A Tumultuous Relationship:
As Explained Through Deetz’sTheory of Genuine Conversation
University of Colorado at Boulder
Sadly, the highly romanticized and picturesque vision of father and daughter does not fit in with my life. “You are just a child,” “I am the parent and that’s how it is” …These are the statements that define my communication with my father. While some might claim that these statements are a reflection of normal adolescent parent-child conflict, however, to this day my relationship with my father remains quite tumultuous. While I have always felt loved by my father, we have never been able to genuinely communicate, understand one another or reach consensus.
Communication theorist Stanley Deetz offers a distinguished ethic of communication that serves as a helpful lens to view my turbulent relationship with my father. Deetz’s alternative ethic, which is established in his article "Reclaiming the Subject Matter as a Guide to Mutual Understanding," emerged as a result of his sentiment that current ethics, which are predominately founded in traditions of western enlightenment, are deficient (Deetz, 1990, p. 227). He asserts that they are limited in that they are founded in ideals, which “fail to account for the ethical concern with social systems and the manners by which personal identity and meaning are formed” (Deetz, 1990, p. 226). In alliance with this notion, Deetz proposes that ethics of communication must move beyond these rigid ideals to consider how individuals, ideas, interests and information are socially produced within interpersonal interaction (R.T. Craig, lecture, October 25, 2007).
Deetz’s vision materialized through inspiration from a collection of previously established traditions. Of greatest influence to Deetz was theorist Hans-Georg Gadamer who proposed that the ideal of communication is genuine conversation, which can be attained through mutual understanding. Genuine conversation is characterized by the allowance of communicative partners to be “conducted” by the subject matter rather than their individual opinions or interests (R.T. Craig, lecture, October 25, 2007). Thus, communication partners do not attempt to control the outcome of the conversation, but rather they mutually are considerate and attentive of the other’s opinion. Additionally, Deetz asserts that we must change our current principal of communication, which focuses on the effectiveness of the individual to focus on the productivity of the interaction (Deetz, 1990, p. 230). Thus, borrowing from Gadamer, Deetz believes that the ideal of communication should not focus on self-expression, which has a goal of personal interest, but rather a “transformation into communion, in which we do not remain what we were” (Deetz, 1990, p. 231). In order to achieve this ideal, Deetz argues that attention must be given to the condition of openness, which provides an opportunity for unanticipated action. Openness is the crux of Deetz’s ethical principal, which asserts that, “every communicative act should have as its ethical condition the attempt to keep the conversation-the open development of experience- going” (Deetz, 1990, p. 232). Hindrances, which prohibit genuine conversation or a “transformation into communion,” must, according to Deetz, be avoided.
According to Deetz genuine conversation can be “blocked” through the presence of various impediments, which serve to restrict conversation. Among these “blockages” is the notion that participants can be “frozen” through the fixation of identities, which occurs through either labeling / stereotyping or the maintenance of images (Deetz, 1990, p. 234). When participants are “frozen” within an unchanging identity, they are unable to “transform” and thus communion and genuine conversation are unattainable. Another medium through which conversation can be blocked is through discursive practices that serve to create “discursive closure” (R.T. Craig, lecture, October 25, 2007). These interaction patterns, according to Deetz, are “repetitive micro practices” which can serve to “divert, distort, or block the open development of understanding” (Deetz, 1990, p. 235). Deetz demarcates the main forms of conversation blockage into six categories, which include disqualification, naturalization, neutralization, topical avoidance, subjectification of experience and meaning denial. These variations aid in understanding how communication can be unethical and ineffective. Deetz offers three solutions through which to overcome these hindrances, which include metacommunication, rhetoric and strategy. These solutions, which allow conversation to be reopened, offer a hopeful insight into how the ideal of ethical communication can be achieved despite obstacles.
Deetz’s understanding of the potential shortcomings within interpersonal communication, specifically his theory of blocked discourse, serves as an enlightening lens to view my communication with my father. I believe that Deetz would explain our tumultuous relationship as the result of participation in an unethical system in which we perpetually experience blocked discourse. This system is formed through our attention to personal interests and our lack of consideration for the other. Further, rather than viewing interaction as a way to gain understanding of one another or as a means for potential productivity we instead view our interactions as a means to push our own agendas. Collectively the characteristics of our style of communication serve to contribute to our unethical system, which restricts the potential for genuine conversation and thus a positive relationship.
Of greatest limitation to our relationship is our continued participation in what Deetz refers to as blocked discourse. Within interaction we assume and maintain rigid parent and child roles or “interpersonal icon” roles, which are protected from scrutiny in what Deetz, calls “identity protection” (Deetz, 1990, p. 235). My father acts as the “leader,” determining the punctuation and outcome of the interaction, whereas I play the opposing role of the “led.” This exemplifies Deetz’s concern that conversation can be blocked if participants are “frozen” in images that are held above examination. These fixed roles, which result in every communication act being ruled and interpreted through this context are problematic as they “distort the systematic expression of each participant” (Deetz, 1990, p. 235). This is evident in our inability to move beyond the rigid confinements of the roles of father and daughter, to actively participate in genuine conversation. To further this problem, we mutually contribute to the reproduction of these images through acts that reinforce these roles. Our unchanging roles greatly contribute to our inability to communicate ethically.
Further problematic to our relationship is our engagement in interaction patterns that block genuine conversation. My father and I consistently partake in two of the patterns outlined by Deetz: disqualification and naturalization. According to Deetz, disqualification is the discursive practice in which individuals are excluded, which as a result thwarts the potential development of mutual understanding (Deetz, 1990, p. 236). This is a frequent occurrence in our relationship and can be seen through statements such as “you are a just a child.” Secondly, naturalization is this process in which one perspective of the subject matter is fixed to represent “the way it is” (Deetz, 1990, p. 236). This is evident through statements such as “I am the parent, and that’s how it is” which block the constitution process from being evaluated or discussed, which leaves conversation blocked. It is apparent through this critical analysis that our communication suffers as a result of not being able to move beyond these blocks within communication.
According to Deetz reopening conversation and moving beyond fixed identities is the only way in which to salvage our communication. By implementing theorist Martin Buber’s concept of “thouness” Deetz asserts that we can eliminate the presence of our fixed identities by questioning the label or image (R.T. Craig, lecture, October 25, 2007). Buber constitutes an I-thou relationship as when the participants truly have “in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation” (Buber, 1955, p. 3). By employing Buber’s elements of thouness such as the basic move of turning towards one another and the narrow ridge communication style, that genuinely considers both the “self and other,” I feel that my relationship would be greatly helped (R.T. Craig, lecture, October 25, 2007). In addition, by utilizing Deetz’s method of reopening conversation, entitled metacommunication, I feel that my relationship could be improved. This strategy works to reopen conversation by openly discussing the cause of blockage, such as why he disqualifies me or naturalizes communication to his perspective. By closely examining and talking about our communication failures, we could hopefully reach a new level of communication.
I believe that Deetz’s theory is valuable as it provides a helpful lens to view every day communication while simultaneously offering solutions to overcome blockages. Personally, I feel that viewing my interpersonal problem through Deetz’s lens has enabled me to understand how communication can be blocked and reopened in order to achieve the communication ideal.
While I feel that Deetz’s ethic of communication is useful, there are certain limitations to his theory, which prohibit my problem from being understood to it fullest potential. The most fundamental restraint of Deetz’s theory is his lack of full investigation into the power relations that control and prohibit genuine conversation. While he understands that acts of power can block conversation as in disqualification, he neglects to fully delve into the power dynamic and relationship itself. Specifically, he ignores why power dynamics are initially implemented and instead focuses on how to avoid them. Additionally, Deetz does not analyze the variations of interpersonal relationships that exist and their effect on the ability to achieve genuine conversation.
By extending Deetz’s ethic of communication by implementing the ideas suggested by authors Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackson I feel that his theory will be more inclusive and additionally will be more helpful in understanding my issue. Watzlawick et al. define two variations of communication relationships: symmetrical which is considered an equal relationship where behavior is mirrored, and complementary, which is represented by an unequal relationship where behaviors interlock (Watzlawick, et al., 1967). The authors maintain that within complementary relationships there is a power dynamic that affects communication as one partner occupies “the superior, primary, or ‘one-up’ position” and the other the “inferior, secondary, or ‘one-down’ position” (Watzlawick, et al., 1967) Further, they suggest a third type of relationship entitled “metacomplementary” that further defines a relationship that is subject to a power dynamic. This relationship, which is greatly reflective of my relationship with my father, exists when one communicative partner lets or forces the other to be in charge of him (Watzlawick, et al., 1967). This concept is critical in further understanding my problem as I feel that the notion of a complementary relationship, which understands the complexity and existence of power dynamics, is a dominant factor in my tumultuous relationship with my father.
My analysis of my interpersonal issue through Deetz’s lens has proven to be greatly insightful and productive to my own personal life and experiences with interpersonal communication.
Buber, M. (1955). Dialogue. In Between man and man, 1-39.
Deetz, S. (1990). Reclaiming the subject matter as a guide to mutual understanding: Effectiveness and ethics in interpersonal interaction. Communication Quarterly, 38, 226-243.
Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J. H., & Jackson, D. D. (1967). Some tentative axioms of communication. In Pragmatics of human communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes, 48-71.