Saturday Soliloquy: Communication

I’m teaching, in a homeschool co-op, The Art of the Argument. Simply stated, it is a prep course for learning formal debate techniques. My students are looking forward to putting what they’ve learned so far into practice, which we will do in the second semester.

There is a long list of fallacies that we all tend to use in communication with others, not just in debate, but in every-day communication. For instance, ad hominem tu quoque, known in casual terms as the “whataboutyou” fallacy, (Tū quoque, for “you also”) is a discussion technique that intends to discredit the opponent’s argument by attacking the opponent’s own personal behavior and actions as being inconsistent with their argument, therefore accusing hypocrisy. (ad hominem, by the way, means to the man.)

For example, a person who is not a stellar student tries to give studying advice to someone else, and he is quickly shot down with “Well, you’re no shining example. How can you tell me how to study when you don’t do it yourself?” The advice may be quite good, but it is discredited by attacking the advisor’s personal behavior.

Put into day-to-day conversation, here’s an example of how this works in relationship–marital, sibling, co-worker, etc.

“Susie, I noticed you didn’t clean out the microwave in the lunchroom after you used it to warm up your spaghetti. There’s a mess in there, and you made it. You should go clean it up. And next time, cover your food before turning on the microwave,” sniffs a conscientious co-worker.

Offended by her tone, Susie says, “Okay, I forgot to clean it up. But YOU always leave your coffee mug in the sink and expect someone else to wash it for you. I also notice that YOU never put a new roll of toilet paper on the spindle when you use up the old one. How can you scold ME when you do the same things yourself? Mind your own business!”

The result, of course, is ill will between these co-workers and a continuing lack of ordinary courtesy to others who use the same facilities.

How could this situation have been addressed and resolved without contention? Maybe it couldn’t be, I don’t know for sure. These types of small irritants can snowball if not everyone cooperates with keeping things running smoothly, and before you know it, there is a small civil war in the office with people taking sides and scouting for failure on the opposing team.

I would suggest, though, that the “conscientious co-worker” could have left her self-righteous attitude behind. Saying nothing is often better than saying something with a sneery, supercilious attitude. She came off like a mother correcting her child. Or maybe Susie could have just shrugged it off, saying, “Yes, I did forget. Thanks for the reminder.” Too often, we feel we need to defend ourselves, or point out that the critical person is no better than we are. There is way too much sub-text that gets interpreted, misinterpreted, or just plain assumed.

The tu quoque fallacy is just one of many ways we fail to communicate with each other. Most of these fallacies are based in an effort to come out on top. If that is going on in any of your relationships, it would be a good idea to step back and do some honest self-examination. And we need to listen to ourselves in conversations. Most of us are terrible buttinskis. We don’t think we are. We tend to think it is everyone else who butts in, and we never do.

We need to learn to listen to actually hear and understand, not just to rebut, argue, or contradict.

A really good tool for improving communication is called Active Listening. You can google it. Or just go here:

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