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Why discussions go astray (1947).

THE POINTS OF BREAKDOWN in group discussions are many and varied. Much of the time they coincide with the failure of participants to understand each other. Sometimes they occur when the participants understand each other too well. Very often it is by the expression of differences of opinion and interest that ideas are clarified and solutions worked out. But whenever the controversy and conflict signalize a loss of rapport, so that the participants seem to be talking at or past rather than with each other, then the differences should be recognized as disintegrative rather than productive.

A comprehensive catalogue of such disintegrative patterns is not yet available, but the following are typical: when the argument moves from the issue to the personalities; when a colloquy between factions is marked by such "ego-statements" as "You're absolutely wrong," "I've had years of experience on this," "I know what I'm talking about," etc.; when a speaker identifies himself so thoroughly with an issue that criticism of it is construed as an attack on him; when one participant fails to deal with a question or argument raised by another who continues to call attention to the failure; when inaccuracy or falsification is charged; when there are discrepancies in the assertions of "the" facts, etc. It is worth noting that these do not mean that breakdown is inevitably at hand. On occasion they are manifested with the maintenance of rapport.

On the assumption that the study of the sources of conflict might throw light on the processes of understanding, patterns of disintegration were looked for in fifty discussion groups. This essay summarizes some of the preliminary findings which came from focusing attention on the character of the understanding shown by the participants of what was said.

It was realized in the early phases of the investigation that "understanding" was a many-faceted phenomenon. As a working basis six possibilities (considered neither exclusive nor exhaustive) were isolated.

|Understanding.sub.1~ = the following of directions. A |understands.sub.1~ a time-table, when by following the printed instructions, he is able to board the train he wants. A |understands.sub.1~ B when he does what B tells him to do in the way B wants it done.

|Understanding.sub.2~ = the making of predictions. A |understands.sub.2~ B when A is able to predict accurately what non-verbal action B will take after the utterance.

|Understanding.sub.3~ = the giving of verbal equivalents. A |understands.sub.3~ what B says or writes when he is able to translate the verbalization into other terms which B admits are adequate approximations. A |understands.sub.3~ B when he is able to describe what B wants in terms admitted by or acceptable to B, whether or not A wants the same thing.

|Understanding.sub.4~ = the agreeing on programs. A |understands.sub.4~ B when they will undertake any agreed upon action, whether or not there is verbal agreement.

|Understanding.sub.5~ = the solving of problems. A |understands.sub.5~ a situation or problem when he recognizes the steps that must be taken for its solution or resolution regardless of the facilities or his ability to take such steps.

|Understanding.sub.6~ = the making of appropriate responses. A |understands.sub.6~ the proprieties, customs, taboos, works of art or music, poetry, architecture, etc., when his responses to them are of a sort considered appropriate by B.

Simplicity and Proper Evaluation

Much of the professional concern of those interested in the improvement of "understanding" in communication centers around the means whereby a speaker or writer can "say it clearly" or "put it into plain words" so that the processes occurring in |understanding.sub.1, 2, 3~ can be facilitated. The effort is to reduce the verbal specialization, complexity, incoherence, compression, diffuseness, vagueness, generality, and impersonality by any or all of the known devices of reduction, amplification, concretion, iteration, variation, dramatization, and visualization.

Throughout the study an effort was made to determine the relationship between the conflicts and the degree of clarity of the statements made. The method of analysis consisted mainly of questioning the participants involved both during and after the discussion for their |understanding.sub.3~ of what was being said. Despite the incompleteness of this procedure there is some evidence that, had the speakers been trained in the rhetorical techniques of simplification and attraction, a sharper |understanding.sub.3~ would have resulted. As the observations continued, however, it was noticed that no matter how clearly the participants said they |understood.sub.3~ the arguments, the points of conflict still remained and, indeed, were in many instances sharpened. It was as if this rhetorical emphasis dealt with a symptomatic or marginal matter rather than with the fundamental dislocation.

After twenty of the group discussions had been analyzed and after the sectors of controversy had been reexamined, another definition was added.

|Understanding.sub.7~ = the making of proper evaluations.(1) A |understands.sub.7~ B, a thing, a condition, a situation, a happening, a relationship, etc. (i.e., non-verbal phenomena), or what is said about each, when his response is to it rather than to something else; when his sizing-up of anything, any situation, etc., is free of identification of it with anything else; when his taking account of it is not affected by assumptions of which he is unaware; when what he says about the situation, etc., fits it, that is, neither distorts, disorders, oversimplifies, overcomplicates, overgeneralizes, negates, adds to, takes from, or artificially separates it. A |understands.sub.7~ anything, then, when his diagnosis, at any moment, is free from identifications and when he is cognizant of the structural relationships discoverable both in what is talked about and in what is said.

The emphasis in the study of the remaining thirty group discussions was turned to a descriptive listing of the kinds of misevaluations manifested. Three of the most persistent are here set out.

The Prevention of Projection

Bertrand Russell introduced the term propositional function concerning which Cassius J. Keyser observed that "it is, perhaps, the weightiest term that has entered the nomenclature, in the course of a hundred years." Roughly, a propositional function is a statement containing one or more variables. By a variable is meant a term whose meaning or value is undetermined and to which one or more values or meanings can be assigned at will. A propositional function becomes a proposition when a single value is assigned to the variable.

A significant characteristic of a propositional function (e.g., "x are scarce," ... "Religion is an opiate," etc.) is that such a statement is neither true nor false, but ambiguous.(2) If to x is assigned the single, more definite value "Houses for rent in 1947"(3) and we say, "Houses for rent in 1947 are scarce," the propositional function has become a one-valued true proposition. "Negroes are cowards" is to be considered a many-valued statement and therefore indeterminate. But assign to the variable "Negroes" the |true~ value "Pvt. Woodall I. Marsh of Pittsburgh, of the 92nd Div., who won the Silver Star for taking twelve wounded paratroopers out of the front line to safety, fording a raging torrent in his truck, after an officer had said it couldn't be done," and the resulting statement is a proposition, but now a false one.

A rather considerable amount of the talk in the discussions was carried on in statements containing many-valued variables as if they were single-valued. Much too often a permanence and a specificity were assumed in the speaking, where on closer analysis there could be found only processes and varieties, even though concealed by the terms as used. Difficulties were to be expected (and they occurred) whenever the distinction was not recognized and wherever there was confidence that single-values prevailed. It should be noticed that difficulty arises not because variables are used, but only when they are presumed to be something other, i.e., identified with non-variables.(4)

Some surprise was shown at the San Francisco Conference on World Security when the Polish question became a source of controversy as both the American and the Russian delegates took for granted a non-existent singularity in value in the variable "democratic."(5) Democratic, concerned with the protection of minority opinions, is not |democratic.sub.2~, the Soviet notion of racial equality and Communist dominance. It is not argued that the awareness of the semantic distinction would have dissolved the difference in interests at that conference -- but in terms of our findings it is believed that the awareness might at least have exposed the source of the friction which grew out of the belief of each delegation that the other was behaving badly, since had not both agreed on the necessity of "democracy" in Poland?

The mechanism involved here can be put in focus by comparison with the simplicity-clarity doctrine. This view would locate the trouble in the word "democratic," making it the "barrier rather than the medium of understanding." Our view suggests that it might be equally cogent to note the projection-response, i.e., the assumption of a listener that he knew how the term was being used.(6)

At the heart of projection-misevaluation is the belief that there are values or meanings in terms. But values and meanings are assigned or ascribed to terms by a human nervous system. But so pervasive is the unexamined notion that words can have exact meanings compounded in and of themselves, in the way a tree has branches, that it is often difficult to persuade a listener that in discussion the other fellow may be assigning a value to his variables which is not at all the one the listener would assign if he were speaking.

In the thirty group discussions the projection-developed conflicts arose mainly at three points: in the exploratory-phase where the effort is to locate and expose the problem to be talked about; in the search-for-solutions-phase where the conflicts of interests arise; and in the formula-phase where effort is directed to the search for a program of action on which agreement can be reached. Present findings suggest that irrelevant discords which arise because of failure to uncover the individual values assigned to variables, and because of the unconscious assumption of the participants that each knows how the variables are being used by the others are an irritating influence on the rest of the discussion.

Obstructionists, either naive or sophisticated, can readily tie up any discussion by insisting on the fixing of all variables. This is the age-old sophistry which insists that terms be defined once and for all. But no definition can prevent a speaker from assigning other values to the variables, either by design or accident, as the discussion continues. In fact, the investigation revealed that there is most danger of bypassing when the members of the group hold fast to the belief that since the term has been given a definition everyone will use it in just that way. But it should be clear that no matter how terms are defined, the necessity of analysis for the values being assigned in the course of the talk still exists.

Statements of Fact and Inference

A rich source of |misunderstanding.sub.7~ was the belief of many of the participants in the factuality of their assertions. It was rarely sufficiently realized that a statement of fact can be made only after someone observes some thing or relation. Any utterance made prior to observation or when observation is not possible involves an inference or guess. One cannot speak with more than some degree of probability about what is to happen or about what happened before records were made. Nor, because of the recalcitrance of nature and life, is it possible to be factual about a host of present perplexities. Thus, in 1947, can anyone do more than conjecture about the precise cellular functions which end in cancer?

Although in discussion people are quick to assert "the" facts on any topic, it makes more than a little difference if instead of giving statements which fit observable phenomena they give their conjectured versions of what was observed. An example may make the point.

|In an Ohio State Hospital~ ... the attendant yelled at a patient to get up off the bench so the worker-patient could sweep. But the patient did not move. The attendant jumped up with an inch-wide restraining strap and began to beat the patient in the face ... "Get the hell up!" It was a few minutes before the attendant discovered that he was strapped around the middle to the bench and could not get up.(7)

The attendant observed one thing but assumed in his response something more, i.e., a reason for the patient's immobility. His analysis of the situation added to what could be observed and must, therefore, be considered inferential.

It seems unlikely that a discussion can be carried entirely on a factual basis using only statements based on the observations of the participants or anyone else. Any argument which seeks to prove that what is true of some, must be true of many cases, which concludes that if a program did or did not work in one place, it will or will not work in an essentially similar place, which supposes that certain effects will follow from the operation of indicated causes -- such typical lines of argument have an inferential basis which calls for little explication. But if conclusions and suppositions are presented as if they were factual and thus necessarily certain rather than tentative and probable, then an identification is at work which must affect the decisions being reached. Furthermore, if inferential utterances are passed off by participants in a discussion as if they were factual or as if they had the same degree of probability as factual statements, then there is created an atmosphere in which the search for |understanding.sub.4, 7~ on the issue tends to be subordinated to the vigor of the contending speakers, with the issue decided by attrition rather than by the adequacy of the assertions.


Pete Hatsuoko had been born in this country, though one of his parents had been born in Japan. He went to the public schools and received a degree from the State University. He had never been to Japan. He could not read or write Japanese. He knew only a few Japanese phrases used in family small-talk. After his induction into the Army, he was assigned to the Infantry. The orientation program included talks on the nature of the enemy. The captain in charge thought Pete should give one of the talks on "The Japanese Mentality." Peter tried in all candor to explain that he knew practically nothing about Japanese life and culture, that both his and his father's education had been received in this country. "But you're a Japanese," argued the Captain, "and you know about the Japanese. You prepare the talk." Pete did -- from notes after he read an Army handbook and a half-dozen popular magazine articles.

The evaluation of the two men may be analyzed as the prototype of a pattern which occurred frequently in the discussions. In a sense communication between them stopped when the conversation began. The issue was faced on quite different grounds by each. Pete oriented his thinking around "facts." He talked in terms of them. He was, as far as is known, making statements which could have been verified or at least investigated. The Captain, on the other hand, seemed preoccupied with associations stirred up inside his nervous system by an accident of phrasing. The verbal classification "Japanese" received his attention so that Pete's talking was neglected. It was as if the label "Japanese" served as a stimulus pushing off the Captain's thinking in a direction removed from the situation. The direction can be plotted by his definition: "A Japanese is a person who knows about the Japanese. It follows, therefore, that Pete Hatsuoko is a person who knows about the Japanese. It follows, therefore, that Pete Hatsuoko can give the talk. Other factors in the situation need not be considered."

The Captain's misevaluation can be viewed as a response to his private verbal definition as if it were something more. The point being made is not that there is anything sinister in the Captain's private conjuring up of images. It is enough to note that the behavior which resulted was of a kind very different from that which would have taken account of the outside phenomena. Furthermore, decisions made on the basis of verbal associations, no matter how elaborate, are not the same as nor commensurate with those derived from consideration of "facts." The point, in short, is this: evaluations based on the private elaboration of verbal formulae are not the same as nor should they be equated with evaluations based on verifiable descriptions or observations.(8)

What is important here is not the particular dodging of the issue by the Captain, but that this is a type of reaction which is in evidence in a very wide variety of human situations. Two examples are given.

According to a popular account, George Westinghouse designed a train brake operated by compressed air. After it was patented he struggled to convince railroad men of his invention's value. Cornelius Vanderbilt of the New York Central is said to have replied: "Do you mean to tell me with a straight face that a moving train can be stopped with wind?"

The mechanism of the |misunderstanding.sub.7~ may be generalized thus:

1. The issue was presented by reference to something nonverbal and observable.

2. The reply was oriented by a verbal definition. "What is wind? Something less solid than iron. A non-massive thing like wind cannot stop an iron train. Therefore the proposal is to be dismissed." Our discussion experience suggests that the |misunderstanding.sub.7~ would move directly to overt conflict were the conclusion to be personalized by some such assertion by Vanderbilt as, "Westinghouse, you're a fool."

That this sort of generalized verbalistic orientation to situations is not without its significance in human affairs is, perhaps, sharply presented in Hartley's study of the attitudes of 500 students, using a slightly modified form of the Bogardus Social Distance Scale with the names of some 35 ethnic groups. In the list were included the names of three entirely imaginary nationalities: Danirean, Pirenean, Wallonian. It was found that on the average there was as much prejudice directed against the "none-such" groups as against any other. One concludes that the thinking was in terms of the words, since there were no facts on which the thinking could be based. Or as the investigator puts it: "From the point of view of the experience of students, they must represent groups completely unknown in reality. Even if some students may have chosen to consider the Pireneans to be people who live in the Pyrenees; the Wallonians, Walloons; and the Danireans something else; the fact that they tended to do this is in itself significant. In reality there are no such groups, and for the attributes an individual may assign to them, we must look to the individual for the explanation, not to the group."(9)

The identification of these two broadly characterized modes of thinking in the discussions was rarely as neatly etched or as readily explainable as in these examples, in which the point of conflict is readily evident and from which the heat of controversy is absent. For the most part the misevaluation was concealed by the complexity of the subjects under discussion. When the topics had to do with government and religious activities, labor unions, propaganda, prejudice, taxation, health and social insurance, etc., the argument on even the local and specific issues was often observed to develop around a backlog of readily defined associations which the participants had on the terms "communism," "bureaucracy," "labor racketeers," "big business," "government spending," "Wall Street," etc., quite apart from the fitness of their formulations with the immediate and particular aspect of the topic being talked about.

In one group during the course of the study an attempt was made to correct the |misunderstanding.sub.7~ of the participants. That group, which was observed in five different discussions, was made up of people who manifested to an unusual degree this orientation by definition. The leader, a man of some experience, had on occasion sought to move the talk from the definition to the factual level and for his effort was accused of taking sides. In an attempt to explain the type of reaction which was producing unnecessary strains he set up a simple demonstration by means of a conventional formula. They had been discussing the advisability of continuing the Fair Employment Practices Commission. Three recorded speeches, each favoring the continuation of the FEPC, were played. The group was then asked to rank the speakers A, B, and C according to the effectiveness, logical soundness, etc., of the argument. B was judged the best with A and C following. A month later the three speeches were replayed for the group with but one change in the instructions. It was explained that speaker B was a "Negro." A was then judged the most effective with C second and B third. Such a result can, perhaps, be accounted for in many ways. But the notion that the members of the group in the second playing of the records were diverted from the speeches to a concern with the definition-associations of the word "Negro" is nevertheless suggestive.(10)


These three types of reaction which lead to |misunderstanding.sub.7~ by no means exhaust those which have been catalogued. They are presented as indications of a source of conflict and breakdown in a rather limited series of discussion situations.

Suppose participants could be so trained that they did not project their own values into variables, did not respond inferentially as if they were responding factually, and did not identify definition with fact-thinking, etc., would it follow that problems and disagreements in discussions would be thereby solved or resolved? Little in our findings so far could either support or raise doubts about such a conclusion. What is conceivable is this: the study of the sources of |misunderstanding.sub.7~ might, if the lessons were well learned, keep people from the moments when their talk leads to unnecessarily created controversy. Such antisepsis might, perhaps, create the atmosphere in which solutions become possible. Only then would it be desirable to explore the means leading to |understanding.sub.4, 5~.

It is not yet clear to what extent on-the-ground training in the patterns of proper evaluation will lead to a reduction in the points of disintegration in group discussions. The possibility of locating and charting such points, however, suggests that discussion leaders might well be made more sensitive to the signs of their development. Study might then move to the investigation of means by which such oncoming conflicts can be arrested or deflected.

One further conclusion seems inescapable. Where the basic orientation of a culture makes few semantically critical demands, it will not be surprising if men are isolated from each other by their very modes of communication. This is but a way of implying that progress in "understanding" does not require either the correction or simplification of the language in use, or the creation of special abridgments, but rather that progress depends instead on a reorientation of attitudes toward the verbalizing process itself.


1. Evaluation involves an integration of the "emotional" and "intellectual," giving an organism-as-a-whole response. This analysis of the methods of proper evaluation was based on formulations developed in Alfred Korzybski's Science and Sanity, Lancaster, Pa., Second Edition, 1941.

2. For a further analysis of this along with the factors of meaninglessness here omitted, see Alfred Korzybski, op. cit., pp. 135-145 and Cassius J. Keyser, Mathematics and the Question of the Cosmic Mind, New York: Scripta Mathematica, 1935, pp. 4-7.

3. Of course, since there are varying degrees of rigor in the assigning of values, "Houses for rent" can be further located and specified.

4. This does not say that many-valued statements ought to be eliminated from use. It does say that for maximum "understanding," participants must know the difference and not respond as if one were the same as the other. Nor is there any reason why anyone must speak at all times in the rigorous mood of propositions. It is enough, in the present context, to recognize that the lack of rigor, when unnoticed, was a persistent source of one kind of disturbance.

5. See the statement by Dean Virginia C. Gildersleeve in The New York Times, Oct. 31, 1945, p. 21.

6. John Buchan, commenting upon Marshal Haig's reserve, told the story of the latter's attempt to be friendly with a solitary private by a roadside: "Well, my man, where did you start the war?" Private (pale to the teeth): "I swear to God, Sir, I never started no war." "Start" is a "basic" word, but start with |value.sub.1~, equivalent to a place of induction, is not start with |value.sub.2~, equivalent to causing a war to begin. This is, of course, projection and bypassing at its simplest level.

7. Albert Q. Maisel, "The Shame of Our Mental Hospitals," Life, May 6, 1946, p. 105.

8. An approach to (but not the same as) this distinction may be seen in the somewhat neglected insight of William James that most of the civilized languages except English have two words for "knowledge," e.g., savoir and connaitre, wissen and kennen, or knowledge-about and knowledge-of-acquaintance. The latter is derived from direct experience of fact and situation; the former arises from reflection and abstract (i.e., verbal) thinking.

9. Eugene Hartley, Problems in Prejudice. Morningside Heights, N.Y.: King's Crown Press, 1946, p. 26.

10. In this group there was an occasion when there were signs of what could be called "pathological |misunderstanding.sub.7.~" This occurred when the leader tried to account for their different responses to the same recorded speeches. A highly-verbalized, aggressive member proceeded to lose his temper, even threatening the leader with physical harm for his statement that "to change one's attitude because of the word "Negro" was not quite sensible." Such an occurrence leads one to wonder whether a person, when unaware of the distinction, can become so immersed in definition-thinking, so habituated to identifying it with fact-thinking, that he may be rendered incapable of facing facts even when they are shown -- much less talked about. In this state, identifications become evidence of a kind of un-sanity.
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Author:Lee, Irving J.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Previous Article:Remembering Irving J. Lee.
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