July 2008


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.

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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.

    I always enjoy the upbeat sound of the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA, but who knew how much fun it really is!

    First, the wet suit really does keep one warm. This was crucial for me, as I am a coldwater superwimp. Second, when a wave actually takes you – WOW! That is a supercool sensation! My rides were fairly short, just a matter of seconds. The experience, though, is not dependent on the length of the ride. My teacher pushed me into a few waves, then I caught some – the tag end of them as they approached the shore, only inches tall. Still – when you get it just right – the zoom is incredible!

    Balance is challenging. 🙂 I did, indeed, tip over many times, while riding a wave as well as simply sitting or laying on the board. There’s an art to positioning oneself just far enough forward but not too far back, and also with keeping your weight evenly divided between left and right. The slightest unsuspected shift was enough to send me toppling, and even the ones I knew were coming still often sent me flopping. And this is just to stay on the board while floating! Once you’re riding, a whole ‘nother set of dynamics kicks in. Most of my rides were angled sideways, as I tried not to flip over. 🙂

    Steering was impossible. I mean – one obviously learns how with practice, but my focus was absorbed with the balance problem. Timing is also a key element. There’s only one sweet spot , and if you miss it, well, you spend a lot of time trying to get into the right position at the right moment or, getting the chance and then taking a tumble. I did both, plenty. 🙂

    Only once did I try to stand up. My wet suit stuck to the board and I produced a wonderfully uncoordinated cartwheel or three. No injuries though, despite that blasted leash strapped around my ankle (tangling up my legs). Belly surfing was good enough for me – for the first lesson. I definitely want to surf again! The experience is beyond words, literally. You are in the water, the horizon is defined by the height of the waves. Just a one foot surf is enough to block the view! And plenty tall enough for a fun ride. The last one I rode in might have been nearly two feet tall it gave me my longest ride. The transition is so quick, from laboring to stay afloat to hurtling along as if weightless: an incredible juxtaposition of bouyancy and effort. (The whole wave action involves potential energy – physics! – which I also find quite exciting.)