Poly 101 Lessons for life: Effective Communication

The skills we need to be successfully be polyamorous are nothing more than skills to be better people all around.  For a series on what polyamory has taught me about being a better person, I want to address how they are also important in non-poly circumstances.

One of the most essential things a person needs to do in order to successfully maintain a polyamorous set of relationships is to become better at communication.

This means not only saying what you think, communicating concerns and appreciation, and listening, but also making sure that you do these things effectively.  You need to do your best to not merely do enough, but to make sure that what it is you are communicating is understood by the hearer.  Otherwise why communicate at all?

And this goal of effective communication has obvious uses everywhere, although applying the necessary tools for such are different within relationships than they are in general. In an intimate relationship, for example, you know a fair bit (hopefully) about your interlocutor, and so this is easier than communicating with co-workers, aquaintences, or strangers.  Communicating with the public at large (like most of our readers!) is perhaps one of the hardest things to do with complete effectiveness due to our lack of familiarity with the audience and their points of view.

Obviously, we are not getting our message across...

When I compose my thoughts for a post, I have to consider the way many kinds of people will read the ideas I am trying to convey.  There are readers here who are monogamous skeptics, polyamorous spiritual-but-not-religious people, and even many people of faith who will disagree with just about everything I say.

As a result of these considerations, I have to try and make points in a way that will communicate the idea I want to be read for the largest possible audience, knowing that despite this effort many people will not quite understand my point of view no matter how clearly I try to communicate.

This problem of mis-communication has been a challenge for much of the atheist community over the last several years.  If I had known, back before the publication of The End of Faith or The God Delusion what types of challenges the small and young community would go through with issues such as new atheists/accommodationsts, privilege/minority atheists, and how many in-fighting splits would occur, perhaps we could have avoided some of the mis-communication snafus and be less divided now as a community.

Probably not, but it’s a nice thought.

In many cases I don’t think the ultimate points of disagreement which exist in the movement could be avoided, as they are endemic to the differences in people rather than mere points of confusion (accommodationism is, perhaps, a good example of this).  And in other cases, knowing how things turned out, there are people out there who might have avoided some comment, term, or line of argument had they known what would happen.  And undoubtedly some would change nothing of what they did.

And no, the attempt at constructing effective communication is not the same as accommodationism.  The goal is not to change wording to avoid offense or direct criticism for the sake of tone.  Rather, it means avoiding miscommunication of the strident and blunt points we wish to make by ensuring that the word choices we make do not get taken a completely different way than they are intended.

Because it sucks when you craft a message with the intent to make a harsh point, and have it backfire because something else was interpreted.

Consider the recent issue with the PA-Nonbelievers billboard (pictured above) which was taken to mean, by some, something very different than what it was intended to convey.  By all means, follow that link for the details of the issue, but essentially the question is whether the billboard, as it appeared (before it was vandalized after being up for one day), was racist.  And although it was not intended that way (I know quite a few of the people from PAN, and I have no indication of racism on the part of those who created the image), being that much of central Pennsylvania (Pennsyltucky, we sometimes call it) is pretty racist, the billboard could easily be mistaken for a very different intended purpose.

BTW, it’s purpose was to respond to the Year of the Bible legislation in PA by showing how immoral the Bible is, using its advocacy of slavery as the vehicle for such an observation.  It simply did not occur (I’m guessing.  I don’t know for sure) to those at PAN that it would be taken as an endorsement of slavery non-ironically.  Slavery is abhorrent (think most Christians), Christians loves their Bibles, and Bibles condone slavery.

Instead, some saw the billboard as racist, the ambiguity of the message left many people confused and irritated.

The fact that this snafu of miscommunication occurred demonstrates that the importance of effective communication is not only essential, but it is quite hard.  Just like, while having an argument with a loved one, sometimes the best-intended statement can be taken quite badly due to a different parsing of the words or even due to some semantic diversion by speaker and listener, the general public will often misunderstand what we atheist activists (or at least proponents) have to say about religion and faith.

Now, there are many sources, both online and otherwise, for learning about how to effectively communicate.  A simple Googling of the term will find you quite a bit about the many techniques and guidelines that can help, and so my outlining them for you here would be redundant.

But the general message I want to convey here to people of any persuasion is that in many cases our conversations, whether they are debates, disagreements, or shouting matches with people being wrong (on the internet or otherwise), we need to keep in mind how we are presenting our case and what pitfalls might interfere with our goals.

By all means, express your indignation for whatever idea you disagree with.  Don’t hold back your opinion, but make sure it is communicated in a way that will not be read as something that it is not.

And remember to listen.  Listening is perhaps the most important skills in effective communication, and it is clear that we need to listen to whatever feedback we receive.  In many cases, this does include keeping your eye on the general public’s views on what you will communicate about, which usually entails reading blogs of those who are theists or defenders of monogamy in many cases, for me.

That said, I want your feedback here at polyskeptic on any and all posts.  we want to know how well we are communicating with you.  If we can do a better job at communicating our point of view, we want to know how we can do so.