The Language of Democracy

9 Jul

This is a short blog on communication skills. Previously I had written a blog on how compromise is fundamental to the workings of a democracy and that blog was ‘inspired’ by a discussion I had with some Italians who were students in my English lesson. Recently, I had another discussion with students which prompted my writing this blog.

To explain: in my teaching English as a Second Language I make the point that to have good communication skills one must know not only correct grammar, vocabulary, intonation, pronunciation, etc., but also know how a culture uses the language. In short, what is seen by a specific culture as good communication skills? Now, this is a very interesting topic in itself (I taught a university course on ‘Cross-Cultural Communication’) but in my less intensive ESL classes, I bring to students an awareness of the model of assertive communication. While I clearly understand that assertiveness is not a model that all cultures have adhered to (e.g., Asian and Native American) in English speaking countries, esp. the business world (many of my students are learning English for business purposes) – but not only – assertiveness is seen and taught as a viable method of fostering clear communication, improving problem-solving and goal achievement, and reducing conflict between co-workers. Also, as a clinical psychologist, who did a lot of couples/marital therapy, I also used the assertiveness model to foster clearer and less problematic communication skills between my clients.

So, in one ESL lesson, we were talking about some basic principles of the assertiveness model:  Assertive communication is effective communication. It’s how to deal confidently and successfully with the people around you. Assertive people feel in control, they achieve win-win outcomes in any interpersonal transaction. They make their point persuasively whilst supporting the opinion of others. They build co-operation within a team and between teams. Assertive people communicate self-respect AND respect for others. When we are assertive we communicate what we want or prefer. We state our preference clearly and confidently without making ourselves or others look small, without being threatening or putting others down. This results in open, more genuine relationships. The four types of communication are aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive and assertive.

As we talked, one of my students said, “This is the language of Democracy.” Surprised by this spontaneous comment, I paused and with quick reflection, I said, “Yes, you are right” but we didn’t have time to take the comment up for a discussion. The next day, upon reflecting on this comment, I had to agree again with it. As I wrote in another blog, ‘What Are the Necessary Conditions of Democracy’, democracy requires ‘a political culture of negotiation, compromise, accommodation, and a willingness to lose. It is widely recognized as essential to democratic stability. Especially important here is the argument that democracy institutionalizes a means of nonviolent conflict resolution- – -the willingness to negotiate, compromise, and debate, rather than fight.’ R.J.Rummel

So, it is evident that effective and clear communication is also a necessary condition for a well-functioning Democracy. So my student was correct, the description of assertive communication above certainly fits the bill. Often political discussions in Italy, as well as other democratic countries, can degenerate into name-calling with no reasonable debate on the issues. When they do, the discussions no longer follow the guidelines of assertive communication; both, in the intent or desire for a political culture of negotiation, compromise, accommodation, a willingness to lose and also, the use or knowledge of the specific assertive communication skills. The desire and knowledge of good communication go together for successful communication necessary for a democracy. Without the desire for a ‘win-win’ situation as well as a functional knowledge of good communication skills, the functioning of dialogue about concerns, negotiation, and debates will rapidly break down into poor communication and confusion and deadlock. Therefore, I suggest a public interest group, in all democratic countries, form to do a continuing evaluation of how well politicians communicate in an effective assertive manner.

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