Stanley Deetzís Theory on Genuine Conversation
University of Colorado at Boulder
Current ethics of communication are based in western enlightenment tradition. Most people tend to think of the 18th century liberal ideas of freedom of speech, rationality, and individual autonomy as the foundation for "good" communication in todayís society (R.T. Craig, lecture, October 31, 2006). These principles align closely with the democratic spirit that characterizes our society. Stanley Deetz (1990) is not "knocking" our current ideal of communication, but he is proposing an alternative view. Deetz suggests that current ethics of communication assume a linear-transmission view where individuals express their ideas and interests producing information that enables rational decisions. He argues that this view of communication fails to consider how individuals, ideas, interests and information are socially produced (R.T. Craig, lecture, October 31, 2006). It is not that people have identities inside of them that they then communicate to others, but more that their sense of self has formed within the communication systems they partake in. From the 18th century perspective, we are all responsible for ourselves, and we cannot blame the "system", but Deetz wants us to recognize that our identities and our thoughts have been developed and produced in the communication process of the systems we are involved in.
Deetz draws on Hans-Georg Gadamerís idea of genuine conversation. Gadamer says "to conduct a conversation means to allow oneself to be conducted by the subject matter Ö it requires that one does not try to argue the other person down but that one really considers the weight of the otherís opinion" (R.T. Craig, lecture, October 31, 2006). Dialogue should not be something planned in advance, but something that seems to be the right thing to say at that moment given the current conversation. By focusing on the subject matter, no one knows in advance what is going to come out of the conversation; we have to be open to what the conversation will produce. Deetz argues that when conversations are "guided by the subject matter" rather than individual opinions and interests, individuals are not merely expressing fixed positions that they are not open to thinking about, but they are trying to contribute to the discussion commonalities that the group shares. In Deetzís theory, he argues for a change from "seeing the individual as more or less effective to seeing the interaction as more or less productive" (R.T. Craig, lecture, October 31, 2006). Our focus should be on whether our interactions have the quality of openness that allows unanticipated interactions to occur in the process of conversation. In order to keep conversation open, blockages that make change impossible need to be avoided.
Deetz asserts that genuine conversation can be blocked either by fixed identities or by certain discursive practices. If identities are fixed, specifically by labeling and stereotyping or maintaining images, people cannot change, which does not allow for genuine conversation. Similarly, Deetzís theory states that particular discursive practices can block the open development of understanding in conversation. These blockages are not organized strategies, but rather repetitive practices done for countless reasons which function to keep the group operating in ways that make change difficult. Deetz outlines six forms of discourse blockage including disqualification, naturalization, neutralization, topical avoidance, subjectification of experience, and meaning denial. The specific discursive practices of naturalization and topical avoidance will be discussed in further detail in the "application" section of this essay.
Deetzís theory addresses three ways of overcoming the aforementioned blockage and reopening conversation. Ways that blockage can be removed from interpersonal interactions include metacommunication, rhetoric and strategy. Elaboration on metacommunication will follow in the "application" section of this essay as well.
Deetzís ideas urge discussions of interactions and interpersonal relationships to be accompanied by an examination of the current ethical ideals of communication. He highlights the failure of these 18th century liberal ideas to associate meaning as produced and reproduced in the communication process. Deetzís main focus with regards to genuine conversation can be summed up in his principle: "The communicative act should be a response to the subject of the conversation and at the same time help establish the conditions for future unrestrained formation of experience" (p. 232)
The Cooper family lives in Montclair, an affluent city in New Jersey. They are a respected and well-known family in the city. Bruce Cooper is a real estate developer and it is not uncommon for him to sell multimillion-dollar homes to celebrities desiring a New York City address. Ellen Cooper, Bruceís wife, is an accomplished attorney, volunteering on the PTA Board of her sonís school as well as cooking weekly dinners at the local homeless shelter. Their daughter, Frances, graduated at the top of her high school class, and now attends Yale University. She is studying pre-med and has aspirations to become a neurosurgeon. George, Francesís seventeen-year-old brother is a junior in high school. His extracurricular activities consist of smoking pot and drinking alcohol on a regular basis. He has stopped doing his schoolwork, and refuses to study for the upcoming SATs. The members of the Cooper family cannot understand what has happened to their son who used to enjoy the outdoors, succeeding at his schoolwork, and the company of other friends who shared similar interests. Each of the Coopers "deals" with Georgeís substance abuse in different ways.
Bruce denies his son substance abuse, entirely. He convinces himself that his son will outgrow this "stage" and finds himself relying on the phrase "boys will be boys" to comfort his fear. The extent of Bruce and Georgeís conversation usually involves Bruce telling his son that he should cut back on drinking for his own sake.
Ellen is concerned that Georgeís habits will hurt his future. Her cousin works in admission at the University of Southern California, but she knows that with her sonís current habits, he has no chance of attending the university. For George to gain admittance to a respected university he needs to have a clean academic record. Ellen frequently excuses Georgeís absences as "sick days", and because she is on the PTA board, she is never questioned. Additionally, she hired an attorney to help hide his DUI charges; another attempt to ensure Georgeís record is offense-free. She promises not to tell Bruce when she catches George smoking in his bedroom, as long as he promises to quit. The more Ellen nags, however, the more George withdrawals. In effect, Ellenís behavior enables George to continue his cycle of deceit and destructive behavior.
Frances feels responsible for her brotherís actions. She feels that if she had tried to introduce him to more of her friends in high school, he may have stayed on the "right track". When she is home on school breaks, she takes him to museums, and theatre, in the hopes that he will learn to enjoy these recreational activities and choose a healthy lifestyle instead of abusing drugs and alcohol.
George is quiet, and when comforted by his family, he usually mutters under his breath that he will "work on it". He is caught in a vicious cycle. Smoking pot and drinking alcohol lets him relax and forget his current situation, but the more he uses, the more his family nags him. The real reason George partakes in substance abuse is that he feels like a failure compared to his family, and that no matter what he does he is never "good enough". Because he lacks the courage to address these issues in front of his family, his emotional distress is something he has learned to live with.
The Cooper family is experiencing problems not unlike many families in todayís society. George is the "black sheep" of his ultra-successful family, and he acts out his frustration by abusing drugs and alcohol. Deetzís theory of genuine conversation relates to the Cooper familyís situation on a number of levels.
Deetz draws attention to the fact that current ethics of communication are based on 18th century liberal ideas, including individual autonomy. The fact that Bruce agrees with these ideals is portrayed in his tendency to limit the amount of communication he shares with his son regarding Georgeís "problem". Bruce is implicitly communicating to George that George is an autonomous responsible individual who should be responsible for changing his behavior on his own. Bruce is not acknowledging that the role that Mike has taken on in the family system (the "problem child"), has constructed his identity. The Cooper family is connected to the fact that in our society, achievement, and success are highly valued. It is not just the family members who are creating this environment, but they are a reflection of the patterns that already exist in society. Georgeís identity and behavior is a product of his situation rather than being an inherent aspect of his being. When we acknowledge this, Deetz argues, genuine conversation can begin to take place.
The Cooper family is partaking in what Deetz would consider blocked discourse. Specifically, naturalization and topical avoidance come into effect. Naturalization occurs when one view of the subject matter "is frozen as the way the thing is". Bruce naturalizes his sonís substance abuse by telling himself "boys will be boys". It is not a problem that we can do much about; it is natural, and it just happens. No immediate decision needs to be made right now, and nothing needs to be talked about. George will grow out of this phase. Bruceís line of thinking is preventing genuine conversation to take place. The familyís view of George is being frozen as "just the way that he is". Deetz might say that George has been " Ďsilencedí " by his familyís perception of him.
An additional form of blocked discourse exhibited in the Cooper family exists in topical avoidance. Topical avoidance refers to when certain things are "just not discussed". Deetz provides the example of no religion or politics at family gatherings to illustrate this discursive practice that blocks genuine conversation from occurring. Certain things are just not open for discussion in the Cooper family. Georgeís problem is a taboo topic Ė it is avoided and usually closed for conversation. The family seems to be under the impression that it will work itself out on its own. This topical avoidance leads to systematically distorted communication among the Coopers. Not only are interactions structured so that important issues that need to be discussed are left out, but also Georgeís internal state probably already experiences the exclusion. He knows that while the family talks about the recent movie they saw last week, they are thinking about George and his substance abuse. He can feel them avoiding the issue, but because it is not a matter to be discussed he cannot do anything to resolve the discomfort he feels.
For successful interpersonal interactions to occur in the Cooper family, the conversation needs to be reopened. I would suggest metacommunication as the most fitting method. Metacommunication entails openly discussing the blockage Ė engaging in a conversation about why the conversation is going badly. The "Cooper system" makes openly discussing the blockage that is occurring in their family difficult. George is reluctant to bring his problems to the table for discussion for two reasons. He is confident that each family member will engage in their usual method of "fixing him", which he knows will send him straight to his room to take another hit of marijuana, or to down two or three more beers to relax. George also struggles with the idea of confronting his family because although they are indirectly causing his substance abuse, he does not want them to feel guilt for his current situation. He does not know how to tell his family that they are partly to blame for his drinking and smoking, without hurting them at the same time. Bruce, Ellen, and Frances tend to avoid discussion because they feel Georgeís problem will "fix itself". Although confronting the blockage will be difficult for all members of the Cooper family, without engaging in metacommunication, Georgeís habits could potentially become more serious, even life threatening. Seeking the aid of a therapist may be a crucial step in openly discussing what is happening behind closed doors in their "picture perfect" family. Their conversation will involve a reflection of the interactional patterns they have partaken in thus far, and potentially allow for an engagement in discourse about the stoppage itself.
Deetz (2006) he states that interactions based on joint decision-making and the diversity of interest of those involved are of greater value than conversations where the goal is aimed at greater understanding. If Stanley Deetz was the Cooperís familytherapist, he would most likely make it clear that the goal for the session does not involve George understanding that he is wrong and that his family is right. Deetz would stress the importance of exploring each family memberís differences, engaging in a discussion as to how each family memberís feelings are valid, and attempting to jointly make decisions regarding how to alleviate some of the emotional distress that the family is experiencing. Similarly Deetz would stress that "maintaining conflicts and differences as a positive energy toward creativity" is more important than seeking complete agreement and common ground. Rather than assess their differences as negative, if the Coopers actually see each family memberís identity as unique and valid, they may be better able to help George stop abusing drugs and alcohol. For example, in their therapy session, George might learn that both his parents grew up with absent parents themselves, and by pressuring him to study, apply to a university, and possibly major in prestigious subjects such as law or medicine, they are showing that they care about him and his future, compassion that was not shown to them by their own parents during their own youth. Conversely, Ellen and Bruce might learn that their son has always had a passion for film making, but when they dismissed his inquiry about attending junior college after high school to take film classes as "nonsense", they were rejecting the one thing that George considered himself to be good at. When they let the subject matter guide their conversation rather than coming to a black and white consensus, they are able to engage in a learning process that may result, for example, in a compromise where Georgeís parents agree to let him enroll in junior college after high school if he attends AA meetings twice a month. This "positive energy toward creativity" has enabled the Coopers to break down their walls, and rebuild the close relationships that deep down, each member seeks.
A critique of Deetzís theory on genuine conversation may be rooted in the rhetorical tradition of communication (R.T. Craig, lecture, September 21, 2006). His theory falls under the phenomenological tradition of communication, which defines communication as oneís experience of others, and defines communication problems as those that lack genuine dialogue. Anything that interferes with open conversation is considered a problem in the phenomenological tradition of communication. The rhetorical tradition of communication defines communication as the practical art of discourse and considers communication problems to arise during situations that require speech. Deetzís theory says that genuine conversation is not about arguments that are planned in advance, but more about what seems to be the right thing to say at that moment, given what youíve been talking about. From the rhetorical point of view, phenomenology, and therefore Deetzís theory is a "touchy-feely" idealized way of thinking about communication. Deetzís theory fails to highlight the artfulness of communication. Deetzís emphasis on allowing oneself to be conducted by the subject matter could lead to chaos and heated emotions. Rather, "skillful" communication that is well thought out and pre-planned leads to "good" or meaningful conversation. If we do not skillfully craft our arguments, it may be that hormones are leading the conversation more than the subject matter. If a conversation marked by openness where no one knows in advance what is going to come out of the process, it is likely that the exchange could turn sour within five minutes resulting in everyone leaving the table. It is hard to justify that this is considered "successful" communication according to Deetz. Especially when it comes to sensitive subjects such as race or religion for example, statements that are not thought of in advance, even if only momentarily, could cut conversations short. Had the participants followed their thoughts and conscience rather than the subject matter, they have been able to engage in a thought provoking and rewarding conversation.
An additional critique focuses on the ethics component of Deetzís theory. As aforementioned, Deetz suggests that the current principles of communication are based in the western enlightenment tradition. He does not believe that "good" communicators are individuals who express their ideas and interests allowing them to produce information that enables rational decisions, but rather that these individuals, and their ideas, interests, and information are socially produced within the communication systems they partake in. If this is true, then Deetz is asserting that we do not "own" our identities. His theory likens humans to products with little or no agency, and this is a disheartening idea. If we have no control over our own identities, then the issue of personal responsibility can be called into question. If we are merely products of the systems that we engage in, the idea of personal responsibility shifts from the individual to the communication situation. This shift in accountability may cause people to stop caring about their lives. If every aspect of our being is only a result of a greater force, then what is the point in attempting to lead a meaningful life? It is as if Deetz is equating people to pieces in a game where movement is controlled by an outside force, and options regarding whether to "advance" or square or two squares on the game board are determined by the rolling of a dice.
An elaboration of the critique in regards to the idea of humans as "products" may focus on how Deetz might account for biological disorders. Individuals with profound psychological disorders such as schizophrenia (characterized by diminished ability to sense reality) may be in a lesser position to be influenced by society than individuals who possess a more "normal personality". For example, living in a capitalist society versus a communist society may not shape the identity of someone living with a biological disorder that disables them from interpreting reality from fantasy. Deetzís theory assumes that every individual in every system is merely a result of that system, but what if the psychological disorder is so profound that the person is not even aware that they exist in society at all? The more profound oneís level of psychological disorder is, the less likely their identity will be shaped by outside influences. Because Deetz would probably argue that even DNA is socially constructed, biological questions cannot be answered in his theory.
This critique of Deetzís theory is by no means an attempt to disprove its soundness, or invalidate his ideas. His theory on genuine conversation is enlightening in that it asks interactional participants to essentially break down any walls that may hinder authentic communication. If we allow our interactions to have the quality of openness, unanticipated interactions will result in the process of conversation that no one may have expected. By focusing on the subject matter, no one knows in advance what is going to come out of the conversation, but we have to be open to what the conversation will produce. When we break down these walls, and allow ourselves to be "guided by the subject matter" rather than individual opinions and interests, we are not merely expressing fixed position that they are not open to thinking about, but we are trying to contribute to the discussion commonalities that the group shares. Many interpersonal relationships could be enhanced if they incorporate Deetzís theory into their communicative practices.
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