The challenge of communication may be one of the more fundamental concerns of our existence, as “each moment with another person can be an opportunity for discovery and growth or for the erosion of identity and the destruction of one’s personhood … One does not become fully human without interaction with other human beings.”
How we relate to others, and what that means and creates personally and socially, seems central to human life (see Notes One); and “People Skills” by Robert Bolton captures both the specifics and underlying principles in quite a timeless way without gimmicks or oversimplifications. While our interactions may have changed, what it is to be human and communicate meaningfully presumably hasn’t.
Bolton talks of how “as children, we learned by the example of the significant others in our lives as well as from their instructions to us”, then “cultural norms in our society reinforce much of the training we received.” So, ways individuals, practices and principles teach us to view others and the world around us; or, the broader task of education and of life (Note Two).
The text addresses barriers to communication, listening skills, assertiveness, and managing conflict; before considering some essential foundations of human relationship: genuineness, non-possessive love, and empathy. The idea being that learning specific skills helps us develop an understanding of those underlying ideals: form leading to function.
Love for people as they are and acceptance of a person (if not their behaviour) creates a foundation of mutual respect and freedom, while establishing ground for addressing differences. As “each individual has a unique personal space – a physical, psychological, and values territory which is hers … Within our life space, we exercise the prerogatives of our own individuality. Outside of this personal space we move in a common area where the rights of others need to be considered and where adaptability is required.”
Yet in modern life both that ‘space’ and the tolerance of it are under pressure, as social changes bring us closer in our orbits while blurring our more traditional boundaries. In many ways, technology merges our personal space with that common one: blending friendship with consumerism or activism, and presenting social communication alongside that of media or business (Notes Three).
Then, empathy: “walking with another person into the deeper chambers of his self … experiencing the feelings of another without losing one’s own identity.” So, understanding what life’s like for another, as if you were them; “a kind of detached involvement”. Again, something Western society grapples with in the sense of either detachment and carelessness, or the ways we’re swept up in the feeling lives of others.
In many ways, modern life is altering how we see one another and the world around us; with society, culture and education now facing up to the need and the challenge of reworking our understanding to meet that changing world. Coming to a clearer appreciation of the principles of human nature and practical ways of approaching one another seem key parts of that.
Notes and References:
“People Skills” by Robert Bolton, Ph.D., (Touchstone, Simon & Schuster), 1986 (originally 1979).
Note 1: Mirrors we offer one another
Note 1: Listening, tolerance & communication
Note 2: Learning to be human
Note 3: Using internet to construct community
Note 3: Modern activism in practice
Note 3: Reality as a sense check