Communication, curiosity, and personal style

When people talk, especially via the Internet, I expect misunderstandings, since human language is so fraught with ambiguity. And though I work very hard at clarity, I know my skill is limited and I sometimes fail.

So I see communication as an iterative process: I say something that you don’t quite get, and you say “Huh?” about the what or why or how of some particular part, and I refine my message. Likewise, I listen to you, and check out the places were I’m puzzled.

I’m very sensitive where I think I’m seeing criticisms/dismissals without inquiry/curiosity, and hence some peevishness in some remarks (now edited) in my previous post, Why program with continuous time?. See Fostering creativity by relinquishing the obvious for related remarks.

In some venues, like reddit, aggressive non-inquiry can become the dominant mode of discussion. Because I prefer high-quality, open-minded inquiry, I mostly choose moderated blogging instead. If I don’t pass a comment through, I’ll usually offer the writer some suggestions, perhaps suggesting a possible misreading of whatever was being responded to, and invite re-submission. If I’m particularly annoyed with the writer, I’ll usually take time to get over my annoyance before responding, so there can be a delay.

In this way, I try to keep a high signal-to-noise ratio, where noise includes assumptions, reactions to misreadings, and often compounded public attempts by people to get each other to listen more carefully.

I’m starting to discover that people I don’t get along with sometimes have a very different style from mine. I like to invite many possibilities into a space and explore them. My mother shared with me a quote from Henry Nelson Wieman, which she now uses as her email signature:

To get the viewpoint of the other person appreciatively and profoundly and reconcile it with his own so far as possible is the supreme achievement of man and his highest vocation.

While I’m agnostic about the “supreme/highest” part (and open to it), I very much like Wieman’s description of individual and collective learning as progressing most powerfully by integrating different viewpoints, as founded on working to understanding each other “appreciatively and profoundly”.

I’m learning that some other folks have an oppositional style of learning and discovering.

When Thomas (Bob) Davie and I worked together in Antwerp, he told me that his style is to fiercely resist (battle) any new idea proposed to him. Whatever breaks through his defenses is worth his learning. I was flabbergasted at the distance between his style and mine. And greatly relieved also, because I had to work with him, and I had previously interpreted his behavior as non-curious and even anti-creative. Although I wasn’t willing to collaborate in the battle mode at the time, fortunately he was willing to try shifting his style. And the recognition of our differing style toward similar ends helped greatly in relieving the building tension between us. Now I enjoy him very much.

Since this surprising discovery, I’ve wondered how often friction I have with other people coincides with this particular difference in personal styles and whether there are additional style that I hadn’t been aware of. So when friction arises, I now try to find out, via a private chat or email.


  • 2010-01-04: Filled in Bob’s name (with permission).