Communication Conundrums

Full disclosure: I have no answers. I sometimes have guesses. Guesses are not the same as assumptions or even opinions, as far as I know. If you disagree, please correct me by sending a copy of the dictionary entry of a reputable dictionary. Okay, that’s out of the way.

There are two people, A and B. Here are some examples of how they can try communicating about something. Each example refers to the same situation. At the risk of seeming to set up straw men, these examples must be simple. This is not meant to imply that anyone is right or wrong, smart or not. Rather, this is meant to model what can happen when people try to interact with different ideas about what’s happening.

Example 1 (simple, harmonious)

A: The light in the bathroom was left on.

B: No, it wasn’t.

A: Let’s go check.

B: Looks like I was wrong. Good thing you noticed.

Example 2 (simple, extreme dissonance)

A: I feel the light in the bathroom was left on.

B: No, it wasn’t.

A: How dare you attack my feelings?

B: Let’s go check.

A: You have no respect for me, you B-‘splainer. Now leave me alone. I can’t talk to you if you won’t listen.

Example 3 (subtle, extreme dissonance)

A: The light in the bathroom was left on.

B: No, it wasn’t.

A: Can’t you hear what I’m saying without correcting me? The bathroom light is useful when you’re in there, but it has no use whatever when you leave! If we don’t do something about that, I just won’t be able to handle the rest of the day, or possibly even rest at night…

B: Is this still about the light? It’s off. I could…

A: I’m telling you, it will be on my mind! And I think the manager at the hardware store also doesn’t like me. That’s where we always go for light bulbs, but now we’ve run out, and it’s just all wrong. We’re wasting what’s left, and…

B: Should I check? I’ll go check.

A: Oh, now I’m so stupid you won’t believe me. That’s right. Just assume I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Example 4 (subtle, mild dissonance)

A: The light in the bathroom was left on.

B: Do you want to talk about it? Or should I go check?

A: Don’t you believe me? I keep finding it on when I walk down the hall, and it seems that someone is always forgetting to shut it off. I worry about things like that all day. …

B: Then I’ll go check. Be right back. … You were right, it was on. I shut it off. Okay?

A: No, it’s not okay. This is becoming a real problem for me. You need to hear me out! I guess I do want to talk about it.

B: Okay, then. Go ahead.

A: …

Example 5 (simple, mild dissonance)

A: I feel the bathroom light was left on.

B: Okay, so…

A: Well, don’t you think that’s important?

B: I don’t think it’s on, but let me check…

A: That’s not the point. It’s been left on a number of times, and I’m fed up with it. It’s just not right that I have to keep shutting it off every time I walk by. How can we live like this? I think we’re even out of bulbs in the closet!

B: Go on.

A: …

What to do?

Hopefully it’s clear that in most of these examples, one person wanted or needed a certain kind of encounter, and the other person didn’t immediately catch on to that. That’s the dissonance. In Examples 4 and 5, person B realized eventually that person A wasn’t bringing up a factual data point for discussion.

When one or both people have some amount of emotional heat built up, how can each person help to ensure that the dissonance is minimized?

Now for my guess. If somehow each person can perceive exactly what sort of encounter is needed or intended by the other, then it will avoid extreme dissonance. It might be as simple as saying, “I need to tell you about something,” rather than saying something that could be taken as an invitation to dialogue. Lacking that, how can the other person detect it? Because if it is not detected, the dissonance will be extreme.

The light bulb example here is a little outdated if we are using LED bulbs, and it may seem decidedly domestic. However, this issue isn’t limited to domestic interactions. It can occur between any friends or colleagues. As I mentioned in the introduction of this post, I don’t have answers. Only guesses. I’d be happy to hear the guesses of others.

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