Wednesday, September 6, 2023

How To Talk With People

It was just yesterday that I read a book on behaviour change through positive reinforcement. Today I put aside all work and read another book: How to Talk with People: A Program for Preventing Troubles that come when People Talk Together by Irving J. Lee. It was recommended by Parth Sharma in response to my sharing Marshall Rosenberg's video on nonviolent communication in my WhatsApp status with this note: "This is an old video on nonviolent communication. It's been instrumental in my first steps towards using language carefully."

Language has always been a problem for me. More specifically, language used in interacting with people. That is, talking with people has been a problem for me. In my extended family I was the "adhikaprasangi" (a word that's surprisingly common in Kannada and Malayalam — meaning "the quality of having too high an opinion of your own importance, and being too eager to tell people what to do"). In school I used to get into quarrels with teachers. In internet forums people have gotten so angry at me that I'm used to writing "I apologize profusely". Even many of my close friends have sometimes felt I'm rude.

There are people on twitter I know who proudly wear such attitude and continue to be assholes. But I'm in no way indebted to my past. And so, I keep looking for ways to improve the way I interact with people. The challenge, though, is that I don't buy the "respect" argument. I consider it dishonest to use language to show fake respect. At the same time I have seen excellent videos like "The Art of Semantics" and the nonviolence communication one above which all talk about using language to move towards a better world. So the missing link for me was the logic that connects respectful expression with social justice.

And that logic clicked in my head when observing people I care about disagreeing with each other on the wrong things. In some occasions I was also involved, in some I was passively observing. Either way, it has become a felt need for me — using language for productive communication and getting our acts together for social justice. On Monday, I had a conversation with Akshay who is part of a very well run organization and whose experience I trust and admire. He also convinced me that using the right words is worth it.

And that's where this book comes in. How to talk with people.

About three-quarters of it had become clear to me through my own life experience even before reading this book. But a well-written book validating our experiences is immensely valuable to our learning. And in that way, this book is a must read. It also means I have one less book to write myself. I'm thankful for this book's existence.

The first chapter itself summarizes all the different problems we have in our conversations and what to do about them. It is a very great tl;dr for this book. But the whole book is around 134 pages and you can read it in one evening (at least with speed reading). I will quote from the first chapter to pique your interest.

So as to indicate something of the scope and character of what is involved in this interest, the major findings and suggestions are here summarized.

1. Misunderstanding results when one man assumes that another uses words just as he does. People are so eager to reply that they rarely do enough inquiring. They believe so surely (and wrongly) that words have meaning in themselves that they hardly ever wonder what the speaker means when he uses them.

Suggestion: Committee members need exercises in listening. They must learn not how to define terms but how to ask others what they are intending to say. Our advice: Don't blame the speaker alone for the misunderstanding. The listener is involved, too. It takes two to make communication.

2. Trouble comes when somebody contradicts somebody else without seeing what the first man was talking about. The speaker says, "You can't trust the Abibs." The listener says, "Yes, you can." Then they go at it. When the Speaker was asked to specify, he told about Samo and Har and Myri. And, of course, they were untrustworthy. When the listener specified, he told about Mil and Janx and Car. And without a doubt they could be trusted. If the contradictor had asked first, the contradictee might not have had his feelings hurt.And the committee might have come to conclusions without that waste of time. The trouble mounts when nobody bothers about specifying. 

Suggestion: Both leaders and members need to learn how to spot temperature-raising contradictions. They must ask, ever so politely: Are you differing on the details or on the conclusion? Does your generalization refer to what his does?



And so on it goes till 14 points. Each one putting into words the troubles that we see around us all the time. It makes a fun read for those who are tired of the debates on twitter.

The only disappointment I have with this book is that it assumes the presence of a leader to solve many of these issues. The frustration I have with all the groups I mentioned above are that there is no clear leadership structure. Perhaps this book thereby unearths a critical challenge that anarchist systems face. Perhaps my disappointment is for me to resolve.

Nevertheless, the leadership traits that are written about in chapter XIV (On Preserving Human Warmth) was particularly useful. It talks about our own leadership styles. There is The Director (like a movie director), The Councilor (an egalitarian participant), The Parliamentarian (the one with the "the Rules of Order" at their elbow), The Quiet One (who is just there), The Good Host (who sets positive mood), and The Chief Clerk (who's the guardian of the group's virtue). It was quite fascinating to see various people I interact with and myself showing many of these traits in many meetings.

The book is from 1952. The language of "man", "him", "his" is quite striking. At the same time, it is very interesting to note that many of the problems that we see today where exactly the same then as well. In a meta way, therefore, this book teaches more than what it talks about.

A modern counterpart of this book might be Adam Grant's Think Again. But unlike Think Again, HTTWP is focused more on the practical methods of the conversation than about the larger reasons behind it. It might be good to read this book after Think Again if you're planning to read both.

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