Communication reforms


This year I am going to try to do a better job of communicating my communication needs.

I do not know why I am this way, but I have a painful sensitivity to communication obstructions. I do not think the sensitivity per se is unusual. The intensity of the pain probably is.

I am beginning to think it is partly caused by being an adult child of an autistic parent. It also did not help that I was transplanted at age 7 and grew up in an alien culture, and had very little parental help in figuring out how to navigate the sea of otherness into which I was dropped without flotation devices. And the condition has been intensified by the effort I have applied to learning from the best minds of history and acquiring many different ways of understanding the world. All this work has yielded what I believe are crucially important insights. It is depressing when people I consider friends treat what I have worked so hard to understand as insignificant.

Here are some examples of what I experience as painful obstructions:

  • When attempts at communication — emails, messages, calls — are left unanswered.
  • When I’m repeatedly interrupted when I am trying to get a complex point across.
  • When someone is distracted or inattentive or changes the subject when I’m trying to discuss something important.
  • In issues of differing worldview, when the other person refuses to cooperate dialogically to establish mutual understanding prior to debating individual points of fact.
  • When the other person uses ad hominem arguments to invalidate my perspectives on the basis of how they’ve decided to categorize me. This includes the category “privileged”.
  • When conversations I’ve indicated are important to me are repeatedly postponed, dropped or forgotten.
  • When I am not given the benefit of the doubt that what I am trying to convey is at least partially-new and worth learning, and instead approaching the material as probably already known or not worth knowing.
  • When others make gestures intended to deflate my over-inflated sense of self-importance or undermine my faith in the importance of the kinds of knowledge I pursue. This especially includes delivering destructive cynicism in the guise of humor.

These behaviors are not in themselves unacceptable or immoral. From acquantances or strangers, they are normal and should be expected.

But friendship requires more than normality. Friendship means caring about the meaning and impact of one’s behavior from the point of view of the friend, even — or especially — if the significance or impact is different for you.

It is precisely in honoring the peculiar differences that respect in its truest form occurs. “Re- back; “-spect” look. A friend is someone who believes that his friend looks back at him and sees something, knows something and feels something different and important from what he sees.

It is precisely when a friend seems to make little or no sense that a person’s faithfulness to friendship activates. Where you can appeal to this faith, there is friendship. Where the appeal cannot be made, the limits of friendship have been crossed.

To be a friend is to be able to make an appeal on any of these points knowing that the appeal will be taken seriously. This does no mean the appeal is automatically accepted at face value and obeyed. This would be destructive. It only means the appeal is treated as valid and important and deserving serious attention. Such appeals cannot be ignored, dismissed, explained away or deferred indefinitely.


This year I am going to do a combination of several things to try to get some peace in the area of communication:

  1. Set the context for any especially non-casual conversations, to increase the odds that it will be productive.
  2. Try to explain myself and my communication needs to people I consider actual or potential friends, to see how far the appeal to friendship is effective with them. Sharing this article might be a start.
  3. Getting realistic about who can and will be a friend, and who ought to be regarded more as a friendly acquaintance, or as an adversary. I need this clarity.

And, of course, I will continue to monitor myself and try to do these things I’ve listed to others as little as possible and to catch myself as quickly as possible when I do do them. If I do any of them to you, and you are my friend, you can make an appeal, and I will make every effort to change.

And even more importantly, if I am your friend and I do things that bother you — especially things that make no sense to me — help me understand and adjust.

Or failing that, let’s accept non-friendship. Isn’t that better than falseness?

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3 Responses to Communication reforms

  1. Anonymous says:

    Is a friendship so complicated? Must lines be drawn in the sand to prevent toes from being trodden on? I too feel the pain of the obstructions listed, most definitely at a much smaller scale, but I believe that friendships must also be built on forgiveness as much as open and respectful communication. I believe that a true friendship exists when the desire to listen transcends the need to be listened to.

    • anomalogue says:

      No, friendship should not be so complicated.

      We should not be legislators and judges of elaborate tender-toe-protecting codes of law.

      We must be forgiving, and wherever possible, be so forgiving that forgiveness isn’t required in the first place. Even major offenses, whether they are missed signals, misperceptions, misunderstandings or misbehavior, must be forgiven in friendship.

      But all this assumes the existence of friendship in the first place. And that is why I chose to use the language of appeal. If a person denies an appeal to be heard out — if a person does not want to know who you are or what you think, or, worse, actively wants to not know who you are or what you think — there is nothing to reconcile: friendship simply is nonexistent. These weird little points I’ve listed are emergency last-resorts to use after overt distress signals are ignored, pleas are disregarded, repeated attempts to connect are left hanging — (and I’m not talking about once or twice, but for years or decades) — they are all ways to ask if friendship is actually there at all.

      This brings me to the one place that I disagree with you very sharply: your assertion that “true friendship exists when the desire to listen transcends the need to be listened to.” There is no transcending the need to be heard and known — not if you want genuine equality and reciprocity. Any desire to transcend this kind of interaction of equals strikes me as wrongheaded and, frankly, unwholesome. I think I will need to split off a separate reply to dive into this topic more, or perhaps even write a new post just on this topic. I consider it crucially important.

      But these points are not only for friends. Hopefully they never are. They are also for colleagues and clients. In the world of design consulting (my world), we often are required to reach agreements in peculiar and disturbing conditions. We are hired to find “blue ocean” innovations — undeveloped, unsettled regions of thought, and to survey and parcel out and build designs upon them. This means that if we do our job properly, conversations happen in intellectual spaces ungoverned by common language, common concepts and common sense. We suffer very exotic forms of misunderstanding, perplexity and conflict that border on the religious. We find ourselves on ground that Wittgenstein described as having the form “here I do not know how to move around.” In these situations, it gets very painful to listen and very painful to not be listened to. It is even painful to try to speak at all.

      So these sorts of ham-fistedly explicit expectation-setting moves are actually necessary. It is only because I agree with you — should we REALLY have to say this stuff? — that my toes have been crushed, pulverized, and amputated by people who are not used to moving around on this rough and undeveloped ground. I think I really do have to. Not everyone has an intuitive sense of how this kind of dialogue is done.

      • anomalogue says:

        More thoughts on “true friendship exists when the desire to listen transcends the need to be listened to.”

        I’ve got some thoughts on this comment that reflect my personal beliefs about relationships which are either wrong in some way that I cannot see (and therefore consequential to my own development) or which are right in ways others cannot see (and therefore probably worth spreading around).

        As I said above I do not believe transcending the need to be heard and understood is a good thing, and I do not believe such transcendence can be achieved by focusing on just listening and understanding other people. Transcendence comes from thinking of listening or speaking in “or” terms, and instead thinking in terms of dialogue. Dialogue is creating new understandings collaboratively with others through reciprocal teaching and learning, speaking and hearing. When it happens it becomes much more about the substance of the conversation than about the individuals and their individual need to be listened to.

        This process also brings into existence a new kind of being, a friendship that involves but also transcends the individuals who participate in and constitute it.

        You can see it in dialectical terms if you like looking at things that way. The thesis “I want to be listened to” and the antithesis “I want to listen well” are transcended in a synthesis: “I want to participate in dialogue.” The thesis “I want to receive friendship” and the antithesis “I want to give friendship” are transcended in a synthesis: “I want to participate in friendship.”

        I think all sacraments fit this general pattern. A sacrament invites us to participate as ourselves in being larger than ourselves and to form relationships of a transcendent nature, the relationship of a part to an exceeding whole.

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