7.04.2011

Communication Strategies: Six Guides to Thinking and Talking More Logically

Here are six guides to thinking and talking more logically, more sanely. All of these come from General Semantics—the study of the relationships among language, thought, and behavior. Check out their website at www.generalsemantics.org. 


Extensionalize
The term intensional orientation (the “s” is intentional) refers to the tendency to view people, objects, and events in terms of how they’re talked about or labeled rather than in terms of how they actually exist. Extensional orientation is the opposite: It’s a tendency to look first at the actual people, objects, and events and then at the labels—a tendency to be guided by what you see happening rather than by the way something or someone is talked about or labeled.
      Intensional orientation occurs when you act as if the words and labels were more important than the things they represent—as if the map were more important than the territory. In its extreme form, intensional orientation is seen in the person who is afraid of dogs begins to sweat when shown a picture of a dog or when hearing people talk about dogs. Here the person is responding to a label as if it were the actual thing. In its more common form, intensional orientation occurs when you see people through your preconceived ideas instead of on the basis of their specific behaviors. For example, it occurs when you think of a professor as an unworldly egghead—because that’s your generalized image of a professor--before getting to know the specific professor.
     The corrective to intensional orientation is to focus first on the object, person, or event and then on the way in which the object, person, or event is talked about. Labels are certainly helpful guides, but don’t allow them to obscure what they’re meant to symbolize.

Avoid Allness
The world is infinitely complex, and because of this you can never say all there is to say about anything—at least not logically. This is particularly true when you’re dealing with people. You may think you know all there is to know about certain individuals or about why they did what they did, yet clearly you don’t know all. You can never know all the reasons you yourself do something, so there is no way you can know all the reasons your parents, friends, or enemies did something.
     Suppose, for example, you go on a first date with someone who, at least during the first hour or so, turns out to be less interesting than you would have liked. Because of this initial impression, you may infer that this person is dull, always and everywhere. Yet it could be that this person is simply ill at ease or shy during first meetings. The problem here is that you run the risk of judging a person on the basis of a very short acquaintanceship. Further, if you then define this person as dull, you’re likely to treat the person as dull and fulfill your own prophecy.
     The parable of the six blind men and the elephant is an excellent example of an allness orientation—the tendency to judge the whole on the basis of experience with only part of the whole—and its attendant problems. You may recall from elementary school the poem by John Saxe that concerns six learned blind men of Indostan who came to examine an elephant, an animal they had only heard about. The first blind man touched the elephant’s side and concluded that an elephant was like a wall. The second felt the tusk and said an elephant must be like a spear. The third held the trunk and concluded that an elephant was much like a snake. The fourth touched the knee and decided that an elephant was like a tree. The fifth felt the ear and said an elephant was like a fan. The sixth grabbed the tail and concluded that an elephant was like a rope. Each of these learned men reached his own conclusion regarding what an elephant was really like. Each argued that he was correct and that the others were wrong.
     Each, of course, was correct; at the same time, however, all were wrong. The point this parable illustrates is that you can never see all of anything; you can never experience anything fully. You see part of an object, event, or person—and on that limited basis, you conclude what the whole is like. Instead, you need to recognize that when making judgments of the whole based on only a part, you’re actually making inferences that can later be proved wrong. If you assume that you know everything there is to know about something or someone, you fall into the pattern of misevaluation called allness.
     Famed British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said that “to be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step toward knowledge.” This observation is an excellent example of a nonallness attitude. If you recognize that there is more to learn, more to see, more to hear, you leave yourself open to this additional information, and you’re better prepared to assimilate it.
     A useful extensional device that can help you avoid allness is to end each statement, sometimes verbally but always mentally, with an “etc.” (et cetera)—a reminder that there is more to learn, know, and say; every statement is inevitably incomplete. To be sure, some people overuse the “et cetera.” They use it as a substitute for being specific, which defeats its purpose. Instead, it should be used to mentally remind yourself that there is more to know and more to say.

Avoid Fact-Inference Confusion
Language enables us to form statements of facts and inferences without making any linguistic distinction between the two. Similarly, when we listen to such statements, we often don’t make a clear distinction between statements of facts and statements of inference. Yet there are great differences between the two. Barriers to clear thinking can be created when inferences are treated as facts, a hazard called fact–inference confusion.
     For example, you can make statements about things that you observe, and you can make statements about things that you have not observed. In form or structure these statements are similar; they cannot be distinguished from each other by any grammatical analysis. For example, you can say, “She’s wearing a blue jacket” as well as “She’s harboring an illogical hatred.” If you diagrammed these sentences, they would yield identical structures, and yet you know that they’re different types of statements. In the first sentence, you can observe the jacket and the blue color; the sentence constitutes a factual statement. But how do you observe “illogical hatred”? Obviously, this is not a descriptive statement but an inferential statement, a statement that you make not solely on the basis of what you observe but on the basis of what you observe plus your own conclusions.
     There’s no problem with making inferential statements; you must make them if you’re to talk about much that is meaningful. The problem arises when you act as though those inferential statements are factual statements. Consider, for example, the following anecdote:
A woman went for a walk one day and met her friend, whom she had not seen, heard from, or heard of in ten years. After an exchange of greetings, the woman said, “Is this your little boy?” and her friend replied, “Yes. I got married about six years ago.” The woman then asked the child, “What is your name?” and the little boy replied, “Same as my father’s.” “Oh,” said the woman, “then it must be Peter.”
     The question, of course, is how did the woman know the boy’s father’s name? The answer is obvious, but only after you recognize that in reading this short passage you have, quite unconsciously, made an inference that is preventing you from arriving at the answer. You have inferred that the woman’s friend is a woman. Actually, the friend is a man named Peter.
     You may wish to test your ability to distinguish facts from inferences by responding to the following test:

Carefully read the following account, modeled on a report developed by William Haney and the observations based on it. Indicate whether you think the observations are true, false, or doubtful on the basis of the information presented in the report. Circle T if the observation is definitely true, F if the observation is definitely false, and ? if the observation may be either true or false. Judge each observation in order. Don’t reread the observations after you have indicated your judgment, and don’t change any of your answers.

A well-liked college teacher had just completed making up the final examinations and had turned off the lights in the office. Just then a tall, broad figure appeared and demanded the examination. The professor opened the drawer. Everything in the drawer was picked up and the individual ran down the corridor. The dean was notified immediately.

T  F  ?     1. The thief was tall and broad.
T  F  ?     2. The professor turned off the lights.
T  F  ?     3. A tall figure demanded the examination.
T  F  ?     4. The examination was picked up by someone.
T  F  ?     5. The examination was picked up by the professor.
T  F  ?     6. A tall figure appeared after the professor turned off the lights in the office.
T  F  ?     7. The man who opened the drawer was the professor.
T  F  ?     8. The professor ran down the corridor.
T  F  ?     9. The drawer was never actually opened.
T  F  ?     10. Three persons are referred to in this report.

This test is designed to trap you into making inferences and treating them as facts. Statement 3 is true (it’s in the report); statement 9 is false (the drawer was opened); but all other statements are inferences and should have been marked “?”. Review the remaining eight statements to see why you cannot be certain that any of them are either true or false.
     Distinguishing between these two types of statements does not imply that one type is better than the other. Both types of statements are useful; both are important. The problem arises when you treat an inferential statement as if it were fact. Phrase your inferential statements as tentative. Recognize that such statements may be wrong. Leave open the possibility of other alternatives.

Avoid Indiscrimination
Nature seems to abhor sameness at least as much as vacuums, for nowhere in the universe can you find identical entities. Everything is unique. Language, however, provides common nouns, such as teacher, student, friend, enemy, war, politician, liberal, and the like, that may lead you to focus on similarities. Such nouns can lead you to group together all teachers, all students, and all friends and divert attention from the uniqueness of each individual, object, and event.
     The misevaluation known as indiscrimination—a form of stereotyping—occurs when you focus on classes of individuals, objects, or events and fail to see that each is unique and needs to be looked at individually. Indiscrimination can be seen in such statements as these:
<  He’s just like the rest of them: lazy, stupid, a real slob.
<  I really don’t want another ethnic on the board of directors. One is enough for me.
<  Read a romance novel? I read one when I was 16. That was enough to convince me.
     A useful antidote to indiscrimination is the extensional device called the index, a mental subscript that identifies each individual in a group as an individual even though all members of the group may be covered by the same label. For example, when you think and talk of an individual politician as just a “politician,” you may fail to see the uniqueness in this politician and the differences between this particular politician and other politicians. However, when you think with the index—when you think not of politician but of politician1 or politician2 or politician3—you’re less likely to fall into the trap of indiscrimination and more likely to focus on the differences among politicians. The same is true with members of cultural, national, or religious groups; when you think of Iraqi1 and Iraqi2, you’ll be reminded that not all Iraqis are the same. The more you discriminate among individuals covered by the same label, the less likely you are to discriminate against any group.

Avoid Polarization
Polarization, often referred to as the fallacy of “either/or,” is the tendency to look at the world and to describe it in terms of extremes—good or bad, positive or negative, healthy or sick, brilliant or stupid, rich or poor, and so on. Polarized statements come in many forms; for example:
<  After listening to the evidence, I’m still not clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.
<  Well, are you for us or against us?
<  College had better get me a good job. Otherwise, this has been a big waste of time.
Most people and events exist somewhere between the extremes of good and bad, healthy and sick, brilliant and stupid, rich and poor. Yet there seems to be a strong tendency to view only the extremes and to categorize people, objects, and events in terms of these polar opposites.
     You can easily demonstrate this tendency by filling in the opposites for each of the following words:

                                                                        Opposite
tall ___:___:___:___:___:____:___               ________
heavy ___:___:___:___:___:___:___             ________
strong ___:___:___:___:____:___:___          ________
happy ___:___:___:___:___:___:___             ________
legal ___:___:___:___:___:___:____              ________

Filling in the opposites should have been relatively easy and quick. The words should also have been fairly short. Further, if various different people supplied the opposites, there would be a high degree of agreement among them. Now try to fill in the middle positions with words meaning, for example, “midway between tall and short,” “midway between heavy and light,” and so on. Do this before reading any farther.
     These midway responses (compared to the opposites) were probably more difficult to think of and took you more time. The responses should also have been long words or phrases of several words. Further, different people would probably agree less on these midway responses than on the opposites.
     This exercise illustrates the ease with which we can think and talk in opposites and the difficulty we have in thinking and talking about the middle. But recognize that the vast majority of cases exist between extremes. Don’t allow the ready availability of extreme terms to obscure the reality of what lies in between.
      In some cases, of course, it’s legitimate to talk in terms of two values. For example, either this thing you’re holding is a pencil or it isn’t. Clearly, the classes “pencil” and “not-pencil” include all possibilities. There is no problem with this kind of statement. Similarly, you may say that a student either will pass this course or will not, as these two categories include all the possibilities.
     You create problems, however, when you use this either/or form in situations in which it’s inappropriate; for example, “The supervisor is either for us or against us.” The two choices simply don’t include all possibilities: The supervisor may be for us in some things and against us in others, or he or she may be neutral. Right now there is a tendency to group people into pro- and antiwar, for example—and into similar pro- and anti- categories on abortion, taxes, same-sex marriage, and just about every important political or social issue. Similarly, you see examples of polarization in opinions about the Middle East, with some people entirely and totally supportive of one side and others entirely and totally supportive of the other side. But clearly these extremes do not include all possibilities and polarized thinking actually prevents us from considering the vast middle ground that exists on all such issues.

Avoid Static Evaluation
Language changes very slowly, especially when compared to the rapid pace at which people and things change. When you retain an evaluation of a person, despite the inevitable changes in the person, you’re engaging in static evaluation.
     Alfred Korzybski, the founder of General Semantics, used an interesting illustration in this connection: In a tank there is a large fish and many small fish that are its natural food source. Given freedom in the tank, the large fish will eat the small fish. After some time, the tank is partitioned, with the large fish on one side and the small fish on the other, divided only by glass. For a time, the large fish will try to eat the small fish but will fail; each time it tries, it will knock into the glass partition. After some time it will learn that trying to eat the small fish means difficulty, and it will no longer go after them. Now, however, the partition is removed, and the small fish swim all around the big fish. But the big fish does not eat them and in fact will die of starvation while its natural food swims all around. The large fish has learned a pattern of behavior, and even though the actual territory has changed, the map remains static.
     While you would probably agree that everything is in a constant state of flux, the relevant question is whether you act as if you know this. Do you act in accordance with the notion of change, instead of just accepting it intellectually? Do you treat your little sister as if she were 10 years old, or do you treat her like the 20-year-old woman she has become? Your evaluations of yourself and others need to keep pace with the rapidly changing real world. Otherwise you’ll be left with attitudes and beliefs—static evaluations—about a world that no longer exists.
     To guard against static evaluation, use an extensional device called the date: Mentally date your statements and especially your evaluations. Remember that Gerry Smith2002 is not Gerry Smith2011; academic abilities2006 are not academic abilities2011. T. S. Eliot, in The Cocktail Party, said that “what we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them. And they have changed since then . . . at every meeting we are meeting a stranger.”

These six guidelines will not solve all the problems in verbal communication, but they will help you to more accurately align your language with the real world, the world of words and not words, infinite complexity, facts and inferences, sameness and difference, extremes and middle ground, and constant change.

3 comments:

Katelyn said...

Thank you for posting this. I am doing an assignment in college about these very six barriers of communication, and I could not find information anywhere--including my actual communication textbook. I have added this blog to my favorites tab and will refer to it often, as I am a mass-communication major.

K.K. Sharma said...

Effective communication is the workplace is truly necessary for success in most cases. One can be brilliant and hard working, but if that person is awkward with communication or doesn't know the rules of engagement in the workplace, career advancement will likely be very limited.

K.K. Sharma said...

Effective communication is the workplace is truly necessary for success in most cases. One can be brilliant and hard working, but if that person is awkward with communication or doesn't know the rules of engagement in the workplace, career advancement will likely be very limited.