Communication: Understanding or Power

(Note: Those reading this post will hopefully note that it reflects an attitude generally in opposition to my normal one. Not that I think it untrue, or not worth saying, but that it is difficult and painful to paint in these colors for very long. Nor do I think it constructive to do it for long, though often essential to remember now and again.)

One of the things the students in my Master’s in Communication class dislike the most is the comparison of Communication as an exercise in power. We like to think of it as a practice in understanding. Yet recently I have been rubbed in the face with the power aspects of communication.  Those with the power get to decide what your communication means. They even have the power of Humpty Dumpty to pay YOUR words to make  them mean what they want them to mean in their favor.

One of the problems in trying to communicate a subject like this, is you cannot directly refer to any of your examples.  Either a direct reference risks your exposure to those in power and their reinterpretation of your words, since they will doubtless find them reflecting unfavorably upon them, or it is someone or a relationship you care something about and the person will misunderstand the use of your communication with them as trying to be mean instead of being a didactic and teachable moment that increases understanding. In either case, the potential for your words to be effective in communicating empathy and understanding are severely weakened. And it doesn’t matter how close or how far you actually are to those organizations and circles of power, they will mark your words and see what they can do to make you suffer for your attempt at truth and understanding.

This again removes the POWER of the teachable moment, and reduces the situation to the lessons learned by the less powerful about how power uses communication for power instead of understanding.

One of the chief weapons against understanding and in favor of power by those in power is the deconstruction of language, and the obliteration of linguistic and literary tools. I observed a recent example where the use of hyperbole by someone near me — a tool reflecting one’s positive expectations on the intellectual capabilities of the recipient — was painted as the use of extreme and demeaning sarcasm. Never mind how difficult it is to use hyperbole as sarcasm, I saw the inversion of literary definitions achieved and the reprimand painted.

It is dangerous to use hyperbole, irony, simile, metaphors, allusions,  because they connect people’s thoughts to larger themes, and make them explore and question the items around them. None of these are good for those who see communication as power.

An expansive vocabulary is not safe either. I interact inter-culturally every day, and never dumb down my vocabulary to the people I am talking to. A lot of them like the way it expands their own comprehension of English, as well as stimulates them into a greater understanding of both American language and culture. But within organizations it looks like this might be dangerous too — as the use of big words could be considered condescending, no doubt.

I was commenting to a leader in one organization that they had created one team and given them a great project to work on — one really to be proud of — but had misled them on their final intent for the group and the project. The leader tried explaining to me how it was in the best interest of the organization that the team be mislead. If people knew the truth too soon they might choose to bail instead of be committed to the project. My response was that this point of view robbed those team members of the pride they should have had in the work accomplished, and left them with fear in its place. It also telegraphed to them that their leadership did not trust them. Past experience, the leader said, showed the leadership that this lack of trust on the leader’s part was justified. I don’t think either of us was convincing the other one of which lack of trust started this downward spiral of distrust. Yet, my assertion still, is that, no matter where it starts, the important communication fact is that it is a downward spiral, and that stopping it should be more important than finding which point on the circle started it. Yet that would require a relinquishment of power in communication that those in power are not willing to give up.

The interactions are complex, and it is easy to justify keeping people in the dark. Yet I still contend that using the communication to inform and create understanding, and allowing people to make informed decisions, is eminently preferrable, on the whole, to controlling communication to the point that its primary use is that of power.


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