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Thumb Wars: Y text conflict gets us nowhere

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

Newsletter Edition:  January 2016

I recently watched my son and his cousin argue with each other in a furious exchange of texts – and I thought to myself how unsuited this medium is for conflict resolution. This month’s newsletter is a reflection on how our mediums change our messages – and how texting might threaten more than it promises when it comes to dealing with conflict.


What are we really getting – and missing – when we carry out conflicts through texts?

Texting, though a popular and increasingly automatic habit for all kinds of communications, appears to have more likelihood of creating conflict than resolving it, due to its built-in one dimensional nature. Productive conflict – conflict that gets us somewhere, brings something to light, produces changed perspective or altered behavior  – involves a whole host of processes, only a few of which involve the literal exchange of words that could be translated into a text message. Read on to reflect on how we ended up ‘duking it out’ with our thumbs, and how the medium of texting changes our attempts to communicate.

Y 160 characters?

According to The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project text message users send and receive 41.5 messages per day on average, with 18-24 year-olds at a much higher average of 109.5 messages per day – that’s 3,200 texts per month! Roughly 31% of participants in Pew’s survey prefer to communicate via text rather than to be called on the phone. This medium has become a staple of everyday communications.

How did we end up here? In fact, the text message was invented by a corporate mobile communications giant in order to get quick on-the-job messages out to craftsmen’s car-phones. The 160-character limit was based on typical postcard lengths. But now “Text messaging has become the norm for communication [between] couples.” Or take this quote from playwright Kevin Armento in a recent New York Times piece on the featured role of smartphones in a number of recent productions: “My most important and consequential arguments and fights and interactions happen on my phone every day.” That’s quite a shift – postcards and business tips to a normative form of daily communication with those closest to us. All in blips of 160 characters.

The Medium is the Message

Technologies have long been re-structuring human communications. The telegraph changed global space and time, giving rise to what some enthusiasts imagined as a new collective “brain” for the world. But the telegraph, a shortener of messages like the text, was expensive and somewhat public; it wouldn’t have made sense for it to invade our personal relationships very intimately. Phones brought us disembodied voices from afar and eavesdropping operators. Emails decentralized electronic written communication. Cell phones made voices and eventually emails fit in our pockets. Text messages bring us the personal, mobile, instant, telegraph. Each stage has affected its users and the messages passing between them.

The point is that text messaging has come to seem awfully normal – especially for generations that have no memory of a world without it – but the fact is, technologies are never benign, an innovation encapsulated into cliche by Marshal McLuhan in the 1960s. The medium is the message, he claimed, not necessarily the content. They structure and change the very activities we are using them to accomplish. With text messaging, this increasingly includes dealing with conflict, one of our most intimate and complicated forms of communication. What exactly does that entail?

Between the Lines

For one, it’s estimated that only 7% of our communication is actually comprised of the words we use. In every face-to-face communication scenario, conflict or not, we are taking in and emitting all sorts of direct and contextual signals that are not made up of words. Nonverbal communications including body posture, eye-contact, and tone of voice, constantly give us clues about the actual meaning of a communication – they make up 93% of it! Nuanced nonverbal indicators can be an early indicator of underlying emotions or problems that aren’t yet being put into words, or they can express good-will and kind intentions even when the message is a difficult one. Emoticons are not a good substitute.

Additionally, the process of listening, the behavioral component of communication, is essential to both avoiding and addressing conflict. We demonstrate listening physically. We might make eye contact and nod, or conversely tense up when something strikes us as upsetting. The first of these might help someone feel heard and alleviate an emotional need that’s causing tension; the latter might give someone an indication that they are being misunderstood or causing hurt. In truly reflective listening we are picking up on a lot more than just words, as well as potentially creating rapport which can provide a foundation for transforming a conflict. With text messages this vital part of the communication process is absent

In real-time communication we can also be sure the other person is more or less ‘present,’ unless we observe otherwise in their behavior. Text messaging, in contrast, is often associated with a split state of consciousness: we frequently include it among a broad variety of habitual multitasking activities. Not only are you not in the same room, but your counterpart is likely not fully present.

Resolution vs. Revolutions

Ultimately, text message fights are bound to trail off into a litany of misunderstandings. The more things escalate, the more likely the bare context-lacking text messages will be interpreted through anger, blame and suspicion. The inability to holistically communicate the details and nuances of our thoughts and feelings, or to give ourselves over to full presence in a conflict, is likely to leave the cognitive and affective elements of resolution beyond reach. Instead the medium invites itself to endless rounds of one-dimensional insults and superficial explanations, which might temporarily exhaust themselves but can easily regain momentum again when someone hits some downtime and decides to pick up their phone again. In the end, if there’s a real conflict at hand, it’s likely to benefit everyone to focus on direct face to face communication.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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