January 10, 2013
What is being called discussion about gun control and violence in our nation, in the wake of shootings at Newtown, CT and Aurora, CO, is an excellent example of our need for communication counseling. There is very little, if any, useful discussion happening here.
Consider the following observations and suggestions regarding how we can better participate in this conversation, specifically how we might actually be able to accomplish something with communication.
1. Defining the problem. We cannot solve a problem together if we are working from different problem definitions. Of course we must work with multiple problem definitions over time but not simultaneously. With regard to the gun control discussion, if one person is approaching the problem with the question “How can we reduce the incidence of criminal gun violence in our nation?” and another person is using the question, “How can we be sure that government doesn’t violate the rights of gun owners?” then we clearly will get nowhere fast. Both are legitimate questions but the bottom line here is that we really have to learn to take turns.
2. Initiating brainstorming. Consider the two questions above. Since the first question offers something we can all agree on --- that we want fewer people murdered by guns – in terms of effective communication, that is a good place to begin. If someone believes that strengthening gun control laws will not help to reduce gun violence, or even if someone believes that strengthening gun control might actually increase gun violence, those perspectives need to be included (respected) in the discussion. The degree of disparity of opinions are a part of the problem solving process and become a communication problem only when we are not working with the same problem definition --- in this case, the problem definition being a mutually unacceptable incidence of gun violence. Likewise, if someone holds to the other extreme --- outlawing all guns, for instance --- that position needs to be accepted as a part of process as well. The point of considering both extremes of this continuum is of course to make the point that in the brainstorming phase of problem solving, ALL ideas can and should be heard. Think of it like we are embarking on a very challenging jigsaw puzzle: the first step is to put the pieces on the table and turn them up. Even if we suspect some of the pieces don’t belong to this particular puzzle, we still begin by getting all the pieces out of the box, right?
When we object to everything someone else has to contribute to our gun control conversation, it is the equivalent of taking a piece of the puzzle out of the box and throwing it away because we don’t think it belongs to our puzzle. Good piece of advice here: always remember that listening and even understanding what someone else has to say does not mean you are in agreement. It just means you know how to listen.
3. Establishing mutually acceptable goals. In the current discussion about gun control, one of the blatant mistakes I see being made is there being a seemingly unquestioned assumption that the conversation is about how to eliminate gun violence from our nation. One side talks about how essential increasing regulations on gun purchases and ownership is and the other side makes the point that doing that would not end gun violence, giving examples of incidents that would likely occur without or without changing gun laws. Trying to solve problems framed in such black and white terms is a total waste of time (not to mention a particular talent of our Congress) and only contributes to further confusion of the issues and animosity among participants in the discussion.
No one believes that we will be able end gun violence. No one believes that we have seen the last senseless mass shooting of innocent victims. If we are sitting in my therapy office, it is at this point that I suggest we take a deep breath and be sure we are agreeing on at least one common goal. Even if individuals have independent goals, the success of our mutually collaborative problem solving is completely dependent upon our having agreed-upon common goals. Snatching this one from the jaws of all or none language, we should be able to agree on a goal something like this: We want to reduce the incidence of gun violence and improve upon preventive measures for the future.
4. Getting clear that solutions to complex problems are themselves complex. When I am working with couples in therapy I make it clear that solving communication problems is an ongoing process requiring a lot of re-evaluation of assumptions and lots and lots of practice. We are in session for one or two-hours at a time, each session ends and the client’s job is to take what we have done during the session, reflect on it and most importantly, practice some new behaviors. I tell them that, contrary to the Hollywood model of therapy, we are not going to throw back the double doors and discover the cathartic truth that will make all the difference. This work is much more mundane.
Solutions are more built than discovered. Add a piece here, another piece there, change our minds about something, come up with a new idea, remember something we forgot, etc, etc. It’s work. Real work. We have to be willing to do it.
5. Putting all this to work. So let’s end this particular session considering that our task here is not to “solve the problem of gun violence,” (that goal is too big and completely unrealistic) but to work toward reducing the frequency and magnitude of incidents of gun violence. To do that well, we need to open our minds and our ears so that we can hear each other’s ideas. To do that well, we need to let go of any assumptions that we are always right and that those with differing views are always wrong. Again: that kind of black and white thinking is a waste of time, very counter productive. If we are going to be good collaborative problem solvers, we are going to need to learn the lessons presented here for starters. And many many more to follow.
Our time is up for today. See you next session.