Sunday, July 9, 2017

Communication Breakdown: Process, Role Play, Reality

In my position as a speech teacher, I often include a roleplaying activity early in the course. "Communication Breakdown" presents students with a real-world scenario in which they must create a communication situation that shows interference with the rhetors' ability to communicate effectively. As each group presents their scenario, those at their desks must analyze the communication and offer an explanation about what went wrong. That is, what precluded effective communication? What in the communication broke down? 

Our national communication habits dominate my thoughts. In thinking about current communication acts, I return to the transactional model of communication I first studied in ninth grade. 
This simple diagram of the communication process falls short as a model for the complicated ways we communicate in the 21st Century, which includes online platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snap Chat, and Twitter. 

Understanding that transactional communication defies simple models from the 1970s, an early task I give students--before the aforementioned role play--involves working w/ a group to diagram the communication process. Before completing this task, we often have a breakdown (interference) in communication because students need an understanding of process before they can diagram or illustrate communication as a process

I've tasked students with this activity for many years because I learn a lot about their communication from it. I observe their groups and listen to their presentations. I get a sense of their work ethics, their critical thinking skills, their leadership ability, their creativity, their confidence and self-doubt, the way they interact w/ peers, their ability to  present ideas, etc. 
Student Group example of the Communication Process
In short, I'm getting feedback from students, and this feedback informs my interactions with students. I evaluate students' communication and the level of support they'll need from me as the course progresses. 

Students often think Fundamentals of Communication (the official course name) means they'll give speeches. End of story. As important as learning to construct and present speeches, citizens need effective communication in all its incarnations: 

  • one to one communication (interpersonal communication)
  • one to group communication (interpersonal communication)
  • group to group communication (interpersonal communication)
  • self communication (intrapersonal communication)
For the transactional communication model to work, it must account for 
  • sender
  • receiver
  • message
  • channel/medium (the how of sending a message)
  • feedback
  • interference (breakdowns in communication)
  • encoding 
  • decoding
Of course, up to this point I've offered a simple review of communication, but it's a tweet POTUS sent out July 1 that is at the center of my thoughts these days. 
My use of social media is not Presidential--it's MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL. Make America Great Again! Trump tweeted.

  • Is President Trump's use of social media "Modern Day Presidential"? 
  • Do we make communication great by privileging a one-to-group, 140 character mode over traditional ways past presidents have communicated? 
  • And is this form of communication a return to tradition?
To accept Trump's claim, one must set aside the norms for effective communication that have existed since Aristotle. That is, we must accept the idea that talking "at" rather than "with" rhetors, those who agree and disagree with us, is presidential. Trump's @realdonaldtrump Twitter page shows him following only 45 others on Twitter. Those the president follows fall into three categories: family members; Trump organizations; and right-wing media, with Fox and its talking-heads dominating that list. 

President Trump prefers Twitter to all other modes of communication. His tweets represent a form of one-to-group communication. Yes, many respond to Trump's tweets--myself included--but Trump rarely responds back. Instead, those reacting to Trump's tweets often do so in a string of micro-speeches, what those on Twitter call an "essay" or a "thread." But you'll be hard-pressed to find Trump joining the conversation. 

Rather than using Twitter as a way to communicate "with," Trump uses Twitter as a platform for talking "at." Trump delivers speeches on Twitter, not conversations. His use of Twitter allows him to eschew press conferences and complex ideas presidents traditionally lay out in speeches.

It's no coincidence that Trump did not conclude his time at the G20 summit with a press conference, a form of transactional communication that requires a president to deliver messages and respond to feedback from the press corps, including questions and clarifying comments. It's no coincidence Trump's meeting with Putin included only six people and no recording method. It represents an intentional effort to interfere with communication, to shut down communication. 

Those who understand Twitter as a way to conduct effective communication, also know how to use it both to send and receive ideas; they know how to respond to breakdowns in their communication with one another and to draw others into the discussion to further understanding of ideas. We see this in popular Twitter chats hosted regularly on Twitter. We never see our so-called "Modern Day Presidential" twitterer-in-chief concerning himself with this. 

Those who understand that effective communication is a transactional process unlimited in its modes of sending and receiving messages also know that limiting feedback and promoting interference is neither presidential or great or again. The greatness of America is built on talk that embodies feedback and working through conflicting ideas and reaching compromises. 

These days we witness the modern-day presidential communication breakdown as an intentional act of destruction. That's something worth talking about. 

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