Monday, April 22, 2013

Understanding Others

We exist and we exist with others.  Communication is the impulse that drives most human endeavors.  We need to connect to others, be around others, to exchange ideas and emotions with others in order to have a thriving life.  People do this is various ways and with different scales of need and desire but everyone who exists is networked to others.  There is no singularity in existence.  This feels odd at times though since we are always contained within ourselves.  We are born, we live and we die and the world/reality is contained within this package of ourselves.  We can never be outside of ourselves, not truly, but yet to exist, to live, interaction and connection is essential.  Forms of communicating are tools and ways in which we seek and fulfill this need.  These forms are various and are manifested in many different ways.  Scales of intimacy are also factors.  Close relationships and anonymous sharing are both equally impactful depending on the affects and the needs of the person.  Art, visual art, is a means for communication as is other forms of art like writing, music, film, dance, etcetra.  Art allows us to communicate ideas and emotions through form and content and one can be removed from it, not be personally attached to the presenter, yet still have great connection to it. 

This is a reason why art is essential to my life.  It allows me to connect and to understand the world in which I exist in and to think about what that existence means.  The distance allowed in this interaction is good and something that is loose and freeing.  I am very comfortable with this exchange and the structures of it.

Something of late that has been a part of my life in an imitate as well as an overall way is the way in which language is a means of communication.  Language is the primary tool almost everyone has to connect and to communicate to others.  At times though, this simplest and most basic of forms is fraught with failure, disconnect and ineptitude.  It is odd to think that something so familiar and so everyday can be such a challenge.  I have been thinking about how one connects and communicates to the world that is outside of themselves, to others near and distant.  The forms of art, although more abstract and undefined, is sometimes safer and easier to reside in (at least for myself) then a simple one to one conversation.  Communication is complex and specific while also grounded in rules and expectations.  Does disjuncture, inability and disconnect mean failure?  I don’t think so, I think that communication through language is like any other thing we humans do and the more we do it, the more it becomes familiar and the more equipped we are to traverses its complexities. 

When I look at art, even with close friends, I rarely speak about it afterwards.  I think about it a lot and at times write those thoughts down but rarely do I speak of it in the ways I think about it.  Is that good, is that bad, does that reveal something?  I don’t know.  I don’t think so, but language and conversation is key to life.  Trying to see how it matters and if it matters is bizarre, revealing and an unanswerable task I have been mulling over the last few days.  One day, I hope that the way I feel when I look at art, the ease in which I feel like I am connecting to it is possible for the way that I can sit across from someone else and just talk, talk, talk.

Below is something mildly obvious that I found online on the ideas of this.  It didn’t change or give tools on how to resolve issues of language and communication but the basic-ness of it is a reminder that things are a certain way sometimes and also that it takes two to tango. 

Excerpted from Philosophy and Spirituality, 2003, Serge Carfantan.  Translated by Catarina Lamm

D.   Knowing How to Listen, Knowing How to Speak
It is true that being able to speak to someone should make one better able to understand him.  Yet what exactly do we mean by “speaking”?  It is not enough to “speak” in order to engage in dialogue.  There is dialogue when speech is alive and that many conditions are fulfilled:

1) The presence of two people
2) Mutual understanding
3) A common ground
4) Something meaningful to share. 

Dialogue is only a way to understand another person when it is authentic, which may be more complex than one thinks.

Talking to somebody is not just trying to make oneself understood.  Dialogue can walk astray and off the path leading to an understanding of others. 

1) One may slip into mere information; in this case only the person talking understands what is being said.  Exchange never takes place, yet this is required for dialogue.  To have a dialogue it is not enough to find a willing listener with the patience to put up with your talking, but to whom you yourself will not be listening. 

2) There can also be a misunderstanding when two people don’t attribute the same meaning to the same words, so that each one of them speaks at different levels.  The common ground is then missing. 

3) Dialogue can degenerate into mere chatting.  Chatting appears to be a dialogue, but the people talking are not present in what they say: the content of their speech is as insignificant as it is repetitive.  Speech does not aim at the other person’s understanding it; it is only there to substitute for a real presence and above all to avoid silence.  A dialogue is only useful to understand others if it makes possible an intimate exchange with them. 

4) A dialogue can degenerate to polemics when one wants the exchange of a dialogue, while refusing to make any effort to understand the other person’s position.  Each person then sticks to his position and instead of exchanging ideas one struggles to uphold this or that conviction.  Polemics replaces the confrontation of points of view by the opposition of individuals.  We see this when spokesmen fire off all their weaponry to criticise a viewpoint, then retreat into muteness, and pay no attention to the objection of their adversary. 

5) Dialogue also self-destroys in lying. As soon as lying makes its way into the dialogue, speech loses its true purpose.  There can be no comprehension without truthfulness and without a genuine intention to have a dialogue.  Have can we understand one another if we are not sincere?

Supposing that these obstacles are overcome in mutual sincerity, the dialogue allows one effectively to open up to the other person and hear what the other has to say. Understanding means to grasp intentions and motives; this is best done when we listen to the other person and do not make conjectures from outside.  To listen to what the other person has to say is also to help him find his way in language, to find the words in which to put what he needs to say in order to make himself understood.  To understand someone is to listen to a conscious presence, to someone expressing this presence with his own words and this sharing can take place in dialogue. 

Nevertheless, if intentions develop inside words, they also appear between them.  If discourse is meaningful, so too is silence: the gaps between words also have their eloquence.  To understand the other it is not enough understanding what he says; it is also understanding what he does not say but what his presence expresses all the same.  The other person gives himself just as much in what he says as in what he doesn’t say; he is this undivided totality.  In other words, understanding supposes at once what is said and what is left unsaid.  Our gestures often say as much as our words.  According to psychologists, only 7% of communication is through words, 38% is via the tone of the voice and 55% pertains to body language.  There is often a discrepancy between conscious discourse and unconscious discourse, the one expressed in a face, an attitude, and then the internal consistency of communication is broken.  For instance someone’s speech may be artificially playful, yet his body expresses embarrassment at first, then self-defence, then lying and concealing of inadmissible truths.

To understand others one must also therefore have the capacity to allow him to be himself, without judging him, and listen to what he says in his presence.  And this is difficult because we are just as unable to give time and attention to other people as we are unable to listen to them.  To understand another we must be totally available to him here and now.  We must neither condemn him nor identify him to ourselves. Understanding is not judging, yet it is so easy to form prejudices about other people, much easier than trying to understand!

One often hears that dialogue enable[s] people to understand one another.  It is of course desirable to praise dialogue, especially in a world of incomprehension, such as our own, yet this also means that it has to be genuinely there, otherwise the apology of dialogue is no more than empty words.  What is at stake is to know how to listen, and this comes before knowing how to talk.  The art of speaking supposes a respect of others’ expectations, the art of finding where they stand in order to give them whatever answer can be given and share whatever can be shared.  It is an art founded above all on the art of listening.  Yet, listening to others reveals differences that are do not always make it easy sharing in dialogue.  One must of course drop conventional etiquettes; behind the etiquettes there is each human being’s unique personality, which defeats all comparison.  The prerequisite of all authentic understanding is therefore to throw away the image one has of the other person.  A dialogue is  -beyond conventional discourse and empty speech – to partake in somebody’s intimacy, an intimacy which is neither our own, nor anonymous.