Genuine Dialogue: Stanley Deetz
University of Colorado at Boulder
Communication occurs continually throughout our lives. As the saying goes, 'One cannot not communicate.' Therefore, if we are constantly communicating, it is important that this exchange represent our ideals and values in order to display us as we truly are. We need to eliminate all blockages to effective dialogue and keep communication open. That is why Stanley Deetz's theory on genuine conversation is so important; it allows us to understand what constitutes free and open communication, to see when this is not occurring, and to work towards keeping the conversation open in order to achieve genuine dialogue.
Stanley Deetz's formed his theory on genuine conversation because he believed that the current ethic of communication failed to "account for the ethical concern with social systems and the manners by which personal identity and meaning are formed" (Deetz, 1990, p. 226). The current ethic was based in the western enlightenment tradition, which values liberal ideals including freedom of speech and individual rights. It focuses on a linear-transmission model of communication that accounts for getting a message out, but not collaborative decision making. Deetz points out that "ethics which focus on the realization of the individual's potential fail to see that an individual's potential is limited by collective human potential which can only be formed in discourse" (Deetz, 1990, p. 229). A central problem that S. Deetz (personal communication, April 9, 2007) ran into while forming his new model was "in trying to provide ethical principles which are applicable across contexts and situations" (Deetz, 1990, p. 227).
Deetz's ideas take after those of G.H. Gademer, who contributed greatly to communication theory with his "reconsideration of the nature of human understanding" (Deetz, 1990, p. 231). He focuses on the importance of genuine conversation and emphasizes how it should be a special interaction among both the participants and the subject matter. The dialogue should speak to the participants, and work to "create and recreate a common experience between" them (Deetz, 1990, p. 231). According to Gadamer, all understanding is fundamentally a result of genuine dialogue. Through Gadamer's ideas, we can develop "a basic guiding principle for interaction; an ethical principle based on the very conditions for communicative understanding" (Deetz, 1990, p. 232).
While Deetz gets his main objective from Gadamer, he draws on many traditions to enhance his model of communication. S. Deetz claims that his ideas are most similar to a critical phenomenology model (personal communication, April 9, 2007). This model influenced his ideas by posing the idea of the social construction of experience and the question of power relations. S. Deetz believes that in return, he influenced the phenomenological tradition by bringing the issue of genuine conversation to a deeper level (personal communication, April 9, 2007). He looks very closely at the notion of communication and its dynamics.
Deetz defines genuine dialogue as "the continual social formation of consensus in interaction beyond the intentions and opinions of the participants" (Deetz, 1990, p. 231). In other words, participants should come into a conversation with an open mind and let the subject lead them. They must understand that "individual behaviors take on meaning from their systems function rather than from the speaker's intent or external social conventions (Deetz, 1990, p. 228). Therefore, participants should not enter a conversation knowing what will come out of it, and ideally they should reach an understanding through dialogue that will transform both parties. Therefore, Deetz proposes a new ethic through which we try to judge whether the interaction was effective, not the individual.
An example of a scenario where Deetz's theory could be employed is the following:
The Stark family is going to the movies and the two kids are arguing over which movie to see. Josh is upset because he feels like his little sister always gets what she wants, and shelly is upset that Josh is always so mean and pushy about getting his way.
The problem in this scenario is that Sherry and Josh are not using open communication. Their debate is guided entirely by their individual interests with the subject of the movie serving as nothing more than a pawn that each party uses to try to win. Ideally a conversation should be guided by the subject matter. Shotter and Gergen (1994) refer to the desired interaction, where "the formative influences shaping people's conduct are generated only within a conversational context", as joint action (p. 18). The family should try to start worrying about seeing the interaction as productive, meaning that both parties leave happy. Currently they see the interaction in terms of whether the individuals are effective in displaying their side of the argument and getting their choice of movie or not.
The main problem with the dialogue is that the beliefs and values are not critically examined. "If they were critically discussed many would be untenable, but such discussion is precluded" by discourse blockages (Deetz, 1990, p. 233). Genuine conversation can be blocked in six primary ways, all of which emerge in this dialogue. The first block is known as disqualification. This excludes someone from a discussion for no good reason. People often try to qualify themselves by disqualifying others. Josh did this in the scenario. He used the fact that Shelly is young as an argument for why her opinion should not matter. This is disqualification because being young has nothing to do with your ability to pick a movie.
The second block is naturalization. This takes something that is socially constructed and treats it as if it is a natural part of the world, closing it to discussion. This occurs when Josh argues that they have to see his movie because Jamie said it was better. He acts as though Jamie's opinion is a fact and it is a natural part of the world to take other people's opinions into account when picking a movie, when in fact, listening to other people's opinions when deciding on a movie is a culturally produced phenomenon.
The third block to open discourse is neutralization. This takes something that is value-laden and treats it as if it is unbiased and neutral. This occurs when Shelly comments on how she dislikes Jamie's taste in movies. She states this in an objective way, trying to make it seem like a neutral statement, but we see that it is value-laden when we realize that Shelly does not know Jamie and is really making the comment to try and win the argument with her brother.
The next block, topical avoidance, advantages some things at the expense of others because it does not allow certain things to be discussed. This is not directly shown in the story, because the topic that must be avoided could not be discussed. The fifth block is the subjectification of experience. This is when someone stops a conversation by claiming that their statement is their opinion and can not be discussed further. This happens in the dialogue when Shelly states that she is entitled to not what to see the movie, claiming the feeling as her own opinion that can not be questioned or refuted.
The final block to open discourse is meaning denial, in which a meaning is present in an interaction and the speaker then denies that the meaning received was what they sent. This is increasing in our society as we become more accepting of a pluralistic, "fragmentarily known, and only partially shared social world" in which two interpretations can both be plausible" (Shotter & Gergen, 1994, p. 13). This occurs in the scenario when Shelly denies that she ever said she knew Jamie or his taste in movies. Her denial of sending the message which Josh received is an attempt to save face and stop the conversation from continuing. She can close the conversation this way because he can not convince her that she said and meant something that she denies.
These six conversational blockages "suppress insight into the conflict nature of experience and preclude careful discussion of and decision making regarding the values implicit in experience, identity, and representation" (Deetz, 1990, p. 235). Through being aware of these blockages and trying to work through them, the conversation can be reopened.
Deetz gives three ways to reopen a conversation. The first method is metacommunication. This is the least intrusive form. It involves talking about the blockages. In the above scenario, this could be seen by Sherry asking Josh why he cares so much about what movie they see and what he is trying to accomplish by getting his choice. In order for the metacommunication to be affective, Josh would have to be open and honest, and they could come to a compromise on how to both get what they want.
If this does not work, and Josh is unresponsive to the attempt, the next thing to try is rhetoric; "equated with the tawdry tricks of persuasion" (Shotter & Gergen, 1994, p. 13). This involves an attempt to argumentatively persuade someone to overcome the discourse blockage. Sherry could yell at Josh about how he is always so closed off about his real feelings and how it would help their relationship if they could talk. Hopefully, Josh would give in and talk about the blockages.
If both metacommunication and rhetoric don't work, the most extreme way to reopen discourse is by strategic action. This can involve acts of protest to produce desired conditions that someone can find no other way of getting. In the scenario, Sherry could refuse to talk to Josh until he agreed to discuss their problems.
I like Deetz's theory about genuine conversation because I find it incredibly useful in almost every life situation. In the conversation above, there is one of Deetz's blockages in nearly every exchange. We can look at these blockages and, by being aware of them, reopen conversation through metacommunication, rhetoric, or strategic action. As S. Deetz said, if we are aware of where genuine dialogue falters, we can critically analyze our conversations and get beyond the surface level in order to fix it (personal communication, April 9, 2007). In essence, this is the biggest strength of Deetz's theory; it allows us to see hidden control and power dynamics within what may appear to be open communication.
S. Deetz will admit that the biggest weakness of the genuine conversation theory is the confusing nature of the ideas (personal communication, April 9, 2007). It is hard for people to grasp these ideas because they are used to their everyday conversations with only surface level analysis. It is difficult to look at conversations at the abstract level of critical analysis that his theory requires. Along these lines, Deetz claims that if he had the chance to go back and change his article, "Reclaiming the Subject Matter…," the one thing he would do is add more clarity and examples so the average reader would be able to digest the material easier (personal communication, April 9, 2007). Another weakness is that his theory does not address ideas about power in detail. Instead of looking into these issues and how or why they exist, it tries to set them aside so they do not get in the way of producing genuine dialogue.
Deetz's ideas inspired further investigation and aided writings with similar goals. One example is John Shotter and Kenneth Gergen's article "Social Construction: Knowledge, Self, Others, and Continuing the Conversation." This article is about looking critically at the construction of knowledge and other aspects of life through interactions with others. It says that knowledge and other accounts of reality "originate in the contingent, indeterminate, and historical flow of continuous communicative activity between human beings" (Shotter & Gergen, 1994, p. 14). It concerns "the generation and sustenance of what we take to be human knowledge" (Shotter & Gergen, 1994, p. 3). It is about unconsciously socially constructing a world and having social accountability, which holds us responsible for our role in a conversation. We must be able to determine limitations with our knowledge by looking at our knowledge practices compared to alternative practices and determine what is due to our relationships with one another and what is not. While the two articles differ slightly on details, Deetz, Shotter, and Gergen agree on their main point, that "to study communication… means to study the changes that words can make in the ongoing, practical, dialogical contexts of their contested use" (Shotter & Gergen, 1994, p. 15).
Deetz's theory stands apart from other theories because of its general nature that can be applied to any communication situation. It focuses on an important issue to our society which we rely heavily on; genuine conversation. It derives its ideas from many areas of communication study, including the phenomenological, critical, and cybernetic traditions.
When I asked professor Deetz what important ideas and questions other theories address that his does not, he looked at me surprised. S. Deetz said that there are endless aspects of communication to study and that no document or theory can possible hope to include them within itself (personal communication, April 9, 2007). Therefore, other theories contain a lot of important ideas that he did not even try to cover. He said that other theories do not have ideas in them that he wishes he would have added into his or that his work does not also address. According to S. Deetz, other theories address questions, but none that are as important as the issues that he takes on with his theory (personal communication, April 9, 2007).
Deetz's theory does a good job of analyzing dialogue and discourse blockages. Its general nature allows it to be useful in almost any communication situation. It informs us about free and open communication, so we can see when this is not occurring and use the tactics he suggests to re-open the conversation. He also gives us a way to keep the conversation open through focusing on the subject matter and coming to a mutual decision formed through the interaction and not individual goals brought into the conversation. If the blockages can be overcome and the interaction can be kept open, genuine dialogue can be achieved.
Deetz, S. (1990). Reclaiming the subject matter as a guide to mutual understanding: Effectiveness and ethics in interpersonal interaction. Communication Quarterly, 38, 226-243.
Shotter, J. and Gergen, K. (1994). Social construction: Knowledge, self, others, and continuing the conversation (p.3-33). From S. Deetz (ed.) Communication Yearbook 17. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.