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On Engaging and Atypical Communication (Post 3 of 3)

  • Posted on July 3, 2010 at 11:38 PM

In my first post I introduced the concept of engaging and how it relates to prejudice.  In my second post I discussed how failure to engage leads to miscommunication with people we know well.  Now, I will conclude this discussion by discussing engagement in regards to communicating with atypical communicators.

Recently I was reminded that I am such a person.  During my graduation party I was sitting with a circle of friends.  My husband, my mother, my brother and I were there along with another couple we’ve known for years and an old friend.  These are all people I know well, who I am comfortable with, and who know me in my many idiosyncrasies and accept me as I am.  This old friend and I started talking about a topic of mutual interest.  I became highly engaged in the conversation.  Without meaning to or even being aware that I did so, I focused on this gentleman at the exclusion of all others.  It wasn’t until he pointed out that our conversation was excluding everyone else that I became aware of this.  This wasn’t a “party” conversation and it was not appropriate to become so highly involved that I was not aware of where I was and who I was with.  Intellectually I know this, but I lack the intuitive sense that most people have regarding such things.  Whether he knew it on an intellectual level or an intuitive level, he knew he would have to break open the conversation to get me to re-focus.  He did so without making a big deal out of it or making me feel foolish.  The other people knew me well enough to realize I did not mean to exclude them and did not take offense that I had.

This example shows engagement on multiple levels.  I was very much engaged in that conversation, but I was not engaged in social context I was in once the conversation had begun.  Whereas my friend was engaged in both the conversation and the social context; he was also engaged with me as a person to the extent that he knew I couldn’t pull back on my own.  And I need that.

Adapting to my means of communication requires effort from others; however the amount of effort it requires is relatively small.  I talk like an intellectual.  For the most part, I use proper grammar when I speak and I use the words that are appropriate, whether or not they are commonly known.  I also have focus issues.  All of these represent barriers in everyday conversation, but the barriers are fairly easily overcome.  If you tell me you don’t understand, I will tone down my language.  If you tell me I’m excluding others, I will pull back and try to engage in my surroundings.  I am somewhat adaptable, and I surround myself with people who are able to accommodate me in my conversational short-comings.

There are, however, people whose means of communication are far more atypical than my own.  My son Alex is one such individual.  As a primarily non-verbal person, he is often left out of conversations and social interactions.  He’s very difficult to communicate with because he has a very limited ability to adapt his skills to converse with others.  It’s also difficult for him to engage with others.  This means that most of the “heavy lifting” has to be done by the other person.

In contemporary society, Alex’s communication challenges seem to be seen as putting an “unnecessary burden” on others.  Two ideas are inherent in this assumption:  First, other people are not obligated to put forth the effort necessary to communicate with Alex.  Second, Alex needs to be “fixed” in order to communicate effectively.  Another assumption is made—awareness of which seems even more fleeting—and that is that because Alex doesn’t communicate in a typical way and cannot express himself effectively in his atypical way, he doesn’t have anything to say.  The first two assumptions are negotiable—I don’t agree with them, but there certainly is room for intelligent debate on those issues.  However, the third assumption, the one people seem least willing to admit they make, is wholly and completely wrong.  Those people who make the effort to communicate with Alex on his own terms and within his own limitations will find Alex has quite a bit to say.  It’s difficult to understand, of course, but there is definitely a lively, thoughtful child “hidden under” the communication and social challenges.  Except that he’s not really hidden at all.  People perceive that he is hidden, because they filter out his attempts at communication and force him into a template of “those who do not communicate.”  He is there; they just don’t really see him.

So, now I’ve wandered back into the realm of stereotypes.  My point is not to decry those individuals who dismiss my son (okay, so that is a lingering point in much of what I write, but I do have another point to make as well), instead my point is that as a parent I do have an obligation to put forth the effort necessary to communicate with Alex.  So does my husband, his teachers, his doctors and his therapists.  This is non-negotiable.  While the rest of the world may be able to debate why they shouldn’t have to put forth this effort, while they may be able to hunker down and refuse to do so like petulant children; we can’t.

Now, I could go off on a long tirade about how some parents don’t accept this obligation, or how there are far too many teachers, doctors, therapists and caregivers who neglect their obligation to communicate with the people in their care.  But I won’t.  Perhaps I’ll do that at a later time—maybe when I have a better idea how to fix that problem.

Instead, I will return to how engaging is work.  Communicating with someone who communicates a little differently, such as myself, requires a little more work than the average engaged conversation.  Communicating with someone who communicates in a manner significantly different than your own, such as Alex, requires a lot more work than the average engaged conversation.  Except the average engaged conversation is itself a rarity.  More often we simply interact with templates instead of engage in conversations.

For a long time now I’ve known that communicating with Alex is something like speaking to someone in a foreign language you don’t really understand.  It’s a learning process full of fits and starts.  It requires a lot of effort and sometimes I’m simply not up to the challenge.  But I force myself to try, because Alex needs me to make that effort.  Recently, the gentleman who was so good at prompting me to be more inclusive in our conversation at my graduation party was living with us.  He put a great deal of effort into learning to communicate with my children.  He also commented that learning to communicate with my children taught him a lot about communicating with other people as well.  This struck a chord with me, because I have discovered the same thing on my own.  Recently, my husband Mark commented that he found it very difficult to interact with Alex.  While he was referring to play, communication is a big part of that—and that communication is the biggest challenge for Mark.  Mark has been able to connect with Willy and Brandon very well.  He’s also able to connect with Ben, though sometimes it seems that this is because Ben is so fascinated with Mark that Ben overcomes his own challenges to make the connection happen.  But a similar connection with Alex eludes him as the communication barrier still looms largely between them.

I guess my point is this:  As much work as it is to communicate with someone who communicates in an atypical manner, the rewards for those who make that effort are often much bigger and much grander than communicating successfully with that one person, though I’d say that’s a pretty big, grand reward all by itself.  Make the effort; it’s worth it!

On Engaging and Miscommunication (2 of 3)

  • Posted on June 29, 2010 at 12:20 AM

In my last post I introduced the concept of engaging and how it relates to prejudice.  Lack of engagement also occurs at what I would call a micro level.  At this level, we fail to engage with people we know and care about.  This is less an issue of stereotyping than it is lack of communication.

We interact with people we know on a regular basis.  These are our family members, our friends, our co-workers, and our neighbors.  We don’t necessarily stereotype these individuals, but we do create mental templates of who and what they are.  These templates are more the accumulated experiences we’ve had with these individuals.

It is often easier to interact with these templates than it is to engage with the individuals. This goes back to the difference of engaging with your child and half-listening while thinking about that pesky to-do list running through your mind.  The problem with failing to engage while talking with people we know is that even our templates of these individuals are faulty. 

However well we know an individual, our perception of them is always filtered through our own biases and our own experiences.  We insert these filtered perceptions into our mental templates of individuals, and what we get is a flawed, distorted copy of the person we know.  When we interact with the template instead of the person, we are interacting with a distortion.  Only by genuinely engaging with the individual are we able to break past our own internal filters to see the person more clearly and understand what the individual is trying to communicate.

This becomes especially important when we interact with people with atypical means of communication, but that will be the subject of my next post.

The point of this post is that failing to engage with individuals we know creates miscommunication.  If we think we know what someone is going to say, we often fail to listen to what is actually said.  Even after we have failed to hear them, we think we know what they said.  In our mind, we insert the conversation we think we had into our mental template of that person.  Not only does this mean we have miscommunicated in this one instance, it also perpetuates the miscommunication in future conversations.  We go back to the conversation we think we had and take it a little further the next time we talk to that person.  The second time we get a little further from what is actually being said.

Only be engaging in the conversation and listening actively and involving ourselves in how our own life intersects with the other person’s life can we truly know what that person is saying.

On Engaging and Prejudice (1 of 3)

  • Posted on June 27, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Executive Summary:  To engage with others we must actively participate in our interactions with them.  This requires us to exert mental effort and also risks challenging our thoughts, feelings, and worldviews.  Because we do not want to exert the necessary effort or take this risk with people who are very different from ourselves, we rely on stereotypes.  This leads to prejudice and discrimination.  In order to avoid prejudice and discrimination, we have to engage with others—especially those who are different from ourselves.


Engage has many definitions; I tend to use it in the more general sense of “to involve oneself or to participate,” which is the context in which I use it now.

Engaging is an active state of being.  You can engage in a job.  Say you’re sorting through information at work.  While you’re doing this you could be distracted by whatever is on your mind.  Or you could engage in the task, focusing your mental prowess on the task at hand.  You will likely produce higher quality work if you engage on the job.  You can engage in a conversation.  Say you’re talking with your child.  While you’re doing this you could be distracted by the mental to-do list running through your head.  Or you could engage in the conversation, focusing your attention on what is important to your child.  You can engage in a story.  Say you’re reading a book or watching a movie.  You could go into that “glazed” state where you are absorbing the entertainment and “rotting your brain.”  Or you could engage in the story by paying attention to the creative work and trying to experience what the artists were trying to express.  You bring something of yourself to the experience and come out of it with something truly unique—a communion of sorts between the artist and yourself.  In each of these examples, you are bringing something of yourself to the task and making for a richer experience by engaging.  It requires both an effort on your part and willingness to open yourself up to something outside of yourself, but in return you get a higher quality experience.

 I propose that one of the reasons prejudice (and the discrimination that results from prejudice) is so prevalent in our society is because of a lack of engagement.  I propose this lack of engagement can also explain the divisive politics that rages through the U.S. and other examples of polarization.

Basically my theory is this:  To communicate effectively and productively with someone who thinks and feels differently than you do, you need to engage with that person.  The more differently that person thinks or feels, the more you need to engage with that person in order to gain the kind of understanding necessary for genuine communication to occur.  We fail to do so for two basic reasons.  First, engaging is work.  It necessitates that we exert a significant amount of mental effort.  It is much easier to just be there, not really listening, not really understanding; relying on our assumptions to fill in the gaps left by our failure to engage.  Second, engaging can be uncomfortable.  When we engage in someone who is significantly different from ourselves we are willfully challenging our own assumptions, ideas, and worldviews.  This is inherently uncomfortable and human beings tend to develop self-defense mechanisms to prevent such a challenge from occurring.

So, instead of engaging we stereotype.  These stereotypes can be positive, but are more often negative.  Even when positive, these stereotypes are destructive because they prevent understanding and dehumanize the “other” in the process.  In this sense, stereotypes are very similar to a template.  Imagine you are trying to start a new blog.  You find a template that has the right look (stereotype), but after you start using it you realize the content you want to include doesn’t fit the template.  The work-intensive method would be to start from scratch and build your own template that has the look you want but also meets the needs of the content you want to provide.  A less work-intensive method would be to modify the template to account for the content you want to add but cannot fit.  However, it is more likely that you will simply trash the content that doesn’t fit—you don’t really need it anyway—and stick to the template you’ve chosen.  If people were blogs, then the template would be what they are (doctor, Republican, person with disabilities) and the content would be who they are (their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and the conclusions they’ve drawn from them).  Our failure to engage trashes the content of the person in favor of the imperfect, inappropriate template we chose to interpret their content through.

This occurs at what I would call the macro level.  We stereotype groups of people and put them into the templates we’ve chosen for them.  When we meet individuals who belong to those groups, we trash any content (who they are) in favor of the template we assume they fit into (our own concept of what they are).  This also occurs at what I would call the micro level, which constitutes using templates of people we know instead of engaging with them at a particular time and place.  That will be the subject of my next post.