Deetz's Genuine Conversation and the Problem of Individualistic Group Communication
University of Colorado at Boulder
“Let’s just agree to disagree” These are the fateful words that mar many a successful group interaction. For reasons that on the surface may seem unclear to those involved in the interaction, group members are often content to end a discussion based only on this or any number of similar statements. Stanley Deetz in his “Reclaiming the Subject Matter as a Guide to Mutual Understanding” (1990) and “Systematically Distorted Communication and Discursive Closure” (1992) explores the ethical implications of interpersonal communication as it currently exists. In his deconstruction of our current ethical bases and recognition of the various types of conversational blockage, he aids in the understanding of the need to apply a new alternative ethic that encompasses ideas from the cybernetic, phenomenological and critical traditions while also introducing three methods of reopening conversation. I have found Deetz’s theory to be paramount in analyzing the interaction of a committee on which I serve. The communication problems faced by this group are multifaceted and complex. In examining the communication problems present in this group through Deetz’s lens, the communication problems that are regularly dismissed are instead brought to the forefront. This then has the potential to open the discussion to genuine conversation where the conversational blockages are detected and overcome by the implementation of Deetz’s methods of reopening the conversation.
Summary of the Theory
As he begins “Reclaiming the Subject Matter as a Guide to Mutual Understanding,” Stanley Deetz expresses his concern for the lack of emphasis placed on ethics as pertaining to interpersonal communication. In this vein he develops his theory in which he explains that “nearly all current ethics for communication are based in western enlightenment tradition,” which places its “emphasis on the values and attitudes of the interactants themselves, rather than on any particular form of communication or institutional agreement” (Deetz, 1990, 227). Deetz moves away from the enlightenment's focus on the rights and power of the individual as a basis for ethics and instead encourages focus on the “command of the outside – of the subject matter – as a guide to the formation of the individual and expression.” (Deetz, 1990, 228) In doing so, he solidifies that genuine conversation must revolve around the subject matter rather than the interests of the individual.
Deetz goes on to offer a new ethic in which he creates an amalgamation of three different communication theory traditions. To combat the emphasis on the individual and reliance on the linear model which focuses on the formation and transmission of a message, but “fails to consider how individuals, ideas, interests, and information are socially provided” (Craig, lecture, October 20, 2009), Deetz draws on the cybernetic tradition. Specifically, he follows the interactional view that identities, experience, and information are produced and reproduced in systems of interaction (Craig, lecture, October 20, 2009). He states, “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, 229). This sentiment leads to the imperative shift in which there is a “change from seeing the individual as more or less effective to seeing the interaction as more or less productive” (Deetz, 1990, 230), effectively moving the emphasis from the individual to what the collaborative efforts of the group has the potential to accomplish.
Deetz’s idea of genuine conversation relies on Gadamer’s ontological foundation. Gadamer’s research focused on the shift from “what each person has to say about the subject matter” to “what the subject matter says to each”(Deetz, 1990, 231). In Gadamer’s ideal, genuine conversation, by “removing limitations to their own seeing,” through the introduction of others, “ideally the other will help reveal aspects of the work which enriches one’s own experience” (Deetz, 1990, 231). This genuine conversation can only be experienced when the subject matter rather than the private goals of the individuals guide the interaction. Further drawing from Gadamer, Deetz lays out his basic guiding principle for interaction, “Every communicative act should have as its ethical condition the attempt to keep the conversation – the open development of experience – going”(Deetz, 1990, 232). In other words, an interaction should be approached without a preconceived result in mind by any participating party, making it imperative for every participant to be open to the possibility of a change in their view.
Deetz then shifts his findings to explore the various blockages of genuine conversation that exist in interpersonal interaction. He notes that “good decisions require appropriately distributed information, openness to alternative perspectives, and reasoning based on personal insights and data rather than on authority relations” (Deetz, 1992, 460). The pertinent implication is that there are certain power structures based on members’ inherent authority that prevent the type of good decision making that Deetz describes. It is here that he employs critical theory in his discussion of the basic idea of systematically blocked communication. He discusses that there “may be beliefs and values that are not subject to critical examination. Many of these beliefs and values are maintained precisely because they are not able to be brought to discourse” (Deetz, 1990, 233). This is often due to the fact that because there exists a “dominant cultural group,” other groups are not afforded the same amount of “undistorted expression of their experiences” (Deetz, 1990, 234). This idea manifests itself plainly in Deetz’s concept of freezing the participants. This blockage occurs “any time interactants perform the necessary action of labeling or conceptualizing themselves or other people” (Deetz, 1990, 234); simply, whenever participants label or stereotype the other or work only to maintain their own image. Here lies the intersection of two of the traditions from which Deetz draws his new ethic. Drawing from Buber’s work in phenomenology, Deetz declares that Buber’s idea of “thouness suggests that any possible conception of both self and other is capable of being questioned” (Deetz, 1990, 234), satisfying the phenomenological requirement of experiencing the other as a person rather than objectifying them and the critical requirement of being able to question any label or image.
In addition to freezing the participants, Deetz introduces six “rather quiet, repetitive micro practices” (Deetz, 1990, 236) that he refers to as blocked discourse. Very briefly, (1) disqualification occurs when certain members are excluded from the interaction, thus not everybody has an equal say. (2) Naturalization exists when one person claims that their “conception is what it is” (Deetz, 1990, 236), and therefore it should be accepted as natural therefore there is no choice to be made. (3) Neutralization is a situation when biased information is treated as objective facts. (4) Topical avoidance occurs when participants have certain topics that are simply not discussed. (5) Subjectification of experience often includes the claim that it is a matter of opinion and therefore there is no reason to continue the discussion. Lastly (6) meaning denial occurs when while at the same time a meaning exists but is also denied (Craig, Lecture, October 20, 2009).
Finally, Deetz presents three methods of reopening conversation as a means to overcome blocked communication. The first is through metacommunication in which participants would discuss the nature of the blockages themselves. A second option is Rhetoric. where participants would work to effectively advocate for their position as a means to work against the suppression of opinions. Lastly, conversation can be reopened through strategy. which encompasses means such as political action, symbolic acts, or system disruption which may be necessary to bring about chang. (Craig, Lecture, October 20, 2009).
As was alluded to previously, I serve on a committee that faces many obstacles in achieving genuine conversation. Briefly, this committee functions to distribute large sums of money to programs and organizations that benefit women and children. There are eight people currently serving on the committee. The purpose of the meetings are to bring to the table deserving organizations and deliberate over how to allocate the funds. The following is an exchange that recently occurred between two of the members.
Susan: I propose that we allocate some of the funds to this local organization whose fundraising event I attended last week. It was founded and is to this day run by a group of women whose mission is to benefit women and children around the world. We could entirely fund the training materials they would need to start a second chapter of their organization in another state.
Leslie: You’re just advocating for them because you know one of the founders.
Susan: Actually, according to my research, in the next few decades, women will be in charge of more family money than in any time in history and a foundation like ours, devoted to empowering women and girls should jump at the chance to help women train other women who show an interest in using what they have to teach others to be more philanthropic. Don’t you think? Or do you have a different idea of what this foundation should be trying to accomplish with our resources?
Leslie: Well it looks like we will have to agree to disagree on this point. Besides I have a different organization that I want to give the money to, and because I have been a part of this foundation for many more years than you have I think that most of us will agree I know what best represents our goals.
Inherent in this exchange are multiple factors that keep the discussion from becoming genuine conversation as Deetz would define it. Initially, it is obvious that both Leslie and Susan enter this conversation as individuals with the intention of representing their own view to the best of their abilities. Leslie specifically sees the only successful conclusion to this conversation as a scenario in which her project is fully funded and Susan’s is not, because that is the only way that she as an individual will “win”. Through Deetz’s lens, it is seen that the western enlightenment traditions including the importance of “self-determination as the means to individual fulfillment,” (Craig, 1990, 227) are fully embraced by the participants. Deetz’s theory further provides the insight that until both individuals in this specific interaction and then the group as a whole are able to move towards embracing Deetz’s new ethic of letting the subject matter guide the conversation, they will not be able to break out of this pattern and achieve genuine conversation.
In “Systematically Distorted Communication and Discursive Closure,” Deetz takes this sentiment and expands its implications, in stating that “the pursuit of rational self-interest can actually be displaced by ‘pathology,’ that is by behavior that is logically self-defeating, both from an individual stand point and from the stand point of the organization as a whole” (Deetz, 1992, 462). In this case, the behavior of Leslie has become pathological whereby she, in her staunch advocacy for her own point of view, effectively alienates herself from the rest of the group and by association the organization that she is supporting suffers because of the unwillingness of the group to support her dismissing behavior. This individual defeat is then amplified by the problems caused for the committee as a whole as members were forced to align with either Susan or Leslie for the duration of the meeting, thus effectively polarizing the conversation and rendering genuine conversation impossible because everybody closed off to the idea of open discussion. Once again, Deetz provides the means to recognize that in her efforts to further her individual goals, Leslie is unknowingly sabotaging her own goals and those of the group by eliminating the possibility of open conversation.
Another barrier to genuine conversation only visible through Deetz’s theory is the recognition of the various forms of blocked discourse. Two of these forms apply most directly to this interaction: disqualification and subjectification of experience. In Leslie’s first response to Susan, she excludes her opinion by saying that she “is only advocating for them because she knows one of the founders.” Leslie’s statement functions to “exclude the expressed view from the discussion” (Deetz, 1990, 236) on the basis that just because Susan knows one of the founders of this organization, she is not qualified to speak to the benefit of supporting them. In disqualifying Susan, Leslie “skews the development of mutual understanding” (Deetz, 1990, 236). Whether intentional or not, Leslie is challenging the very foundation of Susan’s knowledge of the topic, thereby calling into question any authority she might have had in the discussion.
Next, when Leslie declares that “we will have to agree to disagree” she is demonstrating subjectification of experience. She says this as her attempt to end the conversation because they had entered into the sphere of personal opinion. Since she entered the conversation seeking only to accomplish her own goals and she had no intention of changing her personal opinion, she saw no further reason to continue this line of discussion. In order to reach genuine conversation, the committee must learn from Deetz that it is this very difference in opinion that “represents a major reason to seriously talk at all”(Deetz, 1990, 238). He goes on to say that “The difference between opinions represents the opportunity to escape from self-blinders and indicates that more is to be learned about the issue” (Deetz, 1990, 238). If the members of the committee would enter the conversation ready to embrace differences in opinion as a means to further each individual’s knowledge of the topic, this difference of opinion could be the beginning rather than the end of a discussion.
This committee has much to gain by employing Deetz’s methods of reopening conversation. Susan clearly attempted to use rhetoric as she tried to “pose another possible position” (Deetz, 1990, 239), one based on facts and research, rather than her personal relationship as she was accused of. Rather than freezing her out of the conversation by objectifying her as nothing more than a roadblock in her efforts to procure money for her own group, if Leslie would have recognized Susan as a person, and engaged in the discussion about the goals of their foundation as Susan suggested in her rhetoric, both women might have gained important insight into the thought process of the other. I think the most effective method of reopening conversation for this interaction would be through metacommunication. Deetz states, “When agreement on the matter is impossible, the warrants must be raised to examination” (Deetz, 1990, 239). It is clear that as long as the members of this group see the goal as securing the most money for their own organization, genuine conversation will never materialize. They must first pull back and realize that their individual goals are negatively impacting the potential of the group. In an open discussion of the goals of the organization and the type of communication necessary to achieve these goals, this committee has the potential to open up and achieve genuine conversation.
Deetz’s theory, when applied to this communication problem is extremely effective in the sense that it illuminates the root of the problem. The greatest benefit to examining this particular problem through Deetz’s lens is demonstrated when he says “two individuals can each do good and reasonable things and yet participate in a pathological and what might be call[ed] unethical system” (Deetz, 1990, 228). In their attempts to advocate for the organizations that they each felt best represented the goals of the foundation, both Susan and Leslie were working for an admirable cause. Deetz’s theory of genuine conversation provides the essential insight that in order to fix this problem it is the very nature of what they consider a success that must change. Rather than focusing on each individual member reaching success by allocating funds to their choice organization, the focus should be on letting the topics and organizations brought up in the meeting guide the conversation to a situation in which the funds are used to their full potential to help the maximum number of people, whether this includes giving funds to their choice organization or not. In opening themselves up to the possibility of experiencing genuine and open conversation, this committee has the potential to reach agreements and solutions that none of the individual members could have imagined before experiencing the collaborative efforts of the group. This can only be achieved if the members enter the discussion without a clear idea of how the interaction should conclude. Through Deetz’s theory, the members of this committee have the opportunity to recognize and attempt to avoid situations in which their conversation is blocked. In addition, they will have the skills to implement Deetz’s methods of reopening the conversation in such a manner that most effectively helps them to shed their individual goals and recognize that they are working for the good of the group and in turn will accomplish far more.
Despite the many obvious benefits of applying Deetz’s theory to this troubled interaction, there exist limitations in its scope. In my efforts to analyze this communication problem, I found it necessary to turn to Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson’s “Some Tentative Axioms of Communication” for further insight. While Deetz does draw from this work in his discussion of systems of interaction, I find that his theory would benefit from a further discussion of the factors that lead to the homeostasis experienced by this and many other groups. In his discussion of the means by which it is possible to reopen communication Deetz fails to fully expand on the inherent difficulties in applying the methods because of the tendency of a group to persist while maintaining the status quo. Of the five axioms presented by Watzlawick et al., the understanding of this communication problem can be enhanced by examining it through one specifically, the idea of the punctuation of the sequence of events. At the conclusion of this particular meeting both Susan and Leslie were left with harsh feelings towards the other. Watzlawick et al’s concept of punctuation leads to the insight that there are no beginning or ending points to communication. This experience will color any and all future interactions between these two participants and the group as a whole. Susan will likely perceive Leslie as out to get her every time they do not see eye to eye while Leslie will see Susan as a dissident who refuses to accept her view of the way things should be. Even if they are able to employ one of Deetz’s methods of reopening communication, they are unlikely to face the fact that by placing blame on the other for their distorted communication they are justifying their own actions as just a response to the other. They will never be able to acknowledge the role that they are individually playing in the persistence of this communication problem, meaning that the true nature of the problem will remain unaddressed. This is turn contributes to the group's tendency to exist in a state of homeostasis, and observing through the lens of Watzlawick et al. could help this committee to see why it is so hard to change their interaction patterns (Watzlawick et al., 1967). So while Deetz’s theory illuminates the basic foundation of this committee’s communication problems, it omits a thorough discussion of the difficulty of breaking out of a pattern of behavior.
Deetz’s theory provides this committee with a framework through which to recognize and analyze the communication problems that plague its productivity. Beyond aiding in identifying the various forms of blockage and other communication problems Deetz is able to provide methods through which the group members can advocate for their opinions while remaining open to the possibility of new understandings being created through collaborative and open discussion. Through an understanding of the main principles which guide this theory Susan, Leslie, and the rest of the committee gain an awareness of their individual ethical foundations and the potential for these to distort the success of the interaction of their committee as a whole. They benefit from the findings of this theory as they now have the tools they need to reopen their communication and emerge with a better understanding of each other and the subject matter at hand. Though Deetz’s theory does provide enlightenment into many aspects of this particular communication problem, it is held back by a lack of a fuller analysis of the tendency of patterns of communication to maintain the status quo. Therefore, the analysis of this problem is aided by an exploration of Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson’s theory on the five axioms, specifically by the axiom regarding the punctuation of interaction. Through the understanding and application of this theory, this committee has the potential to create an environment where disagreements do not automatically lead to miscommunication and the end of the discussion, but instead open the door to a genuine, engaging and open conversation where all opinions and points of view are heard and considered.
Deetz, S. (1990). Reclaiming the subject matter as a guide to mutual understanding: Effectiveness and ethics in interpersonal interaction. Communication Quarterly, 38, 226-243.
Deetz, S. A., (1992). Systematically Distorted Communication and Discursive Closure. In R. Craig & H. Muller (2007), Theorizing Communication readings across traditions (457-471). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.
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 (pp. 48-71). New York: W.W. Norton & Company