Why Communication is Not the Answer

December, 1999

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Douglas E. Noll

I was recently involved in a case involving a 51 year-old man, call him Aaron, whose truck had been hit from behind. Liability seemed clear enough, but the impact speed was only seven miles per hour. Aaron, through his lawyer, was demanding $310,000. The defendant, represented by her insurance company-retained lawyer, had offered much less. Neither lawyer thought the case could settle because of Aaron’s intractability.

I spent over two hours with Aaron, listening to his story, asking questions, but never challenging him. What I learned was that Aaron, like so many people, was a frustrated, isolated, lonely human being. Until my conversation with him, no one had really taken the time to listen to him. Aaron, in my opinion, typified the life experience of many, if not most, people.

I often hear people say that conflict is caused by poor communication. Improve communication skills, they say, and that will resolve the conflict. In my opinion, this is too simplistic. Communication is not enough to transform conflict. Here’s why.

Our culture is extraordinarily individualistic, which has benefits, but also carries a heavy cost. We have experienced from early childhood a pain generated by our abandonment of our fullest potential. We accepted this pain in exchange for our parents’ recognition and love. They felt terrible about themselves, tried to hide those feelings from themselves, were angry, and ultimately made us feel guilty about our anger at them.

Lacking memory of the source of our anger, we began to feel terrible about ourselves. We tried desperately to break through to our parents. We became more and more like them. We even adopted their personalities as our own to capture their love and attention. But we never quite succeeded. We came to feel that our "true" self was not very wonderful or deserving of love.

These dynamics were continued in school, where our feelings were systematically ignored and discounted. We were increasingly trained to see ourselves as deserving to be whatever we were told we were to be. Finally, we came to work situations, hopeful we could make a difference and be important. We learned soon enough that we were not important. Work was not fulfilling. We were taught that we had shaped our own reality through our own merit or lack of merit. And while we nurtured fantasies of finding deeper fulfillment with the man or woman of our dreams, we increasingly became aware of how personal life was not working. This became a final confirmation of our own failures, which we "knew" we really deserved.

In the culture we experience, every personal contact is an opportunity for our supposed inner awfulness to show through. What should be most satisfying, our connections to other people, makes us anxious. We distance from each other out of fear. We distrust each other. And we experience each other's distancing as a confirmation of our own worst fears of ourselves.

Couple this with the competitive environment imposed upon us at school, work, and even at home, and we have a society of people feeling very lonely. This loneliness leads to shame, because other people don’t seem to have this same feeling. They all look happy and secure, don’t they? Shame leads to self-blame; "This is all my fault." Finally, on those occasions when we are overloaded, we lash out. We blame others for all of our frustrated unhappiness.

Out of this cultural stew, conflict is born. People, ashamed of themselves, are frustrated at their lack of personal meaning They are unhappy because their relationships are unfulfilling. When they are offended or victimized, even in slight ways, an excuse for the anger, frustration, and isolation arises. What better way to "get back" at everyone than to call a lawyer, and file a lawsuit, "I’ll show them!"

Communication alone will not solve these conflicts. First, people are afraid to state their true feelings, desires, fears, and concerns. They are afraid true expressions will show them to be weak. They are afraid that their true expressions will be exploited against them. Their fear leads them to frustration and anger. They blame others for a life situation they neither desired nor asked for.

Understanding this dynamic is a key to peacemaking. People have a need to be listened to and respected. No matter how outrageous their claims, they must be heard. Respect does not mean capitulation to unreasonable or unrealistic, demands, but acknowledgment that behind the claim an injured, lonely person exists.

Aaron agreed to settle his case for a little more than the insurance company had initially offered. The settlement was fair and reasonable. However, it only occurred because Aaron realized the basis for his frustration. He finally separated the true value of his injury from a lifetime of hurt.

The Way of the Peacemaker: Communication is not enough. Recognize how our culture creates frustration, anger, and loneliness and acknowledge the other person’s essential humanity. 

Douglas E. Noll, Esq. is a lawyer specializing in peacemaking and mediation of difficult and intractable conflicts throughout California. His firm, Douglas E. Noll and Associates is based in Central California. He may be reached through his website www.nollassociates.com and email at doug@nollassociates.com

© 1999, Douglas E. Noll


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