Imagine a personal discipline for learning communication and cooperation skills, using the routines and errands of everyday life as our classroom. It's all free because it's outside the money system entirely. But it can help us make a living, avoid trouble, improve personal relationships, and work together for a better world. In an age of arrogant and abusive institutions, we can learn skills to take back more control of our lives.
For example, many people have difficulty asking for help (asking for what they need), especially when they need it most. But they can learn by practicing first in easy cases, like asking for street directions -- while focusing on ease, style, or technique more than on the information they seek. They can practice hundreds of times if necessary for mastery. If they have issues about asking for help or deserving it (due to past experiences obscuring current realities), they can start working on them here. Later, as they advance to increasingly important requests (such as seeking assistance on the job), they build competence to ask effectively and strengthen relationships even in critical or intense situations.
This practice works like martial-art training, but for skills we use all the time in everyday life. While it can be competitive, it's usually about cooperation -- not winners and losers, but larger outcomes we build together.
You can study or use these skills almost any time or place. Nobody can tell that you are using this discipline, because the practices integrate seamlessly with everyday activities, with whatever you are doing anyway. This is not an accident but a central feature of Communication Practices -- for many reasons. It lets you start training any time, without having to wait for permission or resources -- learning new skills with no expense and little risk, and without performance anxiety. And this education works efficiently because it always takes place in real situations, not artificial ones.
Prevailing interaction, negotiation, teamwork, leadership, and other interpersonal styles influence almost everything that happens in human communities. They largely determine the success or failure of our personal and collective projects, and determine whether we reach our goals and fulfill our dreams. Yet most adults never learn some basic skills that others learn easily as children -- asking for help, for example, taking the lead gracefully (or following the lead of others), finding shared enthusiasm, or entering a group already at play. A grassroots, free, and effective way to build such strengths could have enormous influence, improving our personal lives and public institutions as well.
This site has self-education examples to try. Our goal is not to produce a particular list of training methods, but to encourage a worldwide conversation that brings together people who are interested. This movement could work like an open-source software project, but with no need for central control. The training practices will never be finished but always be open to development -- and users (not authorities) will determine which ones catch on.
We are looking for people who could help in this project -- for example, by improving the training practices or the instructions for using them, or by alerting individuals or groups who may be interested.
The best way to keep in touch is to join our moderated discussion list. Send a blank email to:
Or email me at the address below. Please include the word "practice" or "practices" in the Subject line, to separate your message from all the spam.
John S. James, email@example.com, 2004-09-14
Communication and relationship go everywhere and strongly influence human activity -- from war and peace among nations to whether a marriage works, from political action to personal friendship, from keeping it together to success in work, school, or life.
Much of what happens -- in our own lives, our communities, and world events alike -- depends on personal strengths and weaknesses in communicating, connecting, and interacting with others. People differ greatly here, but probably most adults never learn some skills that most children master before leaving elementary school. Lost opportunities, pointless fighting, poor leadership and negotiation, unhappy relationships, and even suicide can result.
A good way to teach these personal-interaction skills is to design simple exercises (I call them "practices") for assisted-performance education (learning by doing) in the routine activities of everyday life. These practices can guide the learner in "going through the motions" of simple interactions and relationships -- even some that he or she had never before used successfully. This training works within routine everyday activities, with no important consequences at stake -- and is totally invisible to onlookers. So one can practice a skill (like asking for help, for example -- or expressing gratitude -- or commending someone's excellence -- or entering a conversation effectively) hundreds times with little stress, mainly to develop artistry and excellence in the interaction itself.
Because this self-education works in everyday life, one can build skills almost any time or place, and use them almost any time or place. No money or free time are required, since this training uses only the routine activities and human interactions already available through whatever else one is doing anyway. And since others cannot tell when you are using these training exercises, there is little performance anxiety and no need for anyone's permission.
Many successful people already develop such training for themselves, or learn similar practices from their families, from elite social or business scenes, or from other groups. But we need social movements to systematically improve the training and make it available to all. The most effective movements will be open-ended -- allowing anyone in the world to create new training practices or change existing ones, and build whatever constituencies they can. Then, for example, certain practices could be designed to teach insights or strengths of a particular culture. And practices could even be tested in randomized scientific trials to see which ones work best.
Could such education ever become a significant competitor to major human activities like commerce or war? Possibly, because this training helps with human communication and relationships, which are centrally important to most people. It also helps us make a living, deal with hostility, get by in the world, and find new connections with others. It works for all social classes. And it offers a path for taking back control of our destiny from dysfunctional governments, inequitable markets, and other abuses of power.
Let's establish this kind of personal education as a publicly known activity so that those interested can find each other and share what they learn.
Pick one or two of these practices to work with at any one time. Especially at first, do not do anything that makes you uncomfortable.
Note that we have just begun designing and documenting these practices. Only sketches are available now. We will improve these practices and the training materials on how to use them.
And note that anyone can design new practices, or promote those they like. It's an open-ended process, with no central authority to approve or disapprove proposed practices. Instead, the users decide which ones prevail.
For more information about a practice, click on the title.
* Changing Who Leads
Sometimes you must take the lead at first, to set the content and tone of an interaction -- but then should let other(s) lead so they can do their job their way. Phone calls you make to strangers in a bureaucracy provide an ideal learning situation. [For the full text, click on the title.]
* Respect, Appreciate, Agree
We can improve almost any relationship by finding something we honestly like or respect about the other person (even with an opponent). But we miss opportunities to build these emotional bridges because we are attracted to the activity and motion of conflict.
By practicing the physical movements, rhythms, and styles of others -- and their ways of getting things done in the world -- we can understand them better, and also increase our own repertoire.
As you watch people in crowds or pass them on the sidewalk, what nonverbal "messages" do you pick up about where they are at?
* People Watching
Most of us have lots of idle moments among people (such as walking through a crowd, taking a bus, or waiting in line). We can use this time to build habits of awareness of what is going on around us.
* Sharing Enthusiasm
Even with strangers there are many reasonably safe opportunities to share a moment of enthusiasm or fellow feeling.
* Entering a Group Already at Play
A critical moment in the life of a young child is trying to enter a group already at play. Even the most popular children are often rejected. Psychologists have found some strategies that can help both children and adults. [For the full text of any of these examples, click on the title.]
Computers and Social Organizing (DRAFT)
June 28, 2003: I attended the Planetwork conference this month in San Francisco, and drafted the following article for an AIDS newsletter on how new software tools could help in social organizing -- in particular, fundraising for global health.
Online Sims: Connecting with People
Nov. 26, 2002: The Sims, "the best selling computer game of all time," is about to go online with room for a million players. It suggests a new model for how to connect with people. [For full text, click on the title.]
Education for a Better Life and Better World
How do we get to a world with more friendship and joy, and less greed and violence? One way is to build a model for how anyone can improve their own situation, and also contribute to a better world, through the same actions. It helps if one can start now, without having to wait for anyone else, or for any institution. [Click title for full text.]
Personal Communication and Mass Society
Today we live in a worldwide mass society far larger than any human community in history. Personal communication and relationships remain much as they have always been. But a large society opens new possibilities for a movement of continual innovation in teaching and learning communication and relationship skills. [For more, see Personal Communication and Mass Society: What's New.]
How to Design Good Training Practices
We have found that effective training practices have several defining characteristics.
Vygotsky and Education
Russian psychologist and educator Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) is becoming increasingly influential in U.S. education. He believed that what students can do with an instructor's assistance, but cannot yet do alone, is what they are most ready to learn. This essay introduces readers to some of his thinking. (Communication Practices uses assisted performance, but with the assistance coming from the community through the design of the practices, instead of from an instructor -- to facilitate education not only in a classroom, but almost any time in everyday life.)
Training and Good Will (Ethics of Communication Practices)
We need rejection as well as acceptance to shape our relationships -- just as a sculpture is defined by what is cut away as well as what remains. So it's a mistake to obsess on being accepted by a particular person or group, or to manipulate our way into inappropriate relationships. Instead, realize that you can get what you want, within reason, so that's not the issue. Then use your skills not so much to be accepted, as to overcome obstacles so that both acceptance and rejection can work as they should, in shaping the right relationships. [See Training and Good Will.]
Structures of Involvement: Building a Better World
How can communication and relationship training go beyond personal success, and contribute to better public institutions and a better world?
As a child, living in Washington DC, I thought that institutions were buildings -- the White House, the Capitol. Later I learned that institutions are not the buildings but the people. But in fact, institutions are not the people, who often come and go while the structure changes only slowly. Institutions are best understood as shared practices and expectations of the people involved.
Today's biggest problems (such as massive world poverty with little technical or material excuse) are mainly caused by institutional failure. Most people do not respond to these problems because they have no workable way of doing so. We could open many doors by creating an ongoing, everyday-life "laboratory" for developing graceful ways of connecting peoples' concerns to the problems at hand. [For more, see Structures of Involvement.]
Organizing Small Groups: The Personal Story
Old-style book discussion groups are usually boring. A better focus is personal stories; each person can share their own experiences related to the announced topic or theme. [See Small Groups and the Personal Story: The Voluntary Simplicity Conference.]
How Communication Practices Began
My interest began when I heard a talk by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) about 40 years ago; he suggested collecting successful training methods from different fields. Only recently did I find a practical way to proceed. Communication Practices combines advantages of our two main ways of learning: organized education (such as classes, books, tutoring, or therapy), vs. learning by life experience. Organized programs can be consciously designed, tested, and improved -- but they are usually expensive, and we spend considerable time making arrangements but relatively little actual learning time in most programs. On the other hand, we spend our whole lives learning by experience -- but with remarkably little systematic attention to improving this critically important process.
"Practices" are methods to help us learn more effectively from life experience -- methods that we can use ourselves, without waiting for others, yet which can also can be discussed, compared, tested, and improved over time, through the contributions of many people.
[For more, see How Communication Practices Began. Also see Uses of Practices.]
http://www.casagordita.com/tools.htm "Tools for Organizers, Activists, Educators, and Other Hell-Raisers" has dozens of credible links on how to build progressive organizations.
http://www.coopcomm.org/ The Seven Challenges: A Workbook and Reader About Communicating More Cooperatively, by Dennis Rivers, M.A., takes some of the most important ideas from communication studies and puts them in a practical form people can use. For example, one of the chapters looks at "explaining my conversational intent and inviting consent."
http://www.culturalcreatives.org/ "As of the year 2000, there are 50 million adults in the United States who have the worldview, values and lifestyle of the Cultural Creatives," based on extensive survey research. But most have no idea how numerous they are. They may share deep values with colleagues and friends, without either knowing it.
http://www.phillyimc.org/alternatives/ "Alternatives to Corporate Globalization," has almost 300 annotated links to "models of alternative ways to envision a new society."
http://www.visionarylead.org/ "We feature values-based leadership training in an environment of heartfelt dialogue with an intellectually stimulating community of professionals..."
Here are some self-improvement sites. Most such sites only sell expensive seminars, etc. But these have (or had) at least a little useful information free on the site itself.
Many companies teach communication for business -- but again, most of their Web sites are long on sales pitches and short on useful information. One site that does have useful suggestions is Ivy Sea Online Leadership & Communication Center, http://www.ivysea.com, by Ivy Sea, Inc., in San Francisco. We will list others as we learn about them.
Also check out the voluntary simplicity movement. It's not really about living with less, but about living appropriately for our goals and values. For links, see our essay Small Groups and the Personal Story: Voluntary Simplicity Conference.
Please send suggestions for other links to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To join our unmoderated discussion group, send email to:
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John S. James, email@example.com -- please include the word "practice" or "practices" in the Subject line, to separate your message from all the spam. Or leave a voice message at 215-978-7480.
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Last updated 2005-03-12.