If you were to do an Internet search on “effective communication,” you would discover that there is a plethora of advice available, not a small portion of which is offered for a hefty fee. There are programs focusing on developing skills and resorting to techniques for the business world, for marriage, for the health services sector, for dating couples, etc. The focus of these techniques is generally on achieving a desired result through effective listening and awareness of verbal and nonverbal cues from your interlocutor. What these programs have in common is a premise that communication is at root, a means to achieving some end. This is not surprising, but it could just be the root cause of our manifold miscommunication, spinning, lies, manipulation and dissimulation.
In a previous post, we discussed the danger of mistaking fruits for ends. One might argue that this is a primary problem with our presupposition about communication, a problem that perhaps contributes to the market for all of this varied communications advice. The first hint that there might be a problem with this unspoken premise and that communication may just be an end rather than a means comes from noticing the etymological origin of the word. “Communication” traces its origin back to the Latin verb communicare, which means literally “to make common,” in other words, to join, to unite, to participate in, to share, etc. Forming a communion of persons is the end of every person; it is what we are made for.
A Trinitarian understanding of the human person reveals that the ultimate end of every human person is a communion of love with God, the fruit of which is a simultaneous communion with those in union with Him. We are made for a communion of authentic love with others as well, and this is what paragraph 24 of Gaudium et spes (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” the final document from the Second Vatican Council) meant when it said that “…man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” Communion is achieved through a gift of self; that is, willing and acting for the perfection of the other.
Communication is not a means to communion; it is (or at least it is intended to be) one manifestation of communion. In communication, we are meant to be giving ourselves to the other in truth and in love, and to receive as much back again from our interlocutor. This is true regardless of the communication, even if the particular way we give ourselves will differ based upon the concrete relationship. However, as with all ends, communication also has a plurality of fruits. Communication allows us to accomplish cooperatively, things we could not accomplish on our own. It is due to this abundant fruit that we are inclined to reduce communication to a means for acquiring its desired fruit but in the process we end up reducing the end, communion with the other—that is the other person himself—to a means. This is something we must never do.
This reduction of the other to a means for getting something from them is a primary contributor to our inability to listen carefully, our inclination to manipulate, to “spin” (read lie), etc., all for the purpose of most efficiently accomplishing our goal. Now it is true that communication is often focused on conveying some idea or some need, but if one’s attitude were to be adjusted such that he was to see each interaction of communication with another as a mutual exchange of persons for the sake of truth and love, which comes with the desired fruit of some mutually accomplished goal perhaps the active listening and attentiveness to the other would somewhat reduce the ubiquitous problem of miscommunication.