DRMacIver's Notebook

Communication: Collaboration and Conflict

Communication: Collaboration and Conflict

This is loosely a follow-on to discussions with Vathy about the previous post but this isn't about books, it's about communication.

The model scene for communication that I'll be thinking about in this post is two people talking to each other in person. A lot of what I'm going to be saying applies in general, but there are different constraints and considerations.

Every act of communication contains two things: collaboration and conflict.

You are collaborating in the sense that you are producing an artefact (the conversation) together, but you are in conflict (in the Schelling sense) in that you are two presumably-human people whose values are imperfectly aligned.

How much of each is present varies, but no communication is free of either.

I've previously claimed you are underinvested in communication skills, but I think it's worth unpacking what communication skills do.

Lets think about teaching. Teaching is very much an act of communication. As I've previously argued, you can't teach anything to anyone (I've also previously claimed that you can. I'll admit I was being a bit hyperbolic there), and the reason for that is that the other person may not be willing to do the work.

I've done a modest amount of one-on-one maths tutoring. Not a lot, and only with a handful of students, so I definitely wouldn't claim expertise in this, but I've taken a couple of students from "this makes no sense and I hate it" to "oh, this makes total sense and is kinda neat". I've also had one student who I completely failed to teach. Why? Because he didn't care, and would not engage. He would not do the work, and it was impossible for me to open his skull and insert mathematics directly into his brain, so no matter how well I taught him he would never learn. It's possible, likely even, that I was missing some skill that would get him interested, but without fundamentally changing his values around willingness to learn mathematics (which I didn't know how to do), it didn't matter how clearly I communicated the subject to him, he wasn't going to learn it.

In teaching, there are two categories of communication skills that are relevant (there are more than two, but I'm only going to point out two):

  1. Getting someone interested in the subject.
  2. Communicating the subject in a way that they can understand it.

I'm quite bad at (1) because I'm very bad at not being interested in things. Mea culpa. So in this post, I'm going to focus on (2).

One way to think of this aspect of communication skills is that it is about workload management.

Suppose you had never been exposed to any mathematics, and you had to derive modern statistics from scratch. Obviously you can't do this, but imagine that you could in principle do this, and think about how much work it would be. That's the baseline for learning statistics. Every aspect of teaching is designed to make it easier to learn statistics than that. Ultimately you, the student, still need to do the work of learning and understanding statistics, but the purpose of the teacher is to save you a few thousand years of effort.

Ultimately, a lesson is primarily a collaboration between the teacher and the student, in which the goal of the teacher is to shoulder as much of the work as they reasonably can. This is, I think, a key feature of all communication skills: They are designed to manage the workload of the other party.

Even a bad communicator can communicate to a sufficiently dedicated student, but a good one can lower the level of dedication required.

These are what you might think of as the cooperative communication skills, ones that are designed to make the collaboration go as well as possible. But as I said at the beginning: Communication has two parts, collaboration and conflict. You can think of communication skills centered on the conflict as adversarial communication skills.

There is a useful workload management spin on adversarial communication skills too: They are designed to increase the workload of the other party where they are trying to achieve goals that you don't want.

The grey rock method is a perfect example of this. When you are dealing with a toxic person, you distance and shut down your visible emotional responses. Their goal (which you do not want) is to get a rise out of you, and gray rocking makes it harder for them to do that.

From a collaboration point of view this looks like not communicating, but from a conflict point of view this is absolutely a communication skill, because it's managing the communication so that it goes in a way that you want rather than the other person wants.