Threat and Communication

Rhetoricians sometimes talk about the psychologist Carl Rogers, specifically his notion that threat hinders communication and persuasion. The basic idea should be obvious to everyone. If I feel threatened by you, I might listen to you, but I won’t be persuaded. I might be ordered, forced, coerced, or manipulated, and I may have to capitulate to your demands, but I won’t be persuaded and won’t willingly do what you want me to do. In an organization, this means I might very well resist you in cunning ways, especially if I feel I have little power in a direct confrontation.

I say the basic idea should be obvious, but often isn’t, because persuasion isn’t necessarily what some people set out to achieve. Chaim Perelman writes in The Realm of Rhetoric that the aim of argumentation is “to elicit or increase the adherence of the members of an audience to theses that are presented for their consent.”

Communication may be hindered even by relatively mild threats. I don’t need a gun put to my head to feel threatened. I can feel threatened professionally or personally, and this can mean standard arguments might not work. As Maxine Hairston writes:

“Ironically, those situations in which the classical methods of using proof, evidence, and logical deductions are most apt to fail are just the ones we care about most. Such arguments often concern issues that affect us deeply-racial and sexual matters, moral questions, personal and professional standards and behavior. Where there is dispute about this kind of issue, communication often breaks down because both parties are so emotionally involved, so deeply committed to certain values, that they can scarcely listen to each other, much less have a rational exchange of views. ” (Carl Rogers’s Alternative to Traditional Rhetoric, College Composition and Communication 27:4. Link is to JSTOR)

I bring this up because I think it has some relevance to discussions of change, technology, politics and other contentious issues within librarianship. How much do proponents of certain changes or political positions try to persuade reluctant librarians? And how might reluctant librarians feel threatened? And if they feel threatened, how might that perception of threat be reduced? Saying “you just don’t get it” isn’t persuasion.

Rogers contribution adds more understanding of the person to traditional rhetoric. Rhetoric isn’t just about argument, it’s about persuasion. Arguments sometimes don’t work. An argument may be sound, but if people aren’t persuaded, it still fails. To persuade, those arguing need to treat their opponents with respect and understanding, to try to see the world as the other sees it. Hairston outlines 5 rhetorical actions based on Rogerian theory:

1. Give a brief, objective statement of the issue under discussion.

2. Summarize in impartial language what you perceive the case for the opposition to be; the summary should demonstrate that you understand their interests and concerns and should avoid any hint of hostility.

3. Make an objective statement of your own side of the issue, listing your concerns and interests, but avoiding loaded language or any hint of moral superiority.

4. Outline what common ground or mutual concerns you and the other person or group seem to share; if you see irreconcilable interests, specify what they are.

5. Outline the solution you propose, pointing out what both sides may gain from it.

If we all followed these guidelines, there might be fewer librarians who feel threatened by change. Frustration and hostility never persuade anyone.