Communication is full of paradoxes. Two opposites, somehow connected to form a larger whole.
Paradoxes, you know. “You gotta be cruel to be kind” as Nick Lowe teaches us, or the Ship of Theseus, or the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Paradoxes, two things that despite their apparent oppositeness are actually inextricably tied together.
Human communication is littered with paradoxes of all sorts — built-in double-edged swords that go more this way or that for me or for you. Outcomes sitting on the edge of a razor blade with only fate, it might seem, as the final arbiter of which way things might fall.
Communication paradoxes are quite interesting and helpful to see a more full, complete picture of communication. Let’s take a look at six inherent contradictions in communication helps to illuminate some of the hidden path of communication’s difficulties, challenges, and frustrations that manifest when humans try to communicate with other humans.
Communication is paradoxically easy and hard. It’s easy in at least two ways. First, it’s easy in that we communicate all the time, often without thinking very much about it. We just communicate. That’s humanity. It comes naturally to us. Second, sometimes just connecting with other people is easy. Things just go well. It’s simple. We get in a flow with them without much effort. It might be the person, might be the relationship, might be the situation, might be circumstances. Who knows?
Communication is also hard. It’s hard in that it is more difficult and nuanced than most people give it credit for. Communicating isn’t just sending a message and bam you’re done. There can be roadblocks, deadends, frustration. A message “getting there” is just the start. Communication is hard because it can turn on dime and shift unexpectedly. Communication is hard because it’s never quite as easy as we wish it might be. Connecting with some people feels like a real challenge and despite any of our efforts, it might never happen.
Communication can be good. Or it can be bad. It can be anything in between. Strangely, different people may judge the exact same instance of communication differently. (How’s that for a paradox for you?)
We never quite know which way communication will go or how it will turn out. Sometimes you have to go through bad to get to good. Sometimes communication can be good, get bad, and then be alright again.
Quiet a interesting conundrum.
Another paradox of communication is how it is both an individual/solitary endeavor *and* a connected/together experience. Certain parts of communication are rendered to the individual and yet other parts manifest only when people are in tandem. Communication happens at the merger of these individual and shared factors.
Individual features include things like: past experience, language and word choices, emotional intelligence, personality, cognitive adaptability or rigidity, and desired outcomes. All of these vary based on the individual.
Together, when we’re collective, a bunch of other cool things happen. It’s only through the communication dances we do with one another — in all kinds of channels, on every topic under the sun, and in all sorts of configurations and formations — that we can collaborate, learn, and that individuals can be changed. It’s through the collective that individuals are re-formed, re-shaped, and re-inforced.
Communication is always solitary and connected. Apart and together.
Communication, every instance of it, is totally unique. Literally no two conversations are exactly the same.
Yet, at the same time, communication is completely mundane. It’s often boring, routine, and merely the background hum of our lives. Forgettable conversations, emails that we half read, stop and chat conversations you might rather not be having. Non-notable.
It is completely and totally boring that humans make meaning with one another yet it is what makes us and our relationships entirely unique. Mystifying.
Communication itself is neutral. But it’s also always political. Say what?
Plenty of people out there aren’t going to like me even sniffing around an idea such as: communication is neutral. But it is, at least conceptually anyway. In practice, communication is never neutral and always political. That is, someone’s interests are served.
The paradox actually lies in that communication is political in any number of infinite ways. As someone communicates out into the world, puts their thoughts and language and perspective into play, it becomes political — someone’s interests benefit.
Communication, in the abstract, as a concept, is neutral. It can be anything. In practice, communication is never neutral. Whether this interest is negatively-political or positively-political is another question entirely.
Communication always has the power both to connect and to separate. This is built-in, basic functionality.
In other words, communication can be a connection between people, it can bring them together and be something in-common and positive, and it can also be what drives disconnection, separation, or what splits people apart.
Paradox. How can it do both?
Communication is there “working” even when it feels like it’s “failing.” Language and our behavior both attracts and repels. It brings things and people into common with one another and forms the wedges that separate us.
I’ll note that connection and separation does not equal goodness/badness or success/failure. Some messages, for example, are entirely successful because they drive people apart. That is their goal.
As I said, communication is littered with paradoxes. They are, in fact, what makes communication so interesting. Embracing and understanding these paradoxes, getting a feel for a bit of the nuance that is always present when we’re communicating with one another can help to demystify why it is exactly that we find communication such a challenge and often frustrating.
You don’t have to memorize these paradoxes, you won’t be quizzed on them. But it’s good to note they are there. When communication doesn’t go how you might want, it’s good to remember that the outcomes sit on a sharp edge and can fall this way or that. The uncertainty, the seeming randomness, the paradoxical reality of how communication goes is not an obstacle, it’s the path.