Notes on communication problems

A few basic communication problems that FIML partners (and others) will surely encounter.

  • Whenever a new subject is raised in informal conversation, there is a great likelihood that the listener will experience some sort of mix-up concerning the context of the subject; the intent or attitude of the speaker; their reasons for raising the subject, etc. There is no way we can expect a partner to fully appreciate all aspects of a new subject we have just raised or why we have raised it. Similarly, when we are listeners, we cannot expect to fully understand what our partner is saying (or wants to say) when they are just beginning to raise a new topic.
  • This same sort of problem occurs whenever we raise a new aspect of an old subject. If we are speakers, we should be aware that our partner will probably not quite understand where the new aspect differs from the old. And as listeners, we will have this problem from the other side of the equation.
  • It is very common for speakers, especially when informally introducing a new subject, to be vague, unclear, even seriously misleading. In free-flowing conversations between friends, new subjects will be spoken about as soon as they arise in someone’s mind. This tends to generate imprecise speech and contribute to the points raised just above.
  • Similarly, the hearer of a new topic may understand the message very differently from the way it was intended.
  • It is much better to sort out these basic problems as they arise than to fall into the trap of arguing, accusing, or mocking each other, to cite some of the worst outcomes of these fundamentally innocent kinds of mix-ups.
  • “Suffering” in silence is not a good way to fix these problems either because the “sufferer” is actually experiencing nothing more than a common speech mix-up and not some ongoing “bad trait” possessed by their partner.
  • I am certain that FIML practitioners will be amazed and delighted to see (through practice) how often mistakes like this occur. What a relief to see how and why we may attribute a wrong intention to our partner and how and why to stop that process from going forward.
  • If a subject of conversation suggests another subject to one partner who then changes to that new subject, the other partner may not understand that they have to almost completely decouple from the old subject if they are to understand what their partner is now saying. Speakers will do well to make this explicit before going too far into the new subject.
  • Another common problem partners may have is slipping into a bipolar mode when none is called for. This means that if one partner says A, the other partner may want to pause and consider what is meant before jumping at saying not-A. It is easy to slip into talking in a bipolar (A vs. not-A) mode when a cooperative or exploratory mode is more suited to the subject.
  • Sometimes bipolar is good and necessary, but partners should not ever use it as a default mode. It is just one way of talking and should only be used when two choices have been clearly outlined.
  • Sometimes our questions (or statements) can lead to confusion in our partner because they may misunderstand our intentions for asking. For example, if I ask my partner if she is going to make salad now, I may just be wondering why she is cleaning the lettuce. But she may very well hear me saying that I want her to make some salad now. This sort of mix-up can be kind of sweet because it is often based on each partner being very considerate of the other. If she asks me, do you want me to make salad now? And I reply, no I do not. I may be replying that way because I want to save her the trouble of making it now. And then she will begin to wonder if I am just being considerate, and so on. This sort of thing can go on a long time. It’s best if partners learn to identify the ways these sorts of exchanges occur between them and how to step back and be very clear with one another.
  • This sort of mix-up also clearly shows that communication problems can and do occur even when partners are very considerate and kind to each other.
  • Just being nice doesn’t work in all situations. The key is to find out where the misunderstanding or mix-up is and fix it. If the only tool in your chest is to be nice, your partner (and you) is eventually going to find it impossible to know what you mean or feel. Is he just being nice again? Does he really not want the salad?
  • It is important for listeners to check with speakers about what they mean. And it is important for speakers to be able to clarify what they mean. Then it is important that the listener be able to understand and accept what the speaker is saying. And both partners must be honest about this at all times.
  • FIML partners will see how significant these matters are as they advance in their practice. An incident that may in the past have caused a big mix-up will be handled quickly and easily with FIML techniques.
  • Generally, it is very important that the listener not have the power to decide what the speaker means or meant. A speaker can be misinterpreted in many ways (even more than the ones discussed in this post) and it is tragic for anyone to assume full understanding of another’s speech without asking.
  • Indeed, this tragedy is so common and so serious, without FIML techniques between committed partners, mistakes are likely to occur even after asking the speaker.
  • This can happen because when a speaker is questioned, it is quite normal for most people to bristle or freeze or misunderstand why they are being questioned, thus forcing them all too often to say something inappropriate, misleading, stupid, even aggressive.
  • Once a mix-up gets going and its origin is lost to memory (often this takes just a few seconds), it is all but impossible to turn back and fix the problem. This is why we need to use FIML techniques as much as we can with out partner.
  • FIML helps partners see these problems (and many more) and deal with them before they can grow into bigger problems.
  • FIML also helps partners avoid resorting to public semiotics as a main way of preserving harmony in their relationship. Public semiotics in a private relationship can become very boring and unsatisfying if they are the only way partners know how to deal with mix-ups.
  • Some examples of public semiotics in this context might be employing stock behaviors, religious or otherwise; adopting roles that are designed to hide feelings; relying too much on unsatisfying habits; being extra committed to some cause as a substitute for genuine intimacy with your partner, and so on.
  • A mix-up denied is a mix-up multiplied.
  • Before quitting this post, I want to mention one more speech act that can feel weird to the speaker and may be insufficiently appreciated generally. It is saying something more or less definite about a subject that you know you don’t fully comprehend. For example, I have an alcoholic friend and whenever I say anything about that person or alcoholism I feel a terrible mix of shame, guilt, sadness, meanness, weak hope, utter befuddlement. Friends or relatives of alcoholics will probably know what I mean by this. It happens because we don’t well-understand alcoholism and don’t know how to cure it in many cases. And yet we have to say something sometimes; sometimes we have to make decisions about alcoholics. Some other examples might be speaking with certainty about something we are not certain of; speaking too highly about something or not speaking highly enough about it.
  • I hope FIML partners (and others) will take note of the many ways they can and will misunderstand each other. And I hope they will use FIML (or some other similar technique) to correct these misunderstandings as soon as they happen.

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