Archive for November 1st, 2009
To the extent that society can be understood as a big family, psychologist John Gottman has important suggestions for improving our communications. Based on his track record, Gottman is someone to whom all of us should carefully listen. His techniques have allowed him to predict with 90% accuracy which newly marriage couples will still be married six years later.
Gottman describes many of his techniques in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, a 1999 book that has enriched the lives of countless married couples trying to get back on track. In this book, he demonstrates that there is no better way to destroy a working relationship than to employ the following four techniques, which he labels “the Four Horsemen”:
A) Attacking another person’s character or personality;
B) Showing contempt through such things as sneering, sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, mockery and hostile humor.
C) Defensiveness that proclaims that “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” And
D) Stonewalling: tuning out completely.
When I read this list, it struck me that these four techniques precisely describe the state of political dialogue in this country. These are also the techniques by many of the people who conduct interviews in the media. Think, for example, of a typical Bill O’Reilly interview, though O’Reilly is merely one of the more egregious examples. Many news programs expect and encourage conflict in an attempt to keep the audience mesmerized so that the network can sell more advertisements. The resulting conflict commonly manifests itself through these four above-mentioned techniques. It is critically important to note that none of these techniques is necessary, no matter who the other person is and no matter what he or she is saying. Smart and disciplined people don’t stoop to these techniques. Period.
Here’s another important cause of communication failure: In functional relationships, the parties communicate at least five times as many positive ideas as negative ideas to one another. Consider that the ratio of positive to negative in public forums is probably the reverse of the minimum optimum. In most contemporary forums where political ideas are discussed, it is a rare bird who dares to admit that one’s opponent has any decent ideas at all. Instead, we hear the parties villainizing each other and attempting to totally destroy each other ideas. Success is all too often seen as publically demonstrating that the other person, almost always termed one’s “opponent,” is an idiot.
In short, the way we publicly attempt to communicate with each other regarding the important issues of the day has been scientifically demonstrated to be a guaranteed formula for failure.
What is the solution? For starters, it would require that we stop using the above techniques when we attempt to communicate. In fact, until we call a cease-fire regarding these four techniques, further attempts to communicate will only exacerbate conflict and paranoia. Until we change the way we attempt to talk with each other on many news programs, it would be better if we stopped talking at all. That’s how bad things have gotten.