Is communication a learned skill or an instinct

Some basic sentences about communication

September 27, 2015 by Jörg Heidig

The origins of communication
Primates have probably created free spaces through the first beginnings of division of labor or the first approaches of jointly coordinated actions, through which communication skills could develop. The fact that the first humans invented symbols to represent reality made it possible for them not only to react directly to stimuli (instinctive behavior of other mammals), but also to exchange information about past events or future situations in the absence of the stimuli.
By linguistically representing objects from the environment, a person can - as it were from a distance or when the objects are not present - simulate different constellations and alternative courses of action, that is, he can think. This is why Freud called human thinking trial action. Human thinking is directly linked to the ability to speak or linguistically represent objects in the environment.
In the beginning there were the first approaches of coordinated actions in the association (the clan or similar). This coordination led to some freedom - you might sit around the campfire in the evening and have the freedom to symbolize the events of the day. On the basis of this symbolization it was now possible to think through alternative courses of action and “plan” new strategies (e.g. for hunting). With Sloterdijk (1995, p. 14ff.) We can imagine this campfire situation as a “psycho-acoustic magic ball” from which the human ability to communicate arose. The interaction of cooperation and communication forms the prerequisite for the development of culture, and culture in turn can be seen as the central distinguishing feature of humans from other mammals (cf. Bischof 1991, p. 35ff .; Hall 1976, p. 15).

We communicate on the basis of meanings
We can think alone or as individuals, but as we have already seen, the ability to think is directly linked to language and thus to communication; the ability to think has only developed through communication. When we think, this collective origin of communication remains, as follows:
When we communicate, it is not about the things themselves, but about their symbolization. A thing and its symbol can be far apart, as is already clear from the fact that an object can have very different meanings for different people and is accordingly designated differently. This can be seen in the problems that members of different disciplines or branches have in understanding one another. Often one then first has to agree on a “common language”. A prerequisite for us to understand each other at all is that we have a divided repertoire of meanings or symbols. When I communicate, I have an assumption about what the other is understanding. So I need to know what the other person I say something can understand at all. The philosopher George Herbert Mead once described this process as follows:

“Now what is the basic mechanism by which the social process is driven? It is the mechanism of the gesture that enables appropriate responses to the behavior of the various individual organisms involved in such a process. Within every social action, gestures bring about an adaptation of the actions of one organism to the activity of other organisms. Gestures are movements of the first organism that act as specific stimuli on the second organism and trigger the (socially) appropriate reactions. The birth and development of human intelligence took place in the field of gestures, through the process of symbolizing experiences that gestures - especially vocal gestures - made possible. Man's specialization in this field of gestures was ultimately responsible for the development and growth of contemporary human society and knowledge, with all the control over nature and the human environment afforded by science. "(Mead 1973, p. 46)

The prerequisite for communication: the generalized other
My gestures, whatever I show or say, triggers certain reactions in my counterpart. Which gestures or words are appropriate in a situation and have certain effects is usually known to all communication participants. The knowledge of what is communicatively appropriate in a community, what possible or appropriate reactions, etc. are, is organized according to Mead (1973) in the “generalized other”. I know what a certain statement can do for my counterpart because I am able to take on the role of the other based on the symbols that are shared. I can ask myself - and unconsciously we do this all the time - what my actions trigger in my counterpart. Knowing the same meanings as my counterpart, I can analyze my own actions by putting myself in their shoes (more or less about the “generalized other”). This makes me understand myself at all. I can think alone, but as long as I think about social things and at the latest as soon as I say something, this implies the (imaginary or real) presence of another, in whom I put myself and whose assumed (and later actual) reactions I mean understand their own actions. We have internalized this other to such an extent that he is always present, just as a “generalized other”. In every conversation we assume that the other person understands us, and we structure our statements on the basis of our assumptions about how our actions will be received by him or her. We don't first ask what he or she understands or would like to know, but we act on the basis of our assumptions about how our actions will be received by him or her.
To put it bluntly, this means that we are never alone. We always “run along” at least the generalized other. We assess the consequences of our actions by anticipating what our actions will trigger in the other. We look at our own actions through the other person's glasses, trying to anticipate how the other will react to our actions. This also means that we usually don't say what we really think or mean. Rather, we express ourselves in such a way that we achieve what we want with the other - that he thinks well of us, for example, or lets himself be convinced by us.

Why communication is also and above all about status
Communication partners communicate on an equal footing if there are no differences in status (both sides strive for equality; partners are about equally strong). On the other hand, if the communication is based on an inequality relationship, it is called complementary (one side has the upper hand; the other side subordinates itself; the actions of both sides complement each other: "someone who dominates always includes someone who lets himself be dominated" ).
This characteristic of human communication is the most significant when it comes to relationships - private as well as professional - because it explains a number of disorders. If one side thinks it is “up”, but the other side is starting from eye level, it comes to an escalation, because neither side does what the other side “instigates”. On the contrary: both sides feel that they are not accepted (the side that feels “up”) or belittled (the side that believes they are at eye level). This is most evident in so-called “helping relationships”.
Let us visualize the importance of this characteristic using the example of helping relationships: Help implies that there is one side that can or knows something that can help the other side or that the latter does not know. These two roles lead to the characteristic superordinate and subordinate relationship of help - the side that provides the help stands above the side that receives the help in terms of social status. Normally, people in their relationships aim to improve their social status, or at least to maintain it. Admitting that I need help, on the other hand, makes me vulnerable and forces me to be grateful to the person who gives me help. So I stand under the other person for the period of help and also afterwards in terms of my social status. This is precisely why it is so difficult for many to even ask for help. On the other hand, it also explains the emotions that arise when one gives help but has not received thanks for it. Furthermore, it also becomes clear why many people perceive it as a degradation to be offered or even forced to receive help that was not asked for. Like many parents or superiors, they only mean well when they want to help. They offer help and insist when the other side refuses help because the side offering help thinks that the need for help is obvious. As helpless as someone may seem, the problem always belongs to whoever has it, and if they think they don't have one or can deal with it themselves, offering help doesn't help because the person receiving the offer is down one level would have to kick and make yourself vulnerable. That is why it is so difficult to receive help. It is perceived as presumptuous - the side offering help rises above the other side, supposedly in need of help. (See Schein 2010)
An example: Due to their (mostly partnership) upbringing, many young people today are used to meeting other people on an equal footing. Anyone who was able to decide at the age of three what they would like to eat and was allowed to question a lot at school and especially during their studies, even should, usually initially meets other people on an equal footing. In this case, it is not enough to assert authority over these young people, because many can no longer do anything with that. Authority (of a superior or teacher) is no longer a matter of course (= cannot be questioned), but must actually be worked out. If such a young person begins to respect authority proving himself in the process, he voluntarily goes down one step on the status ladder and allows himself to be guided, trained and helped. As paradoxical as that may sound, one has to work for the recognition of many young people. Otherwise, a young person may initially accept the status-wise subordinate role. At the latest, however, when there are problems and pressure arises, he (like every other person) is hardly or no longer able to act consciously and deliberately, but instead activates the patterns learned in childhood, which are usually based on pressure Are aligned to self-protection.If the mechanism I learned in childhood is that I was able to assert myself against my parents in case of doubt, then I will try to assert myself under appropriate pressure if there are problems in my training or at my first job. This explains the behavior of some apprentices, students, interns or young professionals in problematic situations, which many trainers, HR managers and university lecturers today describe as “arrogance” or “excessive self-confidence”. The young people repeat, as it were, the patterns they learned during childhood in the interaction with their parents.

Communication is usually geared towards self-protection
To understand why self-protection is one of the fundamental characteristics of human communication, allow us a few small excursions. Wherever people communicate with one another, there are specific "defense mechanisms" that usually lead to problems in communication and - after many frustrating experiences - almost inevitably lead to strategic communication. The strategic communication should not be discredited here, but if it is noticed by the “manipulated” side, this may lead to even more diversionary maneuvers and even more covert communication on the other side and thus on our side. This can quickly turn into an escalating vicious circle. But more on that later. As I said: Allow us to take a few short excursions here, the clear view is worth it at the end.

The ego and the defense mechanisms
In the beginning, people are what they get (Winterhoff 2008). In the beginning there are only needs, and the human being does not initially have any “awareness” of himself or even of other people in the sense of what is called consciousness. If this is the case, then it becomes clear why the first - completely pre-linguistic and therefore rationally inaccessible - experiences are so formative. If man is his need, then his whole being and all his experiences are first of all dependent on the satisfaction of his needs. In the case of dissatisfaction, on the other hand, fears of existential dimensions arise. It can be seen as one of the archetypal forms of fear when an infant is hungry and is not given anything. This is an experience that children do not yet have protective mechanisms against. Melanie Klein called this original state the paranoid-schizoid mode. This designation should not be confused with the disorder terms of the same name. Rather, Klein means the vulnerability of emotional development due to too few positive or too many negative experiences. All experience at this stage is prelinguistic and the child does not yet have any concept of the mother being another person. The child is "alone in the world", that is, the child's needs or their satisfaction or non-satisfaction corresponds to the child's world. So psychologically, the child is in a certain way on its own, but is not aware of it, because it does not yet have a cognitive authority that could regulate all of this. The child experiences the world on a spectrum between the satisfaction of needs and existential threats. The first psychological differentiations appear through contact with the world experienced as threatening. As the psyche tries to deal with the threats or to control them, a second instance develops from one part of the id. From now on, the ego acts as a mediator between the needs of the child and the environment. The development of the ego is also the prerequisite for the conceptualization of the self and the other, i.e. the experience that the mother is a different person from the child herself and that she sometimes satisfies the child's needs and sometimes not.
If (a) the instance of the ego slowly differentiates from the id and the child develops the fundamentals of understanding different people, and if (b) enough positive experiences have been gained during the first phase (paranoid-schizoid basic mode), then there is a chance for another important development step. This step is to manage the ambivalence of the experience with the mother. Sometimes the mother is present and thus the source of closeness and the satisfaction of needs. Sometimes it is absent and therefore a terrifying trigger for existential threats. Both experiences must be located in one and the same person. If this challenge succeeds, the foundation stone is laid for what is known as frustration tolerance - one of the central functions of the ego as the psychological authority that mediates between human needs and the outside world. Melanie Klein called this stage of development the depressive mode, denoting the ability to integrate extremely ambivalent experiences (both positive and negative experiences) into the same concept (the person of the mother). The adjective "depressive" has nothing to do with the disorder of the same name.
The psychological events during the first and partly also the second year of life are completely pre-linguistic. If psychological injuries occur during this time, these are particularly serious, because they affect the psychological development in its fundamental phase and can hardly be dealt with later with language means.
From what has been said so far, it becomes clear how important it is for a child to have sufficiently positive experiences during the first years of life. However - and this is often less emphasized - the experience of one's own limits is also of elementary importance for development. As we have seen, the child's world more or less meets his needs at the beginning - the child is what he gets. During this time, the first foundations for a psychological differentiation are laid, which leads to the development of the ego as a second psychological instance alongside the id. Another psychoanalytic term for self-centeredness, especially in the first year of life, is that of primary narcissism ‘. Primary narcissism describes the child's inevitable thrown onto himself in the early stages of development - the child is, as it were, his world because he does not yet have any psychological differentiations that could distinguish between himself and others or the external world. If enough positive experiences are now possible, the development proceeds without impairment, one would think. But this is not always the case, as Michael Winterhoff (2008) impressively shows. In addition to the positive basic experiences, borderline experiences are also necessary for successful psychological development. If these borderline experiences are not made in the sense of generally applicable rules or what a child is not allowed to do, the child remains in a state of primary narcissism. This manifests itself in that other people are not viewed as independent beings, but as part of their own world. The reason for this is the lack of developmental step through the integration of ambivalent experiences - first with the mother and then with other people - to learn to tolerate frustration. If no limits are set, the child can have none or too few of the said ambivalent experiences, and the integration of the ambivalence into a concept (“The mother is sometimes there, then everything is good. But sometimes she is not there either, that is not good, but still the same person who loves me and who I love. ”) cannot be reached. According to Winterhoff (2008), such a deficient development can lead to the inability to treat other people as independent, equal beings. Other people are then treated as if they were part of their own world. A tendency to inability to subordinate oneself and a poor stamina due to a lack of frustration tolerance are then corresponding consequences.
The example of remaining in primary narcissism points to another important step in psychological development. The increasing contact with the environment leads again and again to conflicts between the impulses of the id and what the environment allows. The experiences with these conflicts lead over time (approximately between the second and third year of life) to a further differentiation of the psychological apparatus. The super-ego emerges from the ego as the authority of rules and prohibitions, morals and social norms. According to Freud's idea, the super-ego constantly exerts pressure on the ego in order to keep the id under control.
According to the psychoanalytic idea, the id triggers conflicts more or less continuously, in two ways. Initially, the impulses are directed towards the environment, and the ego, as an adaptive instance, has the task of "mediating" between the impulses of the id and the - possibly threatening - environment. In doing so, the ego first creates a further psychological entity that helps the ego to adapt with rules and norms: the normative influences of parents, educators and society become effective in the superego. The ego now has the immense task of integrating the threats to the environment, the impulses of the id and the pressure of the superego. To deal with these fear-inducing impulses or to reduce the pressure resulting from the opposing demands, the ego develops defense mechanisms that prevent the entire ambivalent extent of the impulses from becoming aware. Defense mechanisms are therefore to be understood in a positive sense as adaptations to reality. For example, a child experiences rejection several times and will then gradually develop mechanisms for behaving differently from now on. Probably the best-known defense mechanism is repression - "what triggers too much fear no longer takes place", at least not consciously. This relates both to frightening factors of reality, in that elements that trigger fear are removed from the conscious image of reality and repressed into the unconscious, as well as to those impulses of the id that lead to strong conflicts - for example when the ego learns to apply the impulse to suppress hating the mother in order to experience affection again.

Displacement: On the basis of unpleasant or even painful experiences, a person learns to repress ideas into the unconscious that are either connected with a specific need that cannot be lived out in the situation in question or that are in conflict with moral standards. However, since the ideas and impulses do not simply disappear as a result, a certain expenditure of psychic energy is always necessary to maintain the repression.

Projection: The defense mechanism of projection causes a person to initially deny feelings and desires that they find unbearable in themselves. Up to this point the process is similar to repression. The specific thing about the projection is that the feelings and impulses (which remain effective in the unconscious) are unconsciously ascribed to another person. Almost classic examples are particularly dominant people who deny their own aggressiveness and criticize other people for being particularly dominant and aggressive.The mechanism of projection also works in the opposite direction (introjection), in that a person, in order to cope with certain situations, projects the feelings and behaviors of other people into himself and feels and acts as the other person supposedly would have felt and acted.

Sublimation: Some impulses cannot be lived out for moral (ethical prohibitions, social norms or traditions) or social (e.g. if there is a threat of rejection or even exclusion) reasons. On the other hand, if you give these impulses a socially acceptable goal, it becomes possible to give in to these wishes anyway - for example by “wrapping” them with a professional role. The classic variant: sadism "can be reacted to in professions such as butcher, surgeon or policeman" (Mucchielli 1980, p. 14).

Shift: Certain impulses cannot be realized in relation to certain “objects” - mostly people, but they can also be institutions or groups or objects from other categories - possibly because this would have negative consequences for the person concerned. The affects and impulses for action associated with the object in question are released from this object and transferred to another. For example, it may be that an employee is angry with a colleague. However, the colleague in question is very much appreciated by the team. Attacking him could therefore have negative effects on the status of the employee. This now "shifts" his anger to another colleague, whom it is possible to accuse in the circle of colleagues without endangering one's own status. This person now serves as the scapegoat. The defense mechanism of the shift works not only with aggressive affects, but also with fear, for example by changing the fear of a superior to another person or the fear of a family member to a certain class of objects (e.g. all animals that have a fur) is transmitted. If the transmission of fear is particularly manifest, one also speaks of "phobic fixation".

From successful problem solving to unconscious action patterns
In the course of their development - during childhood and adolescence and during the first professional learning processes - people face a multitude of problems that they need to solve. From the first attempts at solving the problem, patterns slowly emerge as to how a person approaches the tasks assigned to him. The successful patterns - which also include defense mechanisms - solidify over time and give the person concerned a feeling of security with regard to future challenges. It is human nature not to approach every new professional situation or every new relationship - be it friendship or love - in a new way. Rather, one falls back on the already learned repertoire of action strategies. Much of this repertoire has solidified over the years to such an extent that it is no longer questioned. Successful action strategies become habituated - and thus less conscious action strategies. If there is now a situation of change and thus new challenges, people will first fall back on their familiar ways of acting and hide or avoid those aspects of the challenge that are actually new. The incentive for such avoidance behavior lies in the reduction of fear that is inevitably triggered by new situations. Resistance to change thus has a protective function - by ignoring the supposed risks of change, one lives with less fear.

The conformity of communication in groups
Belonging to groups appears to be a paradoxical phenomenon: on the one hand there is the individual's motive for belonging and the general promise of groups to cater for specific needs of the individual. Groups are among the most primeval and indispensable manifestations of human life, which is particularly evident from the fact that every person (a) is constantly in contact with groups and (b) assesses the attitudes of these groups towards him - mostly more unconsciously than consciously. On the other hand, groups have a strong life of their own, which manifests itself in the fact that groups primarily tend to sustain themselves. However, this self-preservation is at the expense of the individual needs of the group members. In this respect, individual interests (membership, satisfaction of needs) and group concerns (as tension-free self-preservation as possible, avoidance of changes) stand in opposition to one another. It is the nature of groups to satisfy some needs and not others, which is the specific "conservative" character (Lazar 2004) of the group phenomenon. The collective normative character that forces the individual to adapt becomes particularly clear in the concept of group mentality. According to this, groups prevent the differentiated thinking of individuals (and thus also the learning of individuals from their relationships with the group) by means of a specific form of anonymous pressure. Some statements can be made openly, others are uttered covertly. Moods and behaviors suddenly arise that cannot be directly assigned to individual people. The self-preservation of groups takes place on this anonymous level of group mentality: The thinking of the individual takes a back seat to the standardized thinking of the “group as a whole”. The acceptance of the group mentality by the individual is implicit in nature - one contributes anonymously and largely unconsciously to the group mentality. When asked explicitly about this, people will usually claim that the group has little or no influence on their thinking. (Cf. Bion 2001, p. 31ff .; Lazar 2004, p. 48ff.)
Groups can be understood as very old forms of general interest in human history. If people come together in a group or a team, group rules (often unspoken) are formed very quickly. The interests of the group become more important than those of the individual group member. In practical terms, this means that groups only reward the activities of individuals if they benefit the group as a whole. The needs for appreciation and status of the individual group members are only satisfied if they conform to the group mentality, which in the long term can lead to a - psychologically speaking - narrowing of the group's focus. In practice, this means that in groups, everything can no longer be said, but rather an unconscious self-censorship of the group members develops. This is associated with a number of restrictive effects on the variety of information available and the opinions expressed, the best known of which is so-called "groupthink".
If you take on a team that, for whatever reason, is initially hostile to you, you will initially feel this group pressure as resistance. You can then deal with resistance in any other way than accepting it. Overhand techniques or threats would only exacerbate the problem. The people concerned are then slowly drawn into a process of change and knowledge through questions and dialogue. This can take a while initially. On the other hand, it usually leads to an intensification of the rejection if you try to counter the resistance with your own arguments (for example: "What you are saying is a rumor. That is not true. It is so and so."; Works better: "I understand your concerns, and even if everything you said may not be exactly right, I would like to invite you to see for yourself."). The best strategy to change the rigid homogeneity of group opinions is to specifically inquire about and promote minority opinions. If you make observations and ask, you will notice that the landscape in you is by no means as homogeneous as it may first have appeared to you. Advice to team leaders: take care of minorities! They ensure diversity of opinion - even if the minority opinion on the matter should even be "wrong". Psychological experiments have impressively shown that the vast majority of people - we're talking about 90 percent - surrender to anonymous peer pressure. But if there is already a minority, the probability increases enormously that individuals will present a view that deviates from the group opinion. The only important thing is the existence of a minority, regardless of how objectively competent or incompetent (or even obviously wrong) the minority's point of view is. So make covenants with those who are open to change, but also with anyone else who looks like a “minority”. This will help you to advance the learning process faster if necessary. A large part of the practical work in team development consists in (re) establishing diversity of opinion and in encouraging minorities. It is a tough experience for the actors involved - for those with dissenting opinions it is far from easy to be attacked, and for the group members it is painful to experience that they really appreciate the anonymity and security of the group prefer an open search for solutions. If those involved manage this hurdle, they will henceforth make better decisions and can learn from experience.

Jörg Heidig


Category: Communication

Published in: Defense, Defense Mechanisms, Conversation Management, Conversation Techniques, Identity, Communication, Metatheory, Employee Interviews, Self-Protection, Theory of Intervention

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