Understanding Conversation and the Ubiquitous Human Potpourri of Conflicted Opinions

by Dr. Leo Rangell, Honorary President of The International Psychoanalytic Association

What do people really say when they speak to each other?
Why is there so much misunderstanding?

The explosion of psychological understanding that characterized the last prolific century progressed from the most disturbing mental experiences to more ordinary behavior. When the new psychological science at the turn of the century tied together symptoms and dreams, the grossly abnormal became continuous with normal human living. The same theoretical underpinnings exist behind both types of outcomes.

At a recent International Psychoanalytic Congress held in Chicago last week, the latest of these biennial gatherings penultimate among the social sciences, knowledge of the workings of the structures of the human mind advanced another niche, reaching to routine conversations.

People do not speak to each other but past each other, do not absorb and process what others say but pick and choose that which serves their own inner purposes. This 24/7 phenomenon, which plays a ubiquitous part in human life from Wars to broken friendships, was discussed in depth at a Round Table on “The Closed Mind” held at that Congress.

The Chairperson Jane Hall, commenting on the profusion or Babel of psychoanalytic theories, posed a question to the panel, “Why can’t people say ‘Oh, I never thought about it that way’, or ‘That is an interesting idea, let me think about it’, or ‘What you said and the way you said it sheds new light on the subject?’ That would be an ability to strive for”.

In my contribution to the panel, I confirmed the accuracy of that observation, stating that while it seemed a simple datum, it had profound ramifications, both for theory and in a practical sense for its widespread role in human affairs. It in fact applies generally and globally in life as much as to any specific professional or other group.

Approaching the subject analytically rather than as an advocate, from the usual position of the analyst equidistant between alternatives or both poles of any intractable conflict, I expanded the scope of the discussion to have it include the open as well as the closed mind, and the good as well as the bad aspects of each. “Because this discussion is about the negatives of a closed mind does not mean a fully open one is the answer.” From the usual neutral position toward a dichotomous dilemma, the ground between the two alternatives, not unexpectedly, will turn out to be not black and white but gray.

Consider the following from the New Yorker on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor: “When it comes to interpreting the Constitution, one can scarcely imagine a worse qualification than an open mind!! The issues are difficult and profound, and require a lifetime of study to master, and one would hope that Justices arrive with heads full of ideas about the document they are charged with understanding!!”

The same applies to any individual, and is a factor in analysis as well. A patient came away from an analysis with one explanation he remembered mostly: “in one ear and out the other”–a trend he had to watch out for–both as to what he learned, or failed to learn, in his analysis, and in his life before. An open mind is not a sieve. The ability to be open and the courage to embrace are both necessary–to be receptive to the new and able to retain what endures. Each can be deficient or excessive, indiscriminatingly open or rigidly closed.

The distortions of communication apply not only to what one says but how one listens. Filtering and selectivity occur 4 ways, to and from in both directions. One says what he feels he should, and hears what he wishes to hear. Every individual develops his own vocal signature, in what he says and how he says it, the rhythm, modulation, passive or assertive nature of his conversational tone. One can recognize a person by these clues as well as by any other.

As a result, the well-known Rashomon phenomenon occurs not only to every event but to every encounter. This accounts for the ubiquitous human potpourri of conflicted opinions, motivations and non-consensus. Since this applies to memory as well as perceptions, one must be careful when he speaks of truth, facts, reality, “what really happened?”, or “what did he/she actually say?” Periodically, our interest turns to chaos theory.

This is not unfamiliar ground. These easy truths are “known”, but not really, not consciously enough to be available for action. There is the known known and the unknown known–the latter, unconscious knowledge has less access to effective action. Remember the Jules Pfeiffer cartoons? Each day we read of what someone said, and in a bubble above what he really meant. The chuckle that followed indicated some recognition, but not insight that has effects. Humor imparts but also wards off the latter.

The entire subject is not new, although it always seems so. Over a quarter-century ago, in 1973, I was moved to write “On the Cacophony of Human Relations”, pointing out, in the zeitgeist of the times, a universal human experience, the disharmony between men. “Despite a yearning for closeness and constancy, which is integral to human striving, alliances are shallow and fleeting, undependable, narcissistically oriented, and, as often as not, run a relentless course toward dissolution of relationships between men and women, husbands and wives, men and men, siblings, even parents and children. Recently a patient lamented…the fragility of friendships everywhere”.

Why? What is behind this Balkanization of the entire world, people oppositional to and separated from people everywhere? The amassed analytic insights of the past century point to some of the ways related to the human mind. I would like to name a few.

First, I want to de-emphasize perhaps the most common explanatory target, the role of narcissism, the abnormal and hypertrophied love of the self. Each wants to have it his way–so the explanation goes–, to “be somebody”. Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism” was well received in 1979, and recruited its proper share of recognition. But narcissism has gone on to become an epithet rather than a valid explanation of psychopathologic behavior. “The other” always is a narcissist. Looking more closely, I do not believe that those who talk more straight have any less narcissistic investment than those more apt to twist the facts. Nor has convincing evidence been amassed that a Ghandi or Albert Schweitzer is less subject to narcissistic motivation than an ordinary person.

Rather, narcissism, as anxiety, is universal. In each case, its pathology is a quantitative issue. And in both, too little can be as pathological as too much.

More relevant to the phenomenon of every-minute distortion is actually the status of anxiety, the universal center of neurosis, and its accompanying issues of safety and security. The new mental science has shown at its center a universal, unconscious process of testing for the anxiety signal, experimental thought preceding any action. To routine acts, such as walking, talking, crossing a street, such testing is automatic and instantaneous. To demonstrate however, that this automatic internal process has time to assess any new incoming danger, if we are pulled over by a police car, whatever we were saying and however we were saying it changes in a flash to “What did I do wrong, Sir?”

Language accommodations have their adaptive values, even necessity, besides the defensive functions described. Civility, indeed civilization could hardly survive without them, if order rather than mayhem is to prevail.

I will end this essay on conversations with a serendipitous happening at this summer’s Congress related to the same subject of direct talk. I picked up a new book on display there written by three analytic friends on a series of monumental and searing exchanges amongst individuals and groups on their shared histories: Israeli and German psychoanalysts relating to each other their experiences about the holocaust. The crucial and indispensible factor here was “in the presence of the other”.

The book is: “Fed with tears–Poisoned with Milk.” The authors are Shmuel Erlich of Israel–born in Germany in 1937, emigrated to Palestine at age 2–, Mira Erlich-Ginor–born in Israel in 1944–, and Hermann Beland of Germany, born in 1933, a Protestant Theologist before becoming a psychoanalyst. A foreword is by Desmond Tutu. Enough cannot be said about all of them.

Carefully prepared Conferences making these interchanges possible have been held regularly from the mid-80’s until now–the first two in Nazareth, Israel, he next in Germany, the latest few in Cyprus, relatively “neutral” but with its own history of virulent enmities. Modeled originally after the Tavistock Group Relations Conferences, these gatherings gradually assumed identities of their own. At the first Conference in Nazareth, a German analyst in the Chair remarked how few had come from Israel–an answer came back, “If you had not killed so many of us, there might have been more”.

The goal stated was not to benefit by understanding, but by experiencing directly the affects of the other. Subsequently, the scope of this type of Conference is being applied to the Israeli-Palestine conflict as well, a natural extension of the basic principles involved.

The ultimate outcome is hard to say. But an advance–a startling one– has been made

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