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opinion

Personal Economy and Liberal Arts

Yes, it matters what our students major in — but it may matter less than their maturity and perseverance and other interpersonal skills, writes Lee Williams.

By

Lee Burdette Williams

March 13, 2014

Comments

 

 

I recently sat through another compelling defense of the liberal arts, although I hardly needed to be in the choir again. I sing loudly from the song sheet, being both the recipient of a liberal arts education and an employee of a college deeply committed to this work. I am surrounded every day by the very evidence that its defenders offer in support of the necessary existence of this uniquely American construct.

But I am troubled by what is not often said. I interact daily with students who will soon be on the job market as well as recent graduates who have entered that same tough market, and I have come to realize that the arguments in favor of, or against, the wonders of a liberal arts education tell only half the story. There is an equation at work in determining the likelihood of success, and it is an equation too often overlooked in our defense of the liberal arts: the one that calculates the value of character and personal skills. 

I can hardly count the number of times in recent months I have heard successful people share with audiences that they are liberal arts graduates. These speakers are often on the dais because of their success.  "I was an English major — British lit to be specific!" "I majored in philosophy, double-minored in French and chemistry!"

And look at them now: accomplished, articulate, passionate. They are in business, in education, in social services, politics and medicine. They are entrepreneurs, thought leaders, successful artists and authors.  “Look!” they say. “A liberal arts education can lead to great career opportunities and even more. My liberal arts background has prepared me to constantly retool, to be a lifelong learner, to ask big questions and solve big problems." 

It absolutely can, but it is not enough. Nor is it enough to major in business, or engineering, or anything, for that matter. It is no longer enough to lay claim to a particular educational background. Professional success and personal satisfaction can certainly come to someone who majored in political science or sociology, but not just because of that major, or in spite of it. 

These people on the dais were most likely the students who, regardless of major, just did things well. They came to class having done the reading. They turned in assignments and participated appropriately in group work.  They spoke up when asked a question, and listened when others spoke, and in doing so, learned something. They did not miss three classes after a fight with a boy/girlfriend. They did not bail on a group project because their classmates made them uncomfortable. They managed bad news with some degree of equanimity.

Then they graduated, and succeeded in whatever place they found themselves — showing up for work, doing what was asked, accepting criticism, improving.

As a dean of students I interact regularly with students on two ends of a wide spectrum.  On one end are student leaders — student government officers, resident advisers, peer leaders, team captains.  On the other end are students who are struggling mightily.  Perhaps it’s a lack of resilience that has led them to my office, realizing they are going to fail a class or two or all of them.  Or they have behaved in some way that troubles me so much that I invite them in for a conversation about what has happened.  Sometimes they are at the table in my office because they are sadly disconnected from the social fabric of this small college, leading a faculty or staff member to alert me to the possibility of them dropping out, flunking out, or worse. 

The conversations I have, or try to have, with these students provide me with a deeper understanding of the other side of that equation, and what is missing from it, leading me to a conclusion that in all the discussion and defense of a liberal arts education, something vital to a student’s prospects is not being discussed.  Liberal arts plus… how can I say this?  Liberal arts plus decent interpersonal skills — the ability to converse, to make eye contact, to speak in complete sentences, to recognize one’s responsibility, to listen to another perspective — equal fairly decent job prospects. 

A major in European history is neither a solid predictor of, nor an ample plan for, career success.  either is it a death knell.  Without the other side of that equation, however, a liberal arts major is simply not enough. In fact, I’ve started to see this as basic math, with four simple equations: 

1.  A marketable major (in these times, STEM majors and some professionally focused majors) + good interpersonal skills (which include reliability, ability to work with others, a decent attention span) = very likely professional success. 

2.  A liberal arts major + those same interpersonal skills = fairly likely professional success. 

3.  A marketable major without interpersonal skills = possible professional success (some skills are valuable enough for employers to overlook certain deficits).

4.  A liberal arts major without interpersonal skills = not much chance of professional success.

An equation leading to a good life must balance the economy of the liberal arts with a personal economy — one that demonstrates emotional intelligence, self-awareness and maturity.  I say this while acknowledging the affection I have for those students who do struggle to interact in appropriate ways, for those who cannot navigate the stressful pathways of classes and peer groups and inconveniences that fill the landscape of college life.  I don’t think it’s a liberal arts degree that dooms or defines a graduate.  I think it has a lot more to do with their personality traits than their transcript.  And I’m weary of the implication that a choice to major in the liberal arts is what will keep my students unemployed, or underemployed, when I see so many of them landing good jobs and starting what I know will be interesting, though occasionally uneven, careers about which they care deeply.

My advice to the many students who start college as "undecided" is always the same advice I received as an undergraduate: Major in something you enjoy and do it well. Do things well. Show up on time, and do what you say you’re going to do. If you run for a student government office, come to meetings and follow through on what you’ve promised. If you have a campus job, take it seriously. Do things well, I tell students, and doors will open for you. (I should pause here and acknowledge that I didn’t actually figure this out until much later, and wish at times I could go back in time and show up for a meeting prepared, or not skip my shift in the student center, but I was young and naive and a sociology major in a different, less-stressful economy with student loans that felt manageable.)

I often find myself working with students who are utterly unable to take responsibility for themselves, who are done in by the smallest disappointment. What does that bode for their future employers? I would not hire them to feed my fish, and I know them. I care about them. I am responsible for them. So what chance do they stand with a prospective employer who is seeking an entry-level worker to interact with customers, or work as part of a team?  Sometimes I find myself hearing from a parent who is calling or emailing to do something for a student — schedule a meeting with a staff member, fill out a form — that should be easily within the student’s ability. Will that parent do the same with an employer? 

About a fifth of my 1,500 students are varsity athletes, and another 70 or so are members of club sports teams. They struggle with the same emotional and academic challenges as their non-athlete classmates, but most also manage to figure out a way to get to practices and games, to keep their grades high enough to maintain their eligibility. The club sports leaders have to schedule their own games, arrange their own transportation, decide who plays, design and order their own uniforms, collect dues and lobby the student government for funds. If I could find a way for all of my students to have that sort of experience, I think it could more than make up for their "unmarketable" liberal arts degrees as they enter the work force. And yet, athletics is often criticized as a distraction from academics. 

We routinely place students in positions of responsibility on our campus — to manage money, to respond to behavioral issues, to serve on search committees and host a candidate for lunch — and I know what many of them are capable of. I don’t always know their majors, but I know their prospects. They will find themselves in a job, maybe not the job of their dreams at first, but they will be able to manage the small, and then slightly larger, tasks placed before them. And they will think back, I believe, to some of the challenges they faced on the campus of this small college, which they often claim is not “the real world.”  But it is the real world in many ways — fraught with hassles, battles, disappointments, requiring self-advocacy, empathy, patience — and it is preparing them for the work world in ways that their academic coursework may or may not be. 

These are student leaders — the resident assistant who has to learn to confront a belligerent peer at 2 a.m., or encourage a scared new student who has been eating too many meals alone. It’s the student body vice president who has to wrangle a roomful of talkative and occasionally self-interested senators and move them toward a decision. It’s the student center building manager who has to think on her feet when a pipe bursts and begins to flood the game room, mobilizing her peers to move furniture before it gets ruined. But it’s also the students who don’t characterize themselves as “leaders.” They just figure out how to register for a career services workshop on internships, how to interact with an alum at a networking event, how to competently, if not spectacularly, put one foot in front of the other as they move toward graduation.

I had the opportunity to teach a class this past semester. It was a small seminar with eight students, seven of them seniors. They were all different majors, and I’m not sure I could tell you who was what.  They were, though, smart and verbal and engaged in the discussions we had. They spoke, and they noticed when another person was trying to speak. They brought to the class their other academic interests, one of them using something learned in a religion and sexuality class to interpret one of our texts. Another explained to the class a landmark affirmative action case she learned about in her Constitutional law class.  A third offered her own experience as a resident adviser to provide context to a discussion on race relations on campus. 

They are justifiably worried about their job prospects, especially since they have spent a semester with me reading about the various crises of American higher education and its roots in the global economy. I’m sure their parents are worried, too. 

But I’m not as worried. I’m not sanguine, because it is difficult to find a job these days, but I believe that once they get into a work setting, they will do fine.  And their chances of getting into that work setting are better than average, because they can make eye contact and put several sentences together in service to their ideas. Not all of their classmates can do the same. Those are the ones I worry about.

We need to lessen our obsession with the obvious value of a liberal arts education and instead focus on the values of personal maturity, accountability, a sense of proportion and perspective. We need to be certain our students know how to give a good firm handshake, look someone in the eye and introduce themselves. We need to reinforce the importance of deadlines. We need to address (dare I say it?) personal hygiene and appropriate dress. We must make sure they can get to their feet at a college-sponsored dinner and thank guests for coming, or introduce a speaker at a lecture, or send a thank-you note to the director of an office that has provided them funds to attend a conference. 

Is this the work of higher education?  Some would argue it absolutely is not, that postsecondary education is about mastering content and developing all-important critical thinking skills, about becoming self-taught, curious researchers and life-long learners. To those who would argue those points, I would say yes — it is all about those things, and I am grateful for the liberal arts education that helped me develop those skills.  But I would then suggest, respectfully, that as maddening as it might be to spend valuable teaching time engaged in building the personal economy of our students, it is perhaps the best way to support the successful launch into that life we want for them. 

Because in the hard work of balancing this complicated equation, even the best liberal arts education will not remedy the lack of the most basic interpersonal skills. 

Bio

Lee Burdette Williams is vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College (Mass.).

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Lee Burdette Williams

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Interpersonal communication Essay

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Keywords: interpersonal communication components, interpersonal communication types

               Interpersonal communication is defined as the interaction between two or more individuals. Where this is the case, the tendency for conflicts to take place is almost inevitable. This is because most people do not have the same opinions, needs and/or mindsets. The effects of conflicts can be disruptive to relationships. However, if handled well, conflicts can contribute positively by improving understanding and tolerance among people, as well as strengthening the bonds between them. Thus, the style that one employs in expressing and managing interpersonal conflicts plays a crucial role in maintaining and improving the quality of communication in his/her relationship.

               The movie “Parenthood” features several conflicts between its characters. The nature of conflicts varies, as well as the style characters adopt in reacting to and resolving conflicts which arise. Gill and Karen, the main characters of the movie, often face disagreements like every married couple does. However, the greatest argument between them arises when Gill comes home angry after quitting his job one day and having Karen inform him that she is pregnant. Being in an easily irritable state at that time, Karen’s pregnancy did not bring joy to him. Instead, he reacts to her negatively, making her feel as if he did not want the baby. This created a disconfirming communication climate between them. Karen feels that she is underappreciated and the defensive mechanism in her is activated. They begin arguing about the severity of each other’s lost because of the unexpected baby. They both react to the situation with direct aggression; verbally attacking and insulting the other party’s position. As a result, the issue was not resolved but amplified.

               In actual fact, the impact of the conflict could have been reduced if a different style of expression was used. For example, having known that Gill had just lost his job and was in a foul mood, Karen could choose to withhold the news of her pregnancy until later when Gill’s emotional turbulence has settled. This non-assertive style may be more appropriate in view of the situation at hand. Also, she could be more supportive and understanding towards his decision. According to Jack Gibb, empathy contributes greatly to a positive relational climate. Being able to accept another’s feelings and putting oneself in their place would make them feel valued and cared about. This encourages them to open up to the other party, making communication much more effective.

               However, non-assertion should only be used sparingly because it does not go to the root of the problem. In order to achieve a satisfying resolution, Gill and Karen should discuss the issue later in a calm and peaceful manner, adopting the assertive style of communication. They should allow each other to express their thoughts and feelings directly about the issue and then coming up with a win-win solution. Both parties should respect each other and their discussion should be problem oriented- finding a way in which both parties’ needs are satisfied and working out some arrangement which makes everyone feel like a winner (Adler, 2003, p.229).

               Another instance of conflict also occurs between Suzan, Gill’s sister, and her husband, Nathan. Their problem revolves around the upbringing style of their daughter, Patty. Nathan insists that Patty should be given strict education in all aspects, despite her young age, in order for her full potential to be utilised. Suzan, on the other hand, feels that her daughter should be given a normal childhood. Besides that, she also feels that her husband is being too uptight and controlling, always behaving as if he knows best. This is seen when Nathan insists that they should only have one child despite Suzan’s attempt to re-discuss the issue with him. However, instead of confronting the problem, Suzan chooses to be passive aggressive. She pretends to put up with his practices such as power-eating but secretly chows down sweets and chocolates as a symbol of anger and discontent. Eventually, her approach no longer calms her anger and she finally tells Nathan that she is leaving him.

               There are several factors which contribute to the aggravation of their conflict. Primarily, Nathan’s controlling and always certain behavior often causes Suzan to feel that her opinions and feelings are unimportant. He often imposes his way of life on her with little regard to her needs. In addition to that, he also rarely accepts and acknowledges her suggestions and ideas. For instance, when Suzan tells him that Patty should be allowed to behave more like a normal child instead of constantly being strictly guided, he ridicules her frustration and rejects her concern. In another context, Suzan’s method of handling her unhappiness- passive aggression- is also not an effective manner. It not only does not allow Nathan to know his mistakes, it creates an illusion which shows as if she is happy with her situation.

               The resolution of the conflict, as seen in the ending of the movie, was when Nathan finally realises his fault after having Suzan leave him. This indirect communication used by Suzan is nonetheless effective, even though there could be a possibility of Nathan misinterpreting her intentions. Her extreme measures lead Nathan to re-evaluate his behavior and discover that his methods in handling their relationship are inappropriate. Finally, he apologises to her sincerely and receives her forgiveness. Since then, his behavior changes for the better and their relationship becomes stronger.

               Aside from marital conflicts, there are also conflicts between parent and child in the movie. For example, the relationship between Gill and his son, Kevin. Kevin is a very sensitive and emotional child. As a result, Gill has to be extra careful in handling him. Conflicts often arise when Kevin becomes upset by something trivial. For example, when Kevin thinks of himself as being abnormal because he was seeing a psychiatrist, Gill has to comfort and ensure him that things were alright. In this situation, Gill adopts an indirect communication approach. He tells Kevin that he was seeing a psychiatrist not because he was sick or abnormal, only more prone to worry than others and that the doctor was there to help him conquer this anxiety. He then shifts Kevin’s focus from the topic to his upcoming birthday celebration. This lights up Kevin’s mood and resolves the tension between them. Gill’s method, in this case, is effective because any other method may have irritated Kevin further. Also, as a loving and supportive father, Gill often tries to maintain a confirming communication climate between them. He displays great levels of empathy and equality when interacting with Kevin. He tries to understand his son’s needs and emotions instead of dictating them based on his personal experiences. Thus, because of his efforts, the conflicts that arise between them each time is resolved appropriately.

               In conclusion, conflicts will always be prevalent in any interpersonal relationships. Be it between husband and wife, parent and child or friends, conflict is sure to arise because of the unique difference between every individual. It is how people manage and express the conflicts that would determine whether the resolution is satisfying for all parties. Thus, it is crucial that one be able to adopt the proper style in expressing his/her dissatisfaction based on the situation at hand in order to reduce the impact of conflicts and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships.

Bibliography:

Adler, R.B., Rodman, G. (2003) Understanding Human Communication. New York: Oxford University Press.


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Here is a scene with which we are all familiar: Alex says or does something that Bob interprets as an insult or an attack. Bob retaliates in words or action. Alex, having meant no harm in the first place, now sees Bob’s actions or words as an unprovoked attack. The situation can quickly escalate even though there was no real reason for a fight to begin in the first place. What has happened here is not a failure to communicate, but a failure to understand communication. More often than not, that is what lies at the root of conflicts, although in intractable conflicts there may be many other sources of conflict as well.

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Of course, misunderstanding of ideas or intent can also occur when there is an absence of communication between two groups. When two parties are not speaking, there is no way to clarify positions, intentions, or past actions; rumors can spread unchecked. Sometimes both parties make a concerted effort to communicate as clearly as possible, but cultural differences or language barriers obstruct clear understanding.

Even within a cultural group, misunderstandings can arise because of different personal communication styles. One person will ask a lot of questions to show interest, while another person will find that to be disrespectful. Men and women, in particular, are thought to have different styles. Linguist Deborah Tannen notes that, for women, “talk creates intimacy… [b]ut men live in a hierarchical world, where talk maintains independence and status.”[1] Her research has also shown that, when speaking, women tend to face each other and look each other in the eye, while men prefer to sit at angles and look elsewhere in the room. Women also express more agreement and sympathy with one another’s problems, while men will dismiss each other’s problems. Both sets of responses are meant to reassure, but do not have that effect when used with the opposite gender. For example, women often become angry if a man dismisses their problem.

Fortunately, breakdowns in communication are usually repairable. Misunderstandings can be explained, languages can be translated, relationships can be restored (though sometimes this takes great effort over a long period of time), rumors can be controlled, and escalation limited — all through clear, verbal communication, i.e. talking. Despite common admonishments to “improve communication skills,” the majority of people are already very sophisticated at sending and interpreting messages. The improvement most people need is more akin to a concert pianist fine-tuning a particular technique than to a 10-year-old student heading off for her weekly piano lesson.

A popular misconception about communication is what Michael Reddy calls “the conduit metaphor.”[2] This is the belief that language is like the postal service, that it can transfer packages (ideas) from person to person without corruption of the original message: person A puts his thought or feelings into words and “gives” or “sends” these words to B, who “extracts” or unpacks the message. The danger of this metaphor is that it leads one to believe that what one intends to say is, indeed, what is heard by the listener.  Misunderstandings are therefore unexpected and often unrecognized.  Rather, the assumption is made that the receiver is either stupid or malicious for responding as they did–even though their response would be seen as reasonable, if the speaker understands the way the listener understood the original message.  

However, no such unfiltered exchange actually takes place. A more accurate description is that the speaker attempts to code ideas, feelings, and images with words. Those words are transmitted to the listener who then matches them with his/her own experiences. So the likelihood of them both interpreting the information the same way is pretty low–particularly if emotions are involved or the topics are in any way ambiguous.  For example, a speakers might talk about how they “succeeded” at doing an assigned task.  However, what the speakers considers “success” may not necessarily match the listener’s definition. Words correspond to different ideas and feelings for different people, and it can take multiple attempts before an idea has been understood satisfactorily. The more cultural differences there are between speakers, the more frequently they will have to stop and work out differences of meaning.

The “conduit metaphor” highlights two important aspects of language: metaphor and semantics. Semantics refers to the specific meanings of words, as well as the value they carry beyond their definition. For example, one could call a woman, a “lady,” “girl,” “ma’am,” “miss” or any of dozens of synonymous terms. The difference between these terms, and the reason the addressee will prefer some of them and be offended by others, is based on the value she places on each definition.

“I never saw an instance of one or two disputants convincing the other by argument.” — Thomas Jefferson

“Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; argument an exchange of emotion.” — Robert Quillen

A clear understanding of semantics is crucial to preventing misunderstandings. Arguments frequently occur when two people think they are talking about the same thing, but really are just using the same word for two different ideas or things. An exaggerated example of this would be a misunderstanding over the question “What state was he in?” where one person is talking about a state of mind and the other about a political region. Hopefully that is a misunderstanding that can be cleared up quickly, but for a few moments both parties are likely to be confused and possibly think the other is crazy.

A subtler example would be an argument over the definition of the word “respect.” One person may understand “respect” to signify a feeling, while another sees it as an attitude demonstrated through actions. Though Andrew feels respect for Betty, Betty is angry that Andrew did not demonstrate this respect through actions. Andrew, on the other hand, is convinced he was not at fault because he does (or did) genuinely feel respect for Betty. This type of argument can drag on indefinitely with both sides vehemently defending themselves and never figuring out that the basic problem is that they are interpreting the word “respect” differently or that Betty needs something that Andrew didn’t give her, though he might, if he understand what her need actually was. 

Metaphor is one of the most powerful linguistic devices. Metaphor expands understanding by relating the unknown to the familiar. Complex or unfamiliar ideas, systems, or relationships are often explained by comparison to something already well known. The heart, for example, is a complex muscle performing very specialized tasks, but it is easier to understand its function by thinking of it as a familiar mechanical device such as a pump. Some cognitive scientists hypothesize that much human knowledge is structured with metaphor. The hidden danger of these linguistic devices is that, while creating associations of function or meaning (“the heart is like a pump”), they also transmit value judgments (“a pump is an ugly utilitarian tool”). Sometimes a metaphor is so subtle or commonly used that one is unaware it is there. For example, to “waste time” is a common English phrase, but how does one actually waste time? It is impossible, unless we assume that time, like apples (or money!), is a physical commodity. For most Americans, time is indeed thought of as a commodity that can be measured out, spent, wasted, and valued. This conception of time becomes problematic when an American interacts with someone from a culture for whom time is not a commodity.

A final misleading idea about language is the belief that words are harmless. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is a children’s rhyme in the United States. Yet words can hurt people very badly. A biting criticism or personal attack can stay vivid in one’s memory for years. Some words can provoke a physical response; a punch in the face perhaps. The words themselves may seem weightless, but they can bring about concrete reactions and should be used with care.

The conflict resolution field specializes in helping people communicate more effectively and avoid some of the pitfalls listed above. Two of the most common techniques taught are active listening, or empathic listening  as we call it here [3], and the use of ” I-messages ” instead of “you-messages.” Both of these focus on trying to communicate without placing blame and really trying to hear and understand what the other person is saying. When people are in conflict, making the extra effort to improve communication between the disputants is often helpful in reducing the intensity of the conflict, even if the conflict cannot be that easily resolved.

Current Implications

Though this essay was written 14 years ago, nothing has changed. The same things that caused conflict communication to go awry then, do so now. But now such problems are particularly evident in the political conflicts roiling in the United States.

I recently went to my son’s wedding. There were some family members on one side of the U.S. political divide; others on the opposite. The unspoken rule was “don’t talk politics!” The fear was great that misunderstandings would quickly escalate and what was supposed to be a joyous occasion would become a conflict zone.

In the context of a wedding, this probably made sense. But the same will be true between neighbors all the time, and between family members at holidays–and sometimes all the time.

If we can’t talk about things that we care deeply about, how are we ever going to be able to resolve our differences? And if we can’t resolve our differences, how can we live together?  When the differences are deep enough, the result –in families–is estrangement and/or divorce.  But we can’t do that at the commu8nity or national level! We HAVE to learn to live together, and to do that we have to learn to talk to each other without starting a war!

Learning effective conflict communication skills is becoming increasingly important for our personal lives and for the lives of our communities, societies and cultures.

Heidi Burgess, May 2017.

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[1] Tannen, Deborah. “Sex, Lies and Conversation; Why Is It So Hard for Men and Women to Talk to Each Other?” The Washington Post. 24 June 1990.

[2] Reddy, Michael. “The Conduit Metaphor — A Case of Frame Conflict in our Language about Language.” Metaphor and Thought. Ed. Andrew Ortony, Cambridge, 1979.

[3] We use the term “empathic listening” in BI because having and exhibiting empathy is an integral part of listening.  When the BI editors asked Richard Salem to write two articles for BI–one on “listening” and the other on “empathy,” he responded that they would greatly overlap.  We thus decided to combine them into one and call it “empathic listening.” 


Use the following to cite this article:
Akin, Jennifer. “Interpersonal / Small-Scale Communication.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 < http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/interpersonal-communication >.


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