WARNING: Terms may be used in this article which may make some people uncomfortable. You have been warned.
I first voiced this concept several years ago. I have never seemed to put pen to paper to write this before though, which is kind of sad. The 2016 Presidential campaign and its aftermath has cemented in me the glaring obviousness of these three different kinds of communication we use.
When one person talks AT another person, it is either out of anger, frustration, stubbornness or blindly-held political beliefs. When you talk AT another person, you spurt what you want to say upon your target without regard for the results or consequences of your words. It is in essence a verbal masturbation, leading to a bukkake of words upon your intended target. It leaves the speaker/writer feeling better in the cathartic sense, however that’s the only person feeling good afterwards. While this can be considered “communication,” it is that only in the broadest sense. This method actually borders on a forced act.
When one person talks TO a single person or group of persons, this is usually out of anger. When someone makes you mad, don’t you want to “give them a good talking to”? This is a minimalist (at best) two-way conversation, consisting of lengthy passages of yelling by the angry person, punctuated by the occasional “Yes, Sir/Ma’am,” “No Sir, Ma’am,” “I’m sorry, Sir/Ma’am” from the recipient(s). Worse yet, it can lead to anger in the recipient and yelling back at the first person. This then becomes a “two-way ‘AT’ “ “conversation” where everyone is yelling but no one is listening.
When you deliver that “talking to,” you are venting your anger at what they did to you and making it clear about “what will happen the next time.” The term “Reading the Riot Act” comes from the British Riot Act of 1714, where the local constabulary would read the proclamation part of said Act aloud to the crowd and give them one hour to disperse before arresting them. By the way, back then, the penalty for rioting was death.
Notice the emotions I described for when someone talks AT or TO another. Anger, frustration, stubbornness or the foolish belief that “My way of doing things is the right way 100% of the time.” These are all negative emotions.
When you have two (or more) people exchanging ideas, beliefs and feelings, the type of emotion we speak from will be absorbed by the recipient and reflected back to the sender, magnified. Back and forth the negative emotions go in what is called a "positive feedback loop", growing from ripples to Tsunamis, destroying the relationship and preventing true communication.
What would happen if we spoke from positive emotions, rather than negative? The same thing, starting with ripples and ending in Tsunamis, in this case Tsunamis of good.
Because when we talk WITH other people, we give our thoughts, which are received, considered and returned respectfully. The other then gives their thoughts, which you in turn should receive, consider and return respectfully. Who knows, we might actually learn something we didn't know that we agree with.
To do this, to listen with the intent to understand and not the intent to reply, we might actually learn something new. We find common ground to share, not a verbal no-man’s-land where thoughts and ideas die horrible deaths.
This does not mean we have to end up agreeing. We can “agree to disagree” and continue to respect the other person while not agreeing with their position on that issue.
I have a friend and mentor whom I routinely get into discussions with on Facebook. He constantly posts a plethora of Liberal memes. On the few I respond to, I disagree, giving my position and with the facts and my reasoning behind my stand. We then respectfully discuss our differences. He has accused my positions of “being rather Liberal” multiple times, to which my response is some variation of “You’re more Conservative than you realize.” We continue to interact on common interests and challenge each other where we disagree.
Because disagreement on first glance often becomes “congruential differences” once we get into it. We agree on the overall principle, having our differences on the exact path or method used to achieve the principle.
Every conversation we have with other people can be like this. We are dependent on ourselves to listen, comprehend and give at least a passing consideration to the position, before politely handing it back with your thoughts attached, rather than throwing your position in their face. The conversation goes from WITH to AT every time we stop listening.
Take this to heart in your next discussion. Please.