University of Colorado at Boulder
We are continuously communicating with other people. Everyday, whether we are talking with our best friend about our latest love life catastrophe, ordering a tall soy sugar free hazelnut latte from the local Starbucks, or discussing our incomplete paper with our professor (I swear my computer crashed, again), communication is an inevitable and necessary part of our lives. Yet, how often in these daily discussions are we truly engaging in genuine dialogue? Communication theorist Stanley Deetz presents the theory of genuine conversation that is critical to reaching a true understanding with another person and allowing us to communicate most effectively.
The theory of genuine conversation arose from S. Deetzís disagreement with the current western ethics for communication. Deetz believes the ethics in place put too much emphasis on the individual and fail to place enough weight on ethical concerns with the social system as a whole (Deetz, 1990). His beliefs are based on Gadamerís ontology of understanding, the ideal that genuine conversation is "a special interaction among two persons and the subject matter before them" (Deetz, 1990, p. 231) and that genuine conversation is the "fundamental way all understanding happens" (Deetz, 1990, p. 232).
Deetz feels that it is more important to look at the "social production of knowledge, experience, and identity" (Deetz, 1990, p. 228) than to look at what they are expressing. This idea of focusing on the communication system can be seen in the idea that an individualís potential can only truly be formed in discourse as it is limited by human potential as a whole. Deetz claims that it is not necessary to agree on a specific outcome but rather to have a conversation that is productive and where meaning can be shared.
Deetz argues that this idea, where mutual understanding is created in the process of communicating, is the key to genuine conversation (Deetz, 1990, p. 231). In "Reclaiming the Subject Matter as a Guide to Mutual Understanding", mutual understanding is defined in conversation when "openly formed agreement regarding the subject matter (is reached)Ö rather than the agreement of the perspective of the participants" (p. 231).
He argues that it is difficult to engage in genuine conversation as there are many different obstacles that can block discourse from occurring. This can occur if people engage in any of the following actions: disqualification, naturalization, neutralization, topical avoidance, subjectification of experience, or meaning denial. All of these are systems of interaction that tend to maintain themselves unless considerable action is taken to overcome them. Deetz presents the idea of reopening conversation as a way to reengage in genuine dialogue and lists three different ways this can be accomplished (Craig lecture, March 13, 2008). Blockage can be overcome through the use of metacommunciation, rhetoric, and strategy.
An example of a scenario where Deetzís theory could be employed is the following:
Becca and her friend Nicole are gossiping about Suzie, a classmate who is nominated for prom queen.
There are several problems arising in this interaction that prevent it from becoming genuine conversation. First, both Becca and Nicole come into this conversation with preconceived ideas and stereotypes. This makes it nearly impossible for them to engage in open conversation and difficult to create a mutual understanding of one another.
All six blocks listed earlier are present in this conversation and stifle it from evolving. The first conversation block that can be seen is meaning denial. Meaning denial occurs when a statement is presented in an ambiguous manner and the receiver of the message interprets it in a way that is then denied by the sender (Deetz & Radford, 2007). This occurs when Becca comments on Suzieís popularity. Nicole responds that she thinks Suzie is fun and nice. Becca denies that that she ever implied that she wasnít.
The next block occurs when Becca discusses how the most popular girl is voted prom queen. This is an example of naturalization. Becca presents her idea as a fact. The idea that the popular girl is prom queen is seen as fixed and enduring when Becca says "Thatís the way itís always been."
Neutralization can also be seen in this example when Nicole states that she thinks Suzie will make the perfect queen. Neutralization occurs when you take something that is value-laden and treat it as if it an objective fact (Deetz & Radford, 2007). Nicole attempts to make this fact appear neutral, when really we can see that this is not the case. We are not sure if Nicole is really going to vote for Suzie, in fact, we get the impression that she may be saying this just to spite Becca.
The forth block to genuine conversation presented is disqualification. Becca is disqualifying Nicoleís opinion when she calls Nicole unpopular. In high school, how important your opinion is can be seen as a direct reflection of how popular you are. By Becca telling Nicole she is not popular, she is diminishing the weight of Nicoleís opinion.
Nicole then hits the next two blocks, subjectification of experience and topical avoidance, with her last remark in the dialogue. Nicole says that she can vote for whoever she wants to. Nicoleís statement that her vote is her choice is subjectification of experience. Becca has no place to contest this idea. The sixth block, topical avoidance, immediately follows. Nicole announces the end of the conversation and this makes it impossible for Becca to try and continue the conversation.
There is a way to reopen this conversation, however, it will require hard work and an acknowledgement of the conversation blocks that exist. Deetz acknowledges the concept of metacommunication as a possible way of reopening the conversation. In metacommunication you discuss the blockage present and reflect on the interaction. This is often difficult because many of these topics are uncomfortable to talk about. If Nicole and Becca were to discuss all the blocks present in their conversation they may be able to overcome them.
Rhetoric is another way that you can reopen a genuine conversation. Rhetoric is the "effective advocacy of a position" (Craig lecture, March 13, 2008) with the attempt of overcoming discursive blockages. An example of how this could accomplished above is if Nicole attempts to persuade Becca to move past the popularity stereotype. Becca could consider this and this could open the pathway to a real conversation.
The third way to overcome these blocks is through the use of strategy. It might be necessary to act in a strategic manner to effect a change and bring about a genuine conversation. An example of strategy might be Becca telling Nicole she wonít go with her to the mall that weekend if they donít continue the conversation. This is an action that may convince Nicole to reopen the dialogue. After this they may be able to objectively look at the situation and form a genuine dialogue.
I feel that Deetzís theory of genuine dialogue is an effective way to view our daily interactions. By creating an awareness of the things that prevent genuine conversation from occurring, we are more likely to avoid these blockages. When we look at the reasons that prevent Becca and Nicole from having a genuine conversation, the importance of Deetzís theory becomes clear. It is impossible to grow and expand your horizons if you are not willing to engage in a conversation which can lead to mutual understanding. By recognizing the steps we need to take to reopen conversation, we may be able to reshape a conversation and make it more meaningful.
One weakness I see with Deetzís theory, however, is the idea that genuine conversation is always necessary. Genuine conversation requires a great deal of energy and thought, and this does not always seem practical. If I am speaking to the cashier at the gas station, I will most likely not take the time to create a mutual understanding with them. I do not believe that this will take away from the importance of the conversation. This is still a necessary and important conversation for me to have, as I need to pay for my gas, yet it will not lead to genuine dialogue. In the example above, it might not make sense for Becca and Nicole to engage in genuine dialogue either. To them the ritual act of mindlessly gossiping might play an important role in their relationship. This may be something they do to create a bond and connect with one another, even though it is a superficial conversation (Craig lecture, January 24, 2008).
Overall, I feel that genuine conversation is a very important theory and one that contributes significantly to our interpersonal communication. Deetzís theory of genuine conversation helps us to understand how to we can have truly open dialogue. Engaging in mutual understanding helps us to better understand the subject matter we are discussing and to grow through interaction. By addressing the blockages present in our conversations and reopening dialogue, we are able to have genuine conversation. Genuine conversation can help us to improve our interpersonal relationships and may improve the level of understanding we reach with those we interact with.
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. & Radford, G. (2007). COMM2400: communication and society. Unpublished.