Sunday, December 24, 2006

Practicum: Listening

Practicum: Listening
Deviant Survival Guide
Copyright 2006 by drewkitty

I'm going to get into a bit of communications theory here.

There is always one form of communication that requires neither an active listener, nor any communication. Violence. This form of communication has major drawbacks, as it is usually illegal, always dangerous, and can have life-altering or even fatal consequences.


In order to communicate effectively, you have to know how to listen. Any communication is a two way street. Many, many people end up shouting past each other, neither of them listening and few of them understanding.

Also, the deviant has to be better at communicating than the average mundane. A mundane can always rely on the bounds of tradition, custom and common sense to resolve an issue. Deviants often find themselves in special situations where normal customs do not apply or common sense applied to an uncommon event would make matters worse.

In order to figure out how to best communicate with a mundane or another deviant (such as a police officer), the first task is to listen and gather as much verbal and non-verbal information as you can.

Look at the person. Look at their body language. You can pretty much sort them by two categories: the degree to which they are threatened, and the degree to which they are open or closed to communication.

Not Threatened, Closed

  • This person is like the busy subway commuter on the train, or the clerk who says "Next, please" in a bored tone of voice. They are not really there, kind of floating through the situation. They are unlikely to listen or even to notice anything outside their parameters.

Not Threatened, Open

  • A person good at customer service works hard to be in this mode. A friendly concierge, a librarian, a volunteer greeter, etc. They are noticing and listening. Many people can only be brought into this mode by persuading them that it is in their best interest to listen. This is the classic skill of the salesperson, the con artist, and the successful deviant -- to wake people up enough to listen, but not so much that they feel threatened.

Threatened, Closed

  • A good example of this is a protestor at a noisy street demonstration. They are not listening, being too busy with an agenda to push. You can also think of a person being harassed by a salesperson. Their body language is jerky and literally closed-up (think of arms crossed). They are not interested in listening, and if they are talking, they are talking "to the world" with no concern about communicating with a particular person.

Threatened, Open

  • Most police officers during a traffic stop are in this mode. So are most criminals who are about to resort to violence. This is a person who has a script for how things are going to go, and if the encounter goes off their perconceived script, they consider violence among their options to get the encounter back on script -- or an escalation in violence they are already using. Notice that they are listening -- but what use they make of the information is likely to be tactical and not driven by higher thought processes. They are particularly prone to mishear . . . a gang member says, "What are you looking at?" and the person says "Uh . . . nothing" in a scared tone. The gang member attacks, because he heard "nothing" in the sense of "not a person" rather than what was meant i.e. "I really don't want you to hurt me, please leave me alone."

Notice that communicating with a person who feels threatened is very, very difficult. So one of the first communications problems is to remove the potential threat from the equation. In verbal judo, a variety of techniques are taught for this.

I will give you one here: keep your distance! With most members of the dominant culture, someone coming into their personal space can't help but trigger threat concerns.

Others include personalizing the situation. Spider Robinson tells about a time when he was in a burned-out neighborhood in New Jersey as a kid, and this huge black guy walked up to him while he was waiting at a bus stop. He was literally terrified and managed to blurt out, "Crosstown bus run all night long?" To which the huge but ultimately nice, likable guy immediately replied "Doo-dah! Doo-dah!" completing the "Camptown Races" song of several decades ago. Both laughed long and loud, and the tension immediately dissolved.

Other ways to personalize are to show empathy, to make a small candid admission ("Yes, officer, I wasn't watching the speedometer that closely.") and to mention friends or family. "My sister is a figure skating fan, too." Evil scumbags are not generally thought of as having sisters.

Small compliments that cannot even be slightly conceived as sexual are often very helpful.

One of the phrases I often use at work is "Wow, that's a really nice [prohibited object]." This opens them up when I have to say the next sentence, "but I'm sorry, cameras are not allowed past the front lobby." In my experience, you can always safely compliment a mother's children, a guy's vehicle or a woman's shoes. If that doesn't work, try commenting on the weather.

Converting a person from closed to open is a whole nother lecture. Any good sales book gets into that at more depth than I can.

Just as you must crawl before you walk, you must listen before you speak.

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