A Communication Toolbox for Communication Literacy

The following is an excerpt from my book Fractured Fandoms: Contentious Communication in Fan Communities. To read all of the information, you will need to get the book, either from a seller or your local library. [Do not cite this blog post as it is an abridged version of what appears in the book. All citations of the material presented herein should go to the book. This except is being shared to improve communication education.]

Communication Literacy

Much of contemporary life – whether online or offline – involves contentious communication, and this problem must be addressed to solve problems everyone faces. In the 21st century, when so many gaps arise due to people communicating on a global level and across time in ways they never could before, it seems communication literacy has emerged as a necessary skill. Therefore, we need to improve how we understand and teach rhetoric at all levels and in all modes of communication from written to spoken to visual to interactive.

However, such communication across gaps proves increasingly unlikely if people choose not to engage with others due to a fear about what might happen if the communication situation devolves from discussion to disagreement to debate or worse. Such preemptive disengagement even occurred in the fans’ stories collected here, as some discussed shutting down the communication situation out of fear for the potential outcomes. However, preemptive disengagement is still disengagement, and the unaddressed communication and power issues remain, with the potential to reappear in another situation to again cause problems. The power for change arises through communication and social interaction, when used to understand rather than manipulate.

Communication Toolbox

People need to develop a situation-based understanding of communication that “conceptualizes messages not as things to be gotten, but as constructions that are tied to the specific times, places, and perspectives of their creators. Such messages are understood to be of value to receivers only to the extent that they can be understood within the context of receivers’ lives.” To communicate effectively, people need to be mindful, alert and actively making sense of the current communication situation to realistically assess the “circumstances and constraints,” and thereby adapt their own interests and goals to the situation.

Thus, part of communication literacy involves an increased understanding of situational factors: where and when communication happens impacts what can be communicated and how. The situation includes the medium used to communicate, and ranges from sight and sound to the various communication technologies. Each medium contains inherent affordances and constraints that impact how something can be communicated. Rather than impede or aid communication, the medium’s nature simply means the situation may require more or less work to convey that something. With this understanding, a dialogue could occur anywhere – it just may take more work to turn no-logue or monologue into dialogue.

People may have expectations about how communication should occur within a situation without appraising the conditions of that situation. People tend to determine how to communicate with others in any situation based on their expectations about the people with whom they interact. Those expectations are primarily shaped by generalizations and stereotypes, especially if such communication occurs online, where anonymity and asynchronicity reduce the amount of information and desire needed to truly know the communication participants. Thus, people see a person, interpret the person based on a stereotype, perceive that stereotype as meaning a certain norm or value is in play, and act accordingly without considering if that communication situation calls for a more complex interpretation and action.

To counter such habits, people need to learn and practice a range of different communication habits they can employ in different situations. Each communication activity can function as a tool, and different situations call for certain tools to be used instead of others. My goal here is not to offer these strategies as the only tools to have in a toolbox, nor to say that this metaphor of a communication toolbox provides the only means by which to develop communication literacy.

The first step toward developing a communication toolbox is to consider the three primary ways people engage with one another: dialogue, monologue, and no-logue. Monologue involves people talking at each other. No-logue involves a lack of talking. Dialogue involves people talking to understand one another. Therefore, dialogue should be the desired outcome; however, monologue is a common frame for discussion, especially across differences. Furthermore, no-logue can sometimes serve as the best way to prevent never talking again: sometimes it is best to disengage from a situation, thereby allowing for the possibility of communication again in some other situation. Monologic communication works best in situations when people need to transmit information, persuasion, and entertainment to others. Dialogic communication works best in situations when people need to understand one another and get along, possibly to solve problems that affect all involved. No-logic communication works best when emotions, power dynamics, or ideologies prevent listening and prevent even persuasion (monologue) or understanding (dialogue).

From a communication literacy perspective, the key is to remember that just because one works best in a specific situation does not mean it will work best in another situation, and that no form of communication is inherently better than another. To be communication literate is to recognize what the situational context allows and/or needs, and use the right tools for the communication job.

1. Know When to Disengage

One of the first skills a person needs to learn is how and when to step away and reflect on what happened. Sometimes no communication is the best choice for communicating, because it allows the person to walk away and consider how to respond. This choice may be best when some factor within the situation makes civility based on respect impossible, such as when someone has decided not to listen or the medium makes following a conversation hard to do.

Whenever the power in the situation feels unevenly skewed, it would be best to walk away and wait to try again when power is more evenly distributed. Such uneven power does not mean a troll is in operation; it simply means one or more people have decided to only allow conversation on specific topics to be conducted in specific ways. Such power plays operate from a strict place of monologue, usually with the goal for only those with the power to be heard. If a person has already made up their mind on some topic or issue, they tend to engage in argument culture and display less desire to learn. In such situations, it is best to present all perspectives in a calm manner, recognizing that such perspectives may be ignored in that situation, but that what is said lingers. Communication participants that ignore agree/disagree tactics and instead “voice their own beliefs and sentiments outside of a judgment-oriented, consensus-dissensus context” help to generate more dialogue and understanding within the situation.

Only after attempting this respectful communication should disengagement occur, so that the end avoids complete frustration. Thus, rather than allow a communication situation to spiral into no-logue, stepping away, either for a few moments or longer, before responding can help ensure the situation avoids the impulsive, rash reactions that may only exacerbate the problem. In this view, then, disengagement helps prepare for the next time.

2. Self-Care and Self-Reflect

Sometimes people need to step away from a contentious situation to practice self-care and thereby prepare for the next time. If someone refuses to listen and instead chooses to shout, troll, or manipulate, meaning that the situation holds no potential for dialogue, then it is best to leave the situation and focus on improving one’s own mental and emotional health. However, this self-care also requires being honest about one’s mental and emotional state in the situation.

Before engaging in no-logue, people should let the other communication participants know how they have been hurt. Even if the other participants think they have done nothing wrong, it is best to be genuine to one’s own experience before shutting off communication. Even if no one listens, engaging in such public self-contemplation can assist in self-growth and transformation, both of which bring attention back to self-care.

Honesty and self-care both require mindfulness of intrapersonal communication. That is, people should think about what they say to themselves through practices of critical self-reflection and introspection. People need to recognize their own blind spots and biases, to speak from personal experience, and embrace their feelings. For such critical self-reflection, and thus dialogue, to work, the person should accept the possibility that they may be wrong and not feel like a loser if proved as such.

To prepare to be open, honest, and willing to engage in a conversation to bridge the gap, people need to see themselves as fallible. Thus, communication participants must refrain from getting defensive when encountering differences. Becoming defensive typically involves distorting experiences and objective reality to fit a construction that better suits one’s own beliefs. Seeing things from another person’s perspective helps negate or prevent such distortion.

Such critical self-reflection also helps people reject kneejerk style reactions or snapping back at others in a situation. Such quick words are usually fueled by heightened tempers, disinhibitory situations, and the need to perform for others, and can turn a monologue into a no-logue. Critical self-reflection and introspection helps an individual avoid taking offense, especially in a situation that involves ambiguity, such as using media that do not clearly convey emotions or intentions like texting or social networking sites. Recognizing and embracing ambiguity helps counter a rigid, black-and-white, “all-or-nothing thinking” that structures conversations with pre-set end points, allowing a person to shut down a conversation if it skews into the gray.

Being open to fallibility prepares a person to consider options for responding in any situation. It helps to reflect on how the other participants also struggle with the situation and to avoid seeing them in stereotyped roles. How people respond to someone involves how they see that person, consciously or unconsciously. Rather than assume to know how a person will respond based on who they are, people should temper their expectations and focus on and paying attention to what happens in the moment.

3. Positivity and Respect

The way one person chooses to respond to another person determines how the situation continues: kneejerk reactions can quickly end a situation, whereas carefully considering the fallibility of all participants can prevent the situation from spinning out of control. Thus, people desire to understand through dialogue, then their communication activities must align with being dialogic – being respectful, genuine, and positive.

Positive regard for the other participants requires a frame of mind that builds on the recognition of mutual fallibility and respect to see one another’s worth. When people recognize each other’s intrinsic worth and value, their perspectives add to the communication situation in a positive fashion rather than confuse or dissolve it. Communication participants should act positively to gain positivity-minded individuals, at least for the time and space in which the communication occurs. In other words, to appropriate an axiom, people need to be the change they wish to see in their communication situations.

Acting positively toward others includes being positive toward oneself, bringing the topic back to self-care. When people are others-focused, it means promoting empathy and compliments in a communication situation. When self-focused, it means promoting positive self-talk and recognizing one’s worth as well as the worth of those with whom the person engages. Whether interpersonal or intrapersonal, acts of kindness in communication situations reinforce the view of communicating as a process for connecting. Fractures can be resolved better through acts of positive communicating: recognizing similarities as well as differences; celebrating small successes; treating differences with curiosity rather than disdain; offering small acts such as a smile, a handshake, eye contact.

Being positive does not mean being a pushover, nor does it mean failing to recognize when an approach is not working. Rather, it means avoiding the “judgmental approach that prioritizes whether the behavior of the sufferer was wrong or bad” because this “triggers blames and promotes criticism and condemnation.” Promoting positivity means avoiding judgmental and evaluative language.

4. Questioning and Listening

Overall, one of the most important tools in the toolbox is to ask questions and to listen to the answers. Before assuming and accusing, people need to ask questions designed to clarify what was said; this does not mean simply asking why, but asking questions to encourage self-reflection. The focus should be on using open-ended questions to foster learning and demonstrate an interest in others. For those situations that involve an imbalance in power, one with kneejerk reactions that threaten a quick de-evolution to no-logue, asking questions can short-circuit the common tendencies for monologue. The focus should be on questioning the message, not the messenger: in other words, seek to understand what was said before getting at the why.

Asking questions is one way to help turn a monologue into a dialogue, but asking the questions accomplishes nothing if there is no intent to openly listen to the answers. More importantly, the intent must be to listen to understand without making demands on one another. Listening to understand involves being present in the moments of the situation to fully appreciate and comprehend what is being said, as well as how and why it is being said. Simply asking questions would be monologic, placing the power solely in the hands of the person doing the asking; listening – really attending to what is said, as well as how and why – shares the power in the communication situation.

Listening is a complex process, and to do it well, several steps must be taken. Listening is more than just hearing. Listening needs to be active, worked on, and consciously worked through if it is going to “establish a mutual commitment to hear and to be heard;” and this reciprocity requires establishing a process whereby each participant can acknowledge their being heard by each other. People need to demonstrate that they are paying attention through “background acknowledgements,” “supportive assertions,” and “supportive questions.” Ensuring such responsiveness during the question-answering process helps to ensure equal power as well as understanding.

At the same time, participants need to understand that listening to one another does not require agreement. Working to understand different perspectives does not require each participant to take up and endorse the other’s perspectives. Listening actively and positively helps build trust based on the genuineness of the participants. Just because someone has an open mind and is willing to consider different perspectives does not mean that they are indifferent, unable to discriminate, or completely malleable. The communication participants can be completely critical of different perspectives, but that should only come after understanding those perspectives and the worth those perspectives offer to the other participants.

Sometimes no-logue happens, and often monologue rules the situation, and dialogue may be rare. Perhaps above all else, people need to embrace being wrong or facing awkward situations. To truly be communication literate, each communication participant needs to recognize their own mistakes, analyze and understand how they came to be, and learn to try better next time. The need to learn from mistakes goes back to the idea of having respect for oneself: only by recognizing mistakes as learning opportunities, and not as indicators of some flawed character, can people develop compassion for themselves and others.

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