Helpful Communication

Abstract: Since human services provided to people with problems in living are contingent upon the sharing of information, it is surprising how little concern has been shown in regard to our words. If we intend to help people help themselves, it is imperative that we examine closely our words. It is difficult to change a language. But there is a subtle degree of truth to our language as well. We need to examine truly our own mental schema and evaluate how much we believe these terms. If thinking controls behavior and communication is a behavior, we must posit that the use of words has at least some bearing on our belief system.

The human behavior stream is contingent upon communication for social learning and the development of personal mental schemata about, among other things, self, others and future prospects. Communication and information are coterminous constructs. Communication is information; and information is the means of communicating1. When we say commune with nature, we mean not that we converse, but that we receive information through a process of observation. Since communication has two distinct poles: the conveyor of information and the receiver of information; percepts become an important part of the creation of concepts. Thus the perception becomes a part of the communication process. What happens between perception and conception is also interesting.

As we gather perceptions we become interested in those that are similar [or analogous] and those that are dissimilar. We begin to identify patterns of perceptions and to develop them into conceptual categories. These categories then mature into ideologies or beliefs. As this top-level action takes place, we begin to perceive through a biased frame of reference: those perceptions that fit into our beliefs and reinforce them, those that do not, unless they are powerfully too salient to be ignored. Our patterns or beliefs often become so rigid that even our perceptions are skewed. They interpret any ambiguity within the context of the rigid pattern. Therefore, if our whole pattern has come to the belief in the power of M and we perceive W – we are likely to interpret it as an upside down M.

Although communication through words is extremely powerful, it is fraught with ambiguity. Pinker observed the power, but not the ambiguity, when he noted that we are a species with a remarkable ability to shape events in each others brain through making noises with our mouths. We can shape events in other brains, but we cannot always be assured of the resulting shape.

Since human services provided to people with problems in living are contingent upon the sharing of information, it is surprising how little concern has been shown in regard to the attributions of our words. Attributions have to do with the way people try to ‘make sense of ‘ events by setting them in a causal framework. Thus one may attribute a critical remark such as “this is really lousy” to personal forces [e.g., ability and effort] and or to impersonal forces over which the individual has little control [e.g., situation and bad luck]. Thus the event which takes place in your mind may be either that “I really screwed up” or “Why are they picking on me, I couldn’t help it?” or an infinite number of variations on the theme. What is more, if I screwed up, I may re-evaluate how I participated, try to find ways to improve my performance in the future and interpret the whole event as a learning experience. On the other hand, I may feel that I am a failure and worthless. These are very different outcomes caused by a single verbal representation of little complexity.

Cognitive technology upon which our construct of social education is built, posits that thought controls behavior. Since most, but not all, thought is construed as and in response to words, it seems apparent that what we say has critical importance to our expectations. I have been accused in the past to being anti-medical and on some level this is true. However, the presentation of drugs to solve an interpersonal or intrapersonal message also sends a quite salient message to the person with problems in living. In our culture medication has powerful attributions. The term ‘partial hospital, is even more powerful. Further, the term patient has particular role meanings – a patient is a dependent role, not an independent one. When we refer to medication compliance – we must obey, submit or surrender – it become problematic as to how we then help people understand their own mental schema as if they had control.

If we intend to help people help themselves, it is imperative that we examine closely our words. Michael Valentine has provided an excellent discussion of how people generally do not say what they mean and I will not duplicate it here. However, I would like to raise the issue of what the words you use in the helping relationship mean to you. Certainly there is habit. Human beings are creatures of habit. It is difficult to change a language. But there is a subtle degree of truth to our language as well. We need to examine truly our own mental schema and evaluate how much we believe these terms. If thinking controls behavior and communication is a behavior, we must posit that the use of words has at least some bearing on our belief system.

The goal is, of course to get helpers speaking in functional, easy to understand language that empowers the person with problems in living.

1In the strict sense, communication is potential information, since only information which is novel [the difference that makes a difference - Bateson] is truly information. 

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