People should not be treated like mushrooms. The “mushroom theory of management” is something I have seen practiced in many workplaces and close personal relationships. People in charge or those with important information treat other people like mushrooms by keeping them in the dark and feeding them (lets clean it up a bit) the fertilizer of unreliable or partial information. This amounts to using communication to enhance personal power by withholding significant information from others. Manipulating situations by revealing or withholding information is even more powerful when the uninformed have rights to the hidden information.
This problem is targeted by many procedures for opening communications between people or within groups. At work it may be called “team building;” it may be communication techniques or exercises used at retreats; or it may be a project requiring group decision-making. In court or at work, it may be mediation procedures for resolving disputes. In personal life, it may be pre-marital counseling, marriage counseling, or individual therapy.
In each of these situations, open communication is encouraged as essential. It can also be therapeutic in all of these situations so that, when over, it is seen as a “peak experience” that enhances interpersonal understanding and closeness. In fact, the therapeutic value of open communication can become the main objective that is sought.
The point I will make is that the therapeutic effects of communication are not effective as a goal to pursue. Open communication, and the therapeutic benefits it can bring, works best when communication is improved as a step to achieving some really important objective. The primary measure of success must be reaching that objective, not how people felt about the quality and depth of communication in the process.
Based on personal experience, I believe that accomplishing goals leads to therapeutic benefits beyond the value of communication itself. To show what I mean, let’s look at examples from work, mediation, and personal counseling.
For more than a decade, I was a facilitator or trainer directing “interventions” at retreats, training events, or as part of developing a project team. I was an Organization Development consultant working with top and upper middle managers of a large state agency. There was resistance to interventions by managers (including my own supervisors) and employees who heard about “touchy feely” exercises that would make them emotional in public. Many seemingly innocuous games could be used to get people talking as they followed some basic rules to keep them from blaming others as they expressed their own views.
Time and again, I saw people who feared emotionalism quickly become passionately involved in laying out hurts they had been carrying around for years and asking for more personal understanding from others than they had been receiving. Invariably there were many teary eyes before the end of the process and an immediate afterglow of positive affirmation in the entire group.
When feelings were shared without specific agreements being made on improvements, the situation usually returned to the previous condition within a few days or weeks. Managers sometimes wanted to do follow-up exercises to try to harness the good will that had been experienced, but resistance grew far too strong because of the short-lived success the first time. No one would say anything negative about what happened, but they summed up their feelings with “been there, done that.” It was not good enough to make them want to repeat it.
I soon learned to link communication exercises to negotiating rules to accommodate the most important concerns of work groups. Requiring decisions by consensus in these discussions eventually led to very open expression of concerns and requests for making changes. No one was allowed to dictate, although the supervisor always had veto rights when company policy or other expectations of higher management would be infringed. The result would be trade-offs so that no one got everything they wanted but everyone got enough to feel the situation had improved. The process would be successful as communications were open and therapeutic benefits were felt. But reaching agreements on needed changes and following up with evaluation to insure they were honored perpetuated the benefits of therapy and gained credibility for the process as durable change was experienced.
I began to have so much success with negotiation as part of improving work teams that I decided to become a certified mediator. Over a number of years I worked with courts in 5 counties near my residence and mediated disputes in several state agencies in addition to my own. The goal sought in mediation was to resolve a problem at work or that would bring someone before a judge for a final decision. In both cases, one of the parties to the mediation knew they stood to lose a lot from the higher authority if the mediation failed to resolve important issues. Yet the pressure was never one-sided, because both parties stood to lose something of value if the higher authority made a decision because it could not be handled amicably at a lower level.
Negotiated agreements required both parties to make trade-offs, giving up something of lower personal value to gain something considered more important. Each party had something to gain from the settlement and something important to lose if the agreement were not kept. The result was more amicable settlement of disputes, leading more and more employers and court systems to turn to mediation.
Mediators are trained in setting boundaries for the negotiation process so that open communication within limits is sought as a resolution to the dispute is hammered out through the leadership of a neutral discussion leader. There were sometimes therapeutic benefits that began to repair damages to relationships as children overcame disagreements in the probate process, or as divorcing parties worked out compromises that allowed them to put the interests of children foremost, or as employees came to see their supervisor was not viciously intent on forcing them out of their job.
One reason I stopped doing mediation was the development of a movement calling for going “beyond shallow problem-solving.” The real goal, it was said, was to emphasize depth of communication more than coming up with settlements. Whether a dispute was settled and the agreement was carried out were quantitative measures of success for mediation. The new approach wanted to emphasize the quality of what happened during the mediation process rather than the outcome which could possibly be a shallow agreement that avoided the deep-seated problems in the relationship of the people involved. In other words, the therapeutic value of open communication, which could only be measured by asking people how they “felt” when the process was over, became the goal rather than achieving a measureable goal that could be enforced afterward. I became unwilling to participate in programs that started down a path I felt was bound for disappointment.
You might expect the situation to be different for counseling related to marriage or very personal issues because open communication seems like an important goal. Freudian analysis involved getting people to talk so that they reached awareness of what was behind some problems and thus achieved improvement. There are other counseling methods that focus on having two parties really listen to each other as they communicate more and more freely yet following important rules for taking personal responsibility rather than blaming others. There is no doubt that many people feel their marriage was saved or their lives changed for the better through this kind of counseling.
I have also seen many cases in which there is an initial boost of good feeling that was not followed up with positive changes. In three long-term relationships, I experienced bonding with women who shared inner burdens from the past and responded enthusiastically to having someone listen and appreciate them. But that initial glow didn’t last because my partners did not make personal adjustments to get beyond their hurts. In one case, a father was despised for his treatment of the family and his behavior became projected onto me as the relationship lasted longer and longer. The same issues were hashed out in counseling for years, but she continued to insist on seeing, for example, my reading that was part of work as well as relaxation from work, as following in the steps of someone who would not keep a job but would only read pulp fiction all day. In two other situations, scars from emotional abuse in long marriages that had ended were described over and over. The initial sense of understanding from open communication did not last when the issue came down to what someone was willing to do to let go of old hurts and make positive choices about the future. Failure to achieve results indicating positive change undermined the therapeutic glow that brought us together.
Personal and marital counseling can also benefit from negotiating agreements. Parents who are blending families but who disagree over rules can benefit as the parents hammer out a set of rules they will agree on and continue to negotiate modifications if needed as the rules are put into place. In some cases having parents include children in the negotiation can be beneficial. These are times when all sides are encouraged to openly express feelings and concerns, yet they are also called on to moderate some of them as they make agreements on behaviors to improve troublesome situations. Returning to the negotiating table to express concerns and continue working positively toward improvements is also a positive outcome. No agreement is meant to last forever and events bring up surprises that must be accommodated. Using open communications to support a mutually respectful process for resolving personal and family issues is a true win-win situation for those involved.
Communication is a real blessing. It is wonderful when someone really listens to you and responds by opening up in turn. That wonderful feeling we get and a sense of internal healing is what we mean by the word therapeutic. But at work, in court, and at home, it is usually essential to go beyond that initial glow to realize the benefits of that wonderful experience. Words that are not followed by appropriate actions can lead to a sense of betrayal. Communication with other human beings can be wonderful and very therapeutic; but to have the longest lasting positive results it must be in service to some achievable goals for which communication is the means and not the end.
First Published April, 2015