Sunday, September 20, 2015

"Visiting relatives can be annoying."

Noam Chomsky is one of the world's treasures, the greatest living expert in the field of linguistics.  When you get a hear him talk, it is like absorbing great music.  If you are like me, you don't grasp a lot of what he says.  After all, how do you even begin to assimilate his 60 years of research in the field into your own head as he presents his points of view and his evidence? Nonetheless, it is a wonderful experience, and I was so pleased to have a chance to watch and listen at an MIT seminar last week. What follows is a short exposition of what I thought I heard and learned! I follow with an extrapolation to issues of negotiation and leadership.

Turning briefly to the popular literature, Deborah Tannen wrote a great book a few years ago, called You Just Don't Understand, about how "women and men live in different worlds...made of different words." She demonstrated how miscommunication is rampant between the sexes.

Noam goes well beyond this characterization of communication problems. His view is that "language is not designed for communication." That's language, not talking.  Stick with me.  He points out that the development of the generative process for language formation that's in our brains was a relatively recent evolutionary event, occurring in the last 60,000 years or so.  It's evolutionary value seems to be mainly an internal one, providing us with a personal ability to conceptualize, plan, and conceive.  He posits that the mechanism of language is based on the simplest possible construction, "a minimalist computational system."

In contrast, the externalization of language through our sensory and motor systems--whether through talking or sign language or touch--has nothing to do with language formation.  Those sensory and motor systems existed for eons before language evolved.  Indeed, humans and apes have virtually identical sensory and motor systems.

The relatively primitive mechanism that maps language onto and through the sensory and motor systems is quite imperfect in presenting the concepts and ideas that our internal language creates. Accordingly, the recipient of the language does not get a totally clear picture of what the speaker means.  In the words of someone at the seminar, "So you're saying that language is there to let me think. Never mind about the listener." "Exactly," said Noam.

The title of this post is a highly simplified example.  "Visiting relatives can be annoying."  Is it the relatives who are annoying or is it a visit to relatives that is annoying?  The sentence is ambiguous even though the speaker likely has a clear concept in his or her mind.

I know it's risky to extrapolate from the deep philosophy and science of linguistics theory to everyday matters of human behavior, but permit me to take some leaps to fields in which you and I are involved every day.

So, let's leave Noam behind for a minute and acknowledge that most of the failures that occur in negotiating satisfactory and lasting agreements are often tied to miscommunication.  The ability of one party to fully understand the interests of the other and the resultant ability to engage in value creating deals often fall flat on their face because of a failure to communicate.  (Yes, I know that sometimes such a failure is intentional on the part of one party or the other. I'm talking about cases in which both parties have an interest in achieving a successful negotiated agreement.)

Likewise, leaders who attempt to carry out strategic initiatives for their organizations often find themselves frustrated by the staff's lack of commitment to those new directions.  Later they find out that their seemingly clear messaging to their staff was not fully understood.  (Yes, I know that sometimes people are recalcitrant. I'm talking about folks who want to be on board with the corporate direction.)

Those of us who teach negotiation and leadership often offer suggestions to people to help enhance communication and understanding. (Active listening is one such technique.) What I didn't understand before hearing Noam was how deeply embedded is not only the possibility of miscommunication, but the likelihood of it.  You don't have to understand all of his science to accept the conclusion that all of us have a special duty to expect--and try to overcome--the cognitive glitches that exist when we talk and listen.


Adam Gaffin said...

Interesting post and ideas, but at the risk of nitpicking, you might have to be careful in discussing it in the context of specific languages. Your subject line, for example, is ambiguous in English in a way it wouldn't be in German or French because we've dropped most of the cases and declensions that other Indo-European languages still use (also see the Twilight Zone episode "To Serve Man," which hinges on something you just couldn't do in Spanish, for example).

Paul Levy said...

I plead guilty in my example. But his points are irrespective of those differences.

J said...

Beautiful blog, Paul. Strikes right to the heart of the matter. We are always talking to ourselves. Other people, including those we are talking to, are eavesdroppers.

Carole said...

Mr. Levy your blog is by far the very best out here, hands down.. Compliments to you again and again !!!
Everyday I'm excited to show up and learn something new from you that I can either relate to or something I have zero knowledge about.
There are some really special people I know who would benefit from your blog in the most positive and wonderful way, I've reached out to them encouraging them to join in, I believe you will learn as much from them as they will you.
This post was excellent, enjoyed it thoroughly. Thank you much

Paul Levy said...

Many thanks, Carole.

nonlocal MD said...

This is indeed a very interesting insight; that language is required for higher-order thinking, with an imperfect communication with others of the species as sort of a side effect of the primary purpose. And yet don't social scientists make much of our species' ability to communicate with language as a large part of what makes us 'different'? Hmm, actually I like Noam's idea better.

pheski said...

This (excellent) post makes a recent article in PLOS quite relevant. The PLOS article talks about the fact that conversation (talking) seems to have a universal system for self-correction. I would speculate that this evolved to help bridge the gap between the internal language and the external world of listeners.