Cake problematizes the conspiracy theory, arguing that if I had intentionally misled everyone, then I would be guilty of stereotyping. Or maybe Cake meant all of you would be guilty of stereotyping?! Cake also names the power dynamic: “because Steph controls our grades . . . we did as she told us.” I omitted part of Cake’s statement (notice the ellipses), because I suspect the sheer fact of The Grade carries the most influence. Evidence of this power continues to roll in via email and the in-class logistics thread, with pleas not to be held accountable for teammates’ less than ideal performance, or penalized for missing assignments (every one has a good reason, of course), or because of problems with the technology . . .

What I want to highlight is the obedience factor. (From this you can now extrapolate my general critique of most public education.) Hmmmm. The omitted part of Cake’s critique now becomes relevant: “…and she knows what she’s doing…” Well, thank you (I think!), but let me clarify: I do not “know” in the sense of being able to predict without error but perhaps I do “know” on the basis of training and experience. I know the structure that schooling imposes, and I know the roles students are trained to take. I trust your intelligence, too.

So, I am not surprised that President Makalele (for instance) can summarize,

“We have learned the tie-ins with active listening, nexting and consequentiality and as a result, more and more people are realizing what to look for in respect to these three ideas when reading something they are going to respond to. The first blog posts contained for example, instances of nexting but nobody knew that they were doing it.”

or that OuterBodyBoi can come up with her own metaphor:

Communication is like fencing. You have to set things up correctly in order to harness true power and effectiveness.”

Well, if I have “misled” you to this point of harnessing true power and effectiveness (!) I guess I am doing my job alright, eh? 🙂 Masr describes why this online mode of studying interpersonal communication enables such deep learning:

“While online, you have the advantage of being able to read what you’re interlocker says as many times as you please, and than using nexting on your own time.”

There’s a typo in that sentence which is amusing because of its truth: once you begin communicating with someone (or refuse to do so) you are locked into a relationship of some kind. The “kind” is where interpersonal communication allows us latitude: we can move by establishing new positions, finding different orientations, discovering alternative perspectives. On the basis of this interrelational social fact, interpersonal communication theorists can claim that our interlocutors make us who we are.

The parameters of identity are fixed by who we communicate with (and who we don’t), as well as by how we conduct the communication process. Recognizing a pattern of redundancy, for instance, as SABoy did with the limited range for expressing emotion presented by our deeply-americanized textbook, becomes impossible if one is only always communicating within an homogenous group. Consequentially, expressing emotion in “an American way” (if I can make a rather large leap here for the purposes of illustration) makes one “American” more than, for instance, the originary fact of citizenship that is supposedly ascribed at birth. This is one basis for how/why discrimination remains a real problem: identity is ascribed (by others) as much (and sometimes moreso) than the avowals we make for ourselves.

Our surprise guest – thank you John, for being here! – muses:

It’s worth considering whether a person like me – with communication challenges that result from some kind of neurological difference – would have benefited from a class like this, long ago.

In face-to-face versions of this course and others, I have had students with Asperger’s Syndrome. My experience is that they have benefited, and their presence intensifies the learning for everyone. Including me 🙂 The challenge of mediating the differences that are brought into view by people who do not follow the norms is (in my opinion) the point of interpersonal communication as well as being its disciplinary contribution to human society.

Once one begins to understand the technical terms of interpersonal communication, and realizes that the stakes involved with communication are actually quite high, one is faced with a dilemma: what do I do now? Saying nothing is as full of meaning as saying something: no matter what strategy you choose, no matter how carefully or sloppily you ‘next,’ something is going to happen and whatever you did/didn’t do is inevitably and unavoidably included. Not only does this social fact apply in the direct interpersonal relationship; there is also consequentiality for witnesses. Very little of how we behave in the world escapes the perception of others, how we are is observed.

We watch each other and others watch us. This occurs within our class (as a group in a common situation operating within a particular structure), and it occurs between us and all those other people who are not in the class. For instance, your friends and family, possibly even coworkers, are noticing all kinds of things about you: how you orient yourself to the demands of the task (being a student), to the subject matter itself (learning), to the juggling act you have to perform to balance doing well in this course while still maintaining all your other responsibilities. Because I intentionally create a structure for us to do some of our communicating in public (through the anonymous weblogs), people we do not even know may also pay attention to what we are doing, to what we say and how we say it.

I want you to read a blog entry that I wrote last semester for a more advanced course in interpersonal communication: Introduction to Small Group Dynamics. The entry is titled “Audience: to imagine or ignore.” Assigning this to you to read is a teaching experiment – I suspect that much of the content will be confusing because it is, in practical terms, somebody else’s conversation. The only common participants are myself and John Robison. Read it and do your best to figure out what the conversation is about. (I will link it below – be careful about spending too much time with its internal links – I recommend that you click through just to see what’s there but then resume reading the main entry.)

There is an important implication of the communication theory we are learning that involves the relationship between our talk and social structures. Even though you and I, you and your classmates, you and your family members, you and your friends, and/or you and your co-workers, are having this conversation for the first time, many other people have already had “this” conversation. What we say to each other is, in general, not new in the world. It may be new to us, to me, to you, but as far as humanity is concerned, we are not actually all that special. There have been so many smart people who have struggled with this kind of knowledge, so many wise women and men who confronted these challenges and worked them through, and so many different ways of figuring these things out and saying them. History is full of examples from every culture, each religion, and all imaginable points-of-view. In our time, right now as we live, there are probably (I do mean literally, although my statistical sensibility is weak) some millions of people who understand that they are using a particular skill (we could even call it a communication technology) called ‘nexting’ as a communication tool to change our world (think globally!)

The point is that we are always and forever joining conversations in the middle, and there are a lot of people who want to influence how the conversation turns out. Now, prepare yourself for a big jump without apparent segue. I have one huge problem with the section of our text book on “exhaling” – especially because your replies (which I have only been able to scan through very quickly at this point) reinforce my concern: the material is presented as if there is only one way to “do emotion.” The “way” is actually a very specific cultural form, it is a limited model of a particular socio-economic class, which has historically been composed of a tightly-bound identity group. The material is seductive, I think, because most of us in this course either “come from” social structures that encourage this approach to emotion, or have been exposed to it as a reference point or ideal. In other words, the editor of our textbook has selected readings by authors who share a common perspective on emotion and communication. In my view, the consequence is to ill-prepare you to deal with difference.

I hope John’s book is a corrective. I am not sure if he will agree or disagree if I offer the opinion that he “does emotion” differently than the model championed in our textbook. I am interested to know (and this is your actual assignment, full details in the UMass Course Pages) how John’s different experiences with interpersonal communication give you an alternative perspective on

a) the role of emotion in communication (especially the part that Stewart describes with the metaphor of exhaling) and
b) how you might recognize if your teammates (in the upcoming group project) are ‘doing emotion’ differently than you, and ‘next’ accordingly.

Thank you, by the way, for being such engaged learners. Teaching is a pleasure to me because I continue my own growth and development: I am learning with you. I am grateful for your diligence because your efforts enable mine.

Now, please read Audience: to imagine or ignore, and return here to contribute to this on-going conversation.

There is so much life in this collection of student’s thoughtful engagement with Stuart Sigman’s notion of consequentiality that it is hard for me to pick where to begin. In truth, I could select from any of the students’ work and weave a response – everyone has provided a “next” that invites a desirable future. To use a recognizable logic, I’ll begin with things students have suggested are definitions for, or parts of, the communication skill of nexting. Then, I will move on to the contributions that are – in my assessment – the most provocative. You may know, by now, that I do try to choose my diction carefully. Hence, I am signaling to you that I am engaged in provocation on purpose. I mean (aim, intend) to write (technically, type; generically, speak) in a way that elicits a response. (Ah, some of you ask, but what response? No no no, I reply, there is no one “answer”, there is only your decision to join me/us by posing your own ‘next,’ or resist by falling back on a familiar closed script.)

A point of etiquette:
I am changing the attributions for the following quotes (assignment 4:3) from
the student’s names to
their anonymous weblog identities.

How does one “next” in interpersonal communication?

Students listed some of the specific things they are doing during interpersonal communication (mostly with each other via the class’ anonymous weblogs) that they consider “nexting.” I will list the examples first, and then offer some critique. TopoftheMorning proposes that nexting “has to do with leaving room for people to respond to your ideas by asking questions.” President Makalele references OuterBodyBoi’s suggestion to compliment something you like and then applying it to yourself or past experience. On the other hand, Sports08 says nexting means “to try to keep my opinions and past experiences to my self […and…] not allow our own perceptions to interfere with our conversation when listening and communicating (attributed to Gym411), concluding “if we include our opinions on the topic then this would change the course of the conversation and would not be considered nexting.” Bridge of Ideas also built on Gym411: “’Nexting’ goes hand in hand with listening because its about paying attention to detail, with an open mind, and not letting your perceptions or past experiences affect the communication.” TheCakeisALie agrees that “it is impossible to talk about nexting without listening, because it is impossible to perform nexting properly without listening.”

This connection between “nexting” and “listening” was one of the specific conceptual linkages the assignment asked students to make. “I don’t even think nexting would be possible to do if there wasn’t listening,” writes Beaver32. “When you are doing nexting you are taking in what the other person and preparing your mind for what you are going to say next to better or worsen the conversation or keep it where it’s at.” The common theme that everyone has gotten right is a quality of openness – “leaving room,” “not allow[ing] perceptions to interfere” – and a sense of power or influence: “change the course of the conversation,” “to better or worsen the conversation or keep it where it’s at.”

Some of the individual strategies that students have proposed are more circumstantial – they depend on the situation you are in, the person(s) you are communicating with, and (perhaps most important) the areas of habit one needs to redress. For instance, I would not propose a rule that one never gives an opinion. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there is no (one) “proper” way to do nexting, rather a diversity of choices among which we select the one that seems preferred in the moment. Choosing does get tricky, as – first of all, we may not be paying attention sufficiently to pick anything but the habitual reaction, and – second, our perceptions may be skewed, from a variety of innocent and unpleasant factors. While it is ideal to wish that we are never thrown off by misperception, the honest truth is that we probably are “off” more often than we’re “on” – or am I generalizing far too widely? (Again!) 😉

Nexting, Time, and Power:

“In order to communicate successfully,” writes Jaggerbunny, “one must be aware of consequentiality, actively listen, and choose their next word (step) wisely.” I’m going to jump from this statement right to Gym411’s critique of whether or not we (in this class) are actually doing nexting:

“I do not believe that we are achieving “nexting” because we are not responding in order to control what comes in the “next” (meaning in the future), but instead most of us seem to agree with each other’s responses and write on the similarities that exists between parties. In my opinion (and sorry if I am completely wrong!), we are being too passive with our responses for them to be considered “nexting”. Doesn’t “nexting” require more in depth thinking than just agreeing and paraphrasing what was just said?”

Yes, Mr. Gymnasium (!), proactive nexting does indeed require more than simply anticipating how to navigate a closed script. Nexting can be passive, and – (brace yourselves) I dare say most of the instances that many of you have realized as ways you have already been doing nexting are simply skillful navigations of already proven terrain. They count (in terms of the concept), but they are weak versions. If we do them well, they are familiar, comfortable, even formal (an important characteristic noticed by OuterBodyBoi and repeated by President Makalele). For instance, TheCakeisALie observes, “throughout this course so far, people have really been reaching out to others and attempting to create conversation.” Yes, it is what you knew you were supposed to do. Cake goes on to reference Masr: “nexting was something they were already doing, but they were not aware of it. This seemed to me to be the consensus of the comments and I could see myself performing it with my interlocutors and they were reciprocating.”

Now, what has changed? You have a conceptual term to apply to a behavior that you already do. So what? DeliverMeSummer asks the vital question: “now that we have this knowledge, what are we going to do with it?” Each of you will decide upon an answer for yourself.

Practice leads to wisdom:

If you’re like me, it will take a long time. 🙂 I can say so teasingly, because I’m serious. Often I feel I mis-choose the best nexting response, and the challenge of allowing myself to be nexted, to join with someone else’s attempt to next rather than insist we follow mine, remains real. Cake said it well.

“Nexting requires an understanding of what your interlocutor is saying, and if your partner is actually listening to you, they could just as equally and effectively next you (that sounds odd, but hey, what can you do?).”

Yea, what can we do? We’re trying to next, they’re trying to next, we’re all trying to next to somewhere and that “place” is imaginary – it only exists as an idea or vision or hope. It is much easier (isn’t it?) to just keep following the script. At least then everyone pretty much knows what’s going on, no one gets too confused, and most everything keeps going along as it always has. Whew! We wouldn’t want mess to that up!

Would we?

Complementing Gymnasium’s critique, Masr tells a hard truth about the consequentiality of our communications with each other:

“…maybe Sigman used this term to show the severity and the importance of the result of communication. Instead of just saying “result of communication” the consequences implies that there is a certain severity to the situation, which is absolutely true.”

Let’s look at the diction, because here is an instance when Masr has done a beautiful job of selecting a powerful term: severe. In other words, the consequences are real. You know this, in your own lives, when you lose a friend, or a relationship falls apart, or you reconcile with a beloved family member. What we’ve seen from the interactions in class is that much of our interpersonal communication conforms to patterns. I think only one person actively disagreed with someone during the first anonymous weblog interactions. Some of you are already wondering about the consequentiality of sticking with the similar. Gym411 names this precisely: “We keep responding to those who most resemble us. This separation that we create can be seen in society today.” Masr continues:

“This is how our identities are formed, most people care about how other people perceive them. Personal identities are important when communicating with people. We are surrounded by communication, especially in our class. When we communicate through web logs we choose who we communicate with through people’s identities. Meaning, that when I chose who to communicate with I chose someone that I thought I could relate to, and had something in common with. Although I did not have a complete understanding of their identity, I made my decision on what I already knew.”

If we embrace this communication fact, that our identities are formed in, by, and through communication, and we realize that the very ways we engage in interpersonal communication show our identities, show ‘who we are,’ Jaggerbunny draws out the implication very clearly:

“If communication characterizes us, than it is imperative that we can communicate successfully, as our lives, in essence, depend upon it … As Sigman declared, ‘the value of acknowledging the consequences of communication is understanding how our communications help to shape our sociocultural reality.’ It is by appreciating the weight of our actions that we can truly affect change in ourselves in a beneficial way.”

So there it is. What we say has weight. Even if ‘what we say’ is according to script (and thus accepted, safe, successful), there is still a “next” happening: this kind of nexting confirms and recreates the social structure we currently have. To the extent one is satisfied, this is all to the good. To the extent one is dissatisfied, this is not so good. How satisfied are you? What are the criteria by which you judge? What would you like to be different? Are you alone in that desire? How can you begin to next in such a way that three days, two years, a decade down the road, the future you want begins to be?

OoLoveShoo says,

“Any kinds of conversation cannot be continued if there is not anybody who is showing respect to the conversation by asking questions, or showing their interest. These simple interactions can lead the conversation to go further, and it creates connections between people who are having the same conversation which eventually helps people to create new social structures.”

All of you have begun to develop the awareness and skills you need.

    • First, as TopoftheMorning has learned, “think about what is going on in a conversation.”
      Keep learning, as Jaggerbunny is, in what specific ways “how, with whom, and about what I choose to converse reflects upon me as a person, and how I will be perceived by others.”
      Workout with Gym411 on “ways to criticize my own communication behavior with others.”
      Become “aware,” DeliverMeSummer agrees with Ninjacook, “of how [one] is influenced [by knowledge of] these concepts, such as consequentiality and nexting”
  • Bridge of Ideas asks, “Have you ever been in a conversation and [you] are not listening, but from what I understand now is, nexting. I know this is not unusual because I have addressed it in other communication courses. The key I suppose is to train yourself to listen and listen intently.” I want to introduce a difficult distinction. Rehearsing what you want to say irregardless of what your interlocutor is saying is not a collaborative form of nexting; this is a move for control, an act of communication designed to assert your own point-of-view. But exhaling in this way – expressing yourself without having fully inhaled your interlocutor’s message – is an example of the weak form of nexting. (It may not feel very weak if you are in the receiver’s position; usually it feels pretty lousy.) The possible futures that can emanate from such an exhale are quite limited: there is only the same structure to be repeated, over and over again. The hard work of trying to manage destiny is an activity that can only be accomplished through some form of mutuality (there are about a million ways!) Grant2u reiterates the bottom line: “If one cannot listen effectively he/she is going to miss elements necessary for the next ‘step.'”

    You are all on track. Sure there’s still grading to be done (did you remember quotes and paraphrases? evidence and examples? links?!), but the learning is well underway. President Makalele has made an important shift in emphasis, privileging “how I respond to people trying to communicate with me rather than how I initially communicate with people.” The first step, as with anything, is an honest assessment. Masr provides a model, explaining how he has begun

    “to realize the actual degree to which I lack true active listening in my daily life . . . in the past few days I’ve been asking myself (quietly in my head of course) what is the goal of this person’s communication with me, what would be the best outcome of the situation I’m in, what should I say next to have my outcome be realized. I’ve never asked these questions, even though it’s so self-explanatory and obvious why I should.”

    We have begun our study of interpersonal communication with listening. My strategy is deliberate – which twenty-five percent of what I say/type are you “listening to” (reading, perceiving, registering)? And – what of the 75% you merely hear or visually skim past? (Kay Lindahl provides this statistic in “What is Listening,” a summary of highlights from Practicing The Sacred Art of Listening)? I am well pleased with the overall performance of the class so far in terms of following directions. Yes, there have been glitches, but in general we are proceeding as best as can be expected in this online only learning/teaching environment. (Did you notice that I listed learning first?!)

    Of course I am interested in how well you perceive what I seek to convey (how else can I – as teacher – assess your progress?), but the larger point is to start noticing how you listen all the time, everywhere, in all the various situations that compose your life with other people. As I read the assigned articles from our textbook, I notice how I skimmed over the information I (think I) know, instead being drawn more to those theories and concepts which might help me better understand certain current situations in my own life. For instance, in the first batch of articles, I am fairly confident in my knowledge about of “myths about” and “skills of” listening. I selected, as Kenneth Burke explains, a certain slice of reality (“It’s Only Skin Deep: Stereotyping and Totalizing Others,” by Julia T. Wood, p. 192-193, which is cited at this interesting compilation of Problems with Intercultural Communication). This is always the case, all the time, in every interaction, and just because I am “the teacher” does not necessarily make “my” choice more relevant than yours. (“My” slice might be more relevant to me, but not necessarily as important to you as the slice of reality that you selected.) The slice I (and you) pick is necessarily reflective of a reality – interpreting some dimension of it, and also – simultaneously – de-selects other ways of slicing the same reality. (This communicative selectivity works the same way for everyone, always.) 😉

    Regarding the material on listening, I found myself particularly interested in the notion of scripts as described by Trenholm and Jenson (“Interpretive Competence: How We Perceive Individuals, Relationships, and Social Events”). I had to do a lot of active listening as class got underway! At one point, I felt as if I was playing detective – I would receive clues that something was wrong (such as an explicit message asking for help or clarification), but I could not match the content of the message with my knowledge of the course structure. Then I would have to ask clarifying questions, paraphrase, and simply try to imagine what/where the breakdown might be: is it a problem with the course software in terms of what students can/can’t see or do, or is it a problem of explanation (I failed to be clear), or is it a problem of assumption (what seems obvious to me is not obvious to them, or vice-versa?)

    And/or – were we (me/teacher, you/student) operating from different scripts? How many students experience the classroom as a zone for closed episodes? I am not sure, but my experience informs me that most students behave in the classroom as if the scripts are closed: the “rules for proper behavior are well known in advance and govern the flow of interaction” (p. 179). Then, here I am, working hard to create a framework for experiencing this curriculum/classroom as an open episode, as an opportunity where “there is greater freedom to create new forms of interaction and to change episodes midway through” (p. 179).

    In fact, I am trying to draw us – intentionally and on purpose – into a defined episode, a learning situation “defined ‘in progress’ as participants follow their own personal goals and plans…” (p. 179). I am still the authority figure who has to evaluate learning and assign grades, but our subject of study is flexible, malleable: a matter of emergent social interaction rather than immutable, static fact. I can no more dictate to you what you will/will not “listen to”, what you must/must not “select” or “deflect” from your perception of reality than I can force the moon to stand still. Interpersonal communication is a fluid situation, a flowing or unfolding of things said/not said in a sequence that is co-determined by interlocutors as each identifies what kind of an episode is happening and what kind of script is to be used. (What happens next, I wonder, if we mis-identify?)

    There are many factors that play into the identification process – learning to listen well (to yourself as well as to others) is the core, bedrock skill necessary to learn how to work with episodes and scripts in a proactive way – not necessarily to change them into something else (a different kind of episode, or another type of script), although sometimes this may be desirable. My goal as a radical andragogue (!) is to enhance your cognitive complexity. Why? “Research has shown cognitively complex persons to be more accurate in processing information about others, better at placing themselves in the role of the other person, and more patient in weighing most of the evidence before formulating a complete impression” (Trenholm & Jensen, p. 183, cite two studies: Jesse Delia, Ruth Ann Clark, and David Switzer, “Cognitive Complexity and Impression Formation in Informal Social Interaction,” and Claudia Hale and Jesse Delia, “Cognitive Complexity and Social Perspective-Taking”).

    It seems to me, perhaps now more than ever, that we – us human beings alive today – need to be able to do all those things better.