Training and Good Will

by John S. James

Our goal in Communication Practices is to develop a kind of training for better human relationships, and a social scene or community which supports this training. We want this work to be available to people as a social activity, and also as a lifelong personal discipline which you can use wherever you are, building the same communication skills through successive jobs, school attendance, or other stages of life.

Today's mass society offers many thousands of special interests and disciplines (in the arts, sport, business, academics, politics, and other areas), thousands of chances to develop a particular expertise, either professionally or for personal interest. And besides the thousands of specialties already available, hundreds if not thousands are in development at any one time. That's why we are confident that there is room for one more--if we can show "proof of principle," show people that communication practices can help them get what they want. (After all, human relationships are important--although you wouldn't know that from browsing the Web, with thousands of sites on improving your house or your computer, but few with useful information on improving communication and relationships. No surprise, really, since the high-profile Web sites exist to sell products--and how we relate as human beings is certainly not a strong point of the market system.)

Some might argue that our focus on training is misplaced, because what people really need is good will. It's widely believed that if only you are in the right spirit, and have good intentions toward others, then effective relationships will happen automatically. If someone has interpersonal problems, then, it's because they do not want to do better; they need to reform their lives, change what they are about, and often this happens only through suffering. Skills development may seem like a diversion from the deeper changes that are needed.

We agree that good will is centrally important, probably more so than training or skills. For example, if someone is habitually violent, you cannot teach them to not be violent through the same kind of training that would be used to teach skills such as math, or playing the piano. But this does not mean that training has no role--for several reasons:

(1) It's clear that not all human problems are caused by bad intentions. For example, legitimate misunderstandings can cause very serious conflicts, which could be avoided if either or both of the parties had the skills to understand what was going on, withdraw when necessary, and otherwise act to defuse the situation.

(2) Different people with the same degree of good will (or of bad will) can be very much more or less effective in working with others, because of their different personal skills.

(3) Sometimes skills can even have a role in correcting problems that may seem to result from bad will. For example, consider habitual dishonesty. It might seem easy to be honest--just stop being dishonest. But the truth may be more complicated; it seems that some people really do not know how to be honest, and fail when they try. True, they could largely avoid dishonesty by living alone in the woods as a hermit, and never interacting with anybody. But they don't know how to use honest practices to accomplish anything, to put together an ongoing relationship, a successful job, or a life.

So training and skills may have a role even in these hard cases, where the more popular remedies of threats, pressures, and preaching have basically not worked. In fact, such training is already in wide use. The most successful element in personal reform is often relationship with a mentor, who helps teach the missing everyday-life skills in how to do things differently. The problem is that today, such training happens (or not) largely by chance--because we as a society are so obsessed with the moralistic aspect, reassuring ourselves of social standards by defining the perpetrator as a bad person, that we do not pay enough attention to the role of skills development in personal reform.

(4) Finally, in some cases it is possible to "teach" or "learn" good will--for example, through spiritual or religious practices for cultivating virtues such as benevolence throughout one's everyday activities. And if you know how to use benevolence well, you are more likely to choose it than if you usually make a mess with it. (Also note that self-awareness training is important to help avoid self deception about whether or not you are succeeding in practicing the desired quality, and to understand how your actions are seen and felt by others.)

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