When Communication Becomes Self-Defeating

Dear Dr. Hurd: There are those among us who think that it is perfectly fine to blurt out whatever “truth” that they feel/think at the moment and simply disregard the impact, effect or relevance of their unfiltered utterance.  When they are challenged on their word choice, they indignantly cry, “I am an independent adult and I can say whatever I want!”  This may be true in the sense of one’s individual rights, but it is not effective in achieving long-range goals.  Why do people choose the inarticulate and hurtful way of saying things instead of thinking before they speak and choosing their words more carefully–with the goal of achieving their own goals?  Why do they place their “right to utter whatever they think at the moment” over their own long-range self-interest?  Whatever happened to “picking your battles” and fighting the battles one has at least a chance of winning?  From obnoxious individuals at a dinner party who are perceived as rude to political activists who turn people off with their brute-like style, none of these people will ever achieve anything more than being thought of as either obnoxious or mean–and written off before they can even begin to try to persuade someone to think or do something differently.


Dr. Hurd’s Reply: You’re basically asking why people are irrational in their communication, to the point of acting against their own interests. The most likely explanation is that they don’t see it as against their interests. The justification you hear is, “I’m an adult and I’ll say whatever I want.” Fine, then. But what is it you’re trying to convey? And how well is it coming across?

There are two rules of objective communication. Rational communication must answer the questions, “What?” and “So what?” Any communication which evades either or both of these questions fails on its own terms. (I first learned this in a course called “Objective Communication” by philosophy professor Dr. Leonard Peikoff.)

The person doing the communicating is responsible — to himself, first and foremost — for getting across what he’s seeking to get across. If the desired idea or concept did not come across, the communication has failed. It’s not enough to say, “I’ll say what I want” or even, “I was clear enough that I could understand it.” It doesn’t matter. When you’re communicating, you’re trying to reach another’s mind. If you’re indifferent to how well you’re coming across, then why waste everyone’s time (including your own) by talking in the first place?

You’re talking about somebody who’s careless in his choice of words, or indifferent to the consequences of what he says. Most would call this “selfish” or inconsiderate. However, a person with pride and self-respect values every word he says. He chooses his words carefully not out of consideration for others, but so that what he’s saying will have the desired impact. Deeper than that, he cares about what he says because he cares about his mind and what he thinks — and words are the expression of his mind, his mind made concrete. He’s not responsible for any misinterpretation you might make with his words, any more than you would be responsible for any misinterpretation of his. But this doesn’t change the fact that he will do the best he possibly can to convey whatever it is he wants to convey.

Sometimes irate friends or spouses will deliberately say inconsiderate or hurtful things. Why is this? Because it feels good at the time. As you say, little or no thought is given to what the impact of the words will be the moment after they’re uttered; or what these words will do to the presumably valued relationship 10 minutes, 10 days or 10 months after the fact. You can ask why some people are not more long-range in their thinking. Usually, the answer is they’re just not; it’s too much effort or work, or at least it seems that way at the time. Also, as I’ve written in this column many times before, people don’t habitually use reason in their personal relationships the way they do in other circumstances. Solving a problem in math class, writing a dissertation, or conducting a complex business transaction? Why, in those situations it’s reason all the way. Have a conversation with a stranger on an airplane, or in a train? That’s easy. Apply reason and logic to choosing your words carefully with a close friend or spouse? Very often, it doesn’t happen. It’s a tragic error, and it’s probably the single biggest cause of the demise of any marriage or relationship. Most relationships don’t end over one event. In the vast majority of cases, it’s an accumulation of mishaps and evasions — including the kind you describe — over time.

It sounds like what’s missing in much of the communication you describe is a willingness to listen. Again, this is not an issue of being considerate, as most people think. You really aren’t obliged to listen to anyone you don’t care to listen to. However, you are obliged — for purely selfish reasons — to value your time, including those with whom you choose to spend it. If you choose to spend time with someone as an associate, friend or even a spouse (yes, it’s a choice!), then you owe it to yourself to listen. Anyone worth your time will have the same attitude, and will care about what you have to say, as well. If this basic foundation of good will and rationality is there, then almost everything else will follow. People talk about “communication skills” as if they’re some kind of elusive mystery. They’re not. Good communication is as far from rocket science as anything imaginable. All it takes are two people who are willing to (1) think and (2) listen. People with “communication issues” usually don’t have communication issues at all. It’s usually much deeper than that.