The one thing most people don’t know about human communication

A lot of human communication is not at all information exchange but a dominance contest.

You can hear this around a lot if you practice deep listening. It’s intuitive to think about our communication as if it was information being exchanged. You tell me information A, I tell you information B, now we both know A and B. This is one way of looking at it and it is not wrong. But it’s not the only way.

Say that you walk your dog. You stop in a smaller park with an apartment complex right alongside it. You play with your dog, you throw a stick around and you accidentally hit a freshly planted tree, not damaging it, but shaking it significantly. A person appears on the balcony of one of the apartments and yells at you. Let’s consider this dialogue:

  • What the hell are you doing!? Do you know what these trees are?
  • Uhm… Peaches?
  • Why are you here with that dog? Don’t you have someplace other to be?
  • What?
  • Get out of here, right now! You’re damaging those trees!
  • It was an accident.
  • Do you have to throw such a big stick around? They’re freshly planted!
  • I already told you that I didn’t do it on purpose, it was accidental.
  • It better not be! You have no business being here!

Has there been any pure information exchange? Well, if you interpret it enough, all of this was just information, but without twisting it too much, the only piece of information came from you: “It was an accident.” Well, what is the remaining 90% of this dialogue?

It’s fighting for power.

A dominance contest, where the person that’s yelling is trying to assert his/her dominance over you. Your entire childhood was likely one big dominance contest with your parents. Some pure information transpired, naturally, but a lot of it was likely “do this” and “do that”.

This dominance contest, trying to be dominant over your speaker, is by no means a thing left in childhood. Ever get those people that want to give you advice you don’t need?

  • No, no, no, you shouldn’t eat fructose or gluten, both are bad for you, you need to eat a lot of protein and fat.
  • Yeah man, but I don’t need to lose weight or anything and I feel just fine.
  • You’re not listening, I’m telling you this is best, just try it!

Dominance contest right there. What I’m hearing is “I know much more than you do. You should listen to what I’m saying.” Okay, maybe with some people it’s not like that – sometimes you’ll really get well-intended advice you didn’t ask for. But a lot of advice givers… Man, they love to dominate. I myself am guilty of this, so I know.

Sometimes this fight for power comes in more subtle nuances. I feel that when people change the subject, it often leads to them trying to dominate the conversation. Not always, but I’ve heard it enough times to see a pattern. Example:

  • I’m doing mostly pistol squats for lower body strength now. I figured it’s better than to pay a gym fee, at least in the beginning, when you can’t squat a lot, cause you practically have the additional weight on your body anyway, it’s just a matter of-
  • That’s dangerous.
  • Dangerous?
  • Look at how wobbly your knee is.
  • Yeah, I know, I need to do more work on controlling the movement-
  • I wouldn’t do it. I mean, why not do regular squats?
  • I can, but I can do a lot of them, while I want to achieve maximal strength.
  • Can you do a thousand of them?
  • A thousand? Well, I suppose no, but-
  • Well Shaolin monks do thousands of them. They repeat and repeat. They’re dedicated to what they’re doing.
  • Aha… Well, that’s… cool.
  • You see now what I’m talking about? There’s no need to push yourself too hard, because you’re actually slowing your progress down. You should focus on quality and rest enough, then the progress will come.

At a first glance, this is a normal enough conversation, but if you look at it deeply, you see that the second person is simply trying to dominate the conversation through subtle changes of subject. Look at the final advice (“focus on quality and rest enough”) and look at what person A was saying: “I’m trying to get stronger through pistol squats”. Is there any conflict between “focus on quality and rest enough” and “I’m doing pistol squats for strength”? No. They’re similar, but they speak about entirely different things. And yet, we feel like person B somehow “won” this conversation, despite the quite apparent lack of connection. I mean, what do Shaolin monks have to do with anything? They don’t, but person B feels like he won this discussion and, even more importantly, the listeners also feel like he won it.

By the way, all these examples are from my personal life (except the fructose and gluten, I made that one up). These are the things people say to me and I look at them, confused. Should I call them out on this or let them ramble? Should I also try to dominate or not?

Here’s another one, more recent (here you can see that monologues within dialogues can signal a dominance contest):

  • Sifu, have you heard about Steve Morris?
  • No, who’s that?
  • He’s a martial arts teacher, very interesting guy, speaks a lot about psychology in fighting.
  • He does Wing Tzun?
  • No, he’s a boxer, well, more of an MMA fighter than boxer to be honest, but does a lot of different styles, and I think I saw a wooden dummy in his gym in one video.
  • How old is he?
  • Around seventy, I think.
  • I don’t know him, but there are a lot of guys that do all kinds of things. A lot of people teach. They have their methods and they teach people. I mean, this guy, he’s a boxer. But what can you do, you cannot challenge him, he’s too old.
  • No, well, he’s actually quite youthful despite his age, he doesn’t look seventy at all.
  • Yeah but still, what can you do. There are a lot of people doing different things, teaching different things, but they all try to be the best, say they’re the best. They all try to sell you their system, their teachings. They convince you that this method or that method is better than the other one. I’ve had Wing Tzun guys trying to steal my concepts and my ideas, and then they sell them like it’s theirs. But you know, I’m not doing that, I’m teaching you mathematics, you know. Angles, distances, principles. I’m teaching you the scientific principles of Wing Tzun. It’s not Emin Boztepe Wing Tzun, it’s your Wing Tzun, it’s scientific Wing Tzun.

Who “won” this conversation? Clearly not person A (me). Despite the fact that there is no conflict present, we feel that person B “won” in this conversation and that I lost. I have been dominated. Again, what does the final conclusion have to do with my first mention of Steve Morris? Nothing. Nada. Zero. Zilch.

How to handle people trying to dominate conversations?

It should be noted that this dominance contest is usually not a consciuos thing, and it is also usually not harmful in its intent. It simply happens, without anyone meaning any harm (or meaning anything, for that matter). This, however, does not change the fact that it is irritating.

I’ll disappoint you, but I don’t think there is a lot you can do. Because these people are seeking dominance, good argumentation will simply be ignored. And even good argumentation is not applicable sometimes because you have people that will change the subject much more often than you can counter-argument them.

One thing I do absolutely know now is this: don’t nod your fucking head.

Nodding your head is bad for two reasons: 1) you give approval to people trying to dominate you and 2) you set yourself up for believing their bullshit. You’ll find that not nodding your head is actually difficult, especially with someone that says some bullshit and nods his head at the same time. You almost do it instinctively, mirroring the movement. And if you don’t, they have some leverage over you, calling you out, making a joke, asking you if you agree. But still, don’t nod.

That being said, I will usually simply leave the conversation. I feel that it is not productive to listen to people that try to dominate over you. Just break the contact and leave.

Know this: if you decide that you will stay in the conversation, no dialectic (i.e. rational argumentation) will get you anywhere with these people. You have to use rhetoric, manipulating emotions and changing the frame of the conversation, as well as switching subjects. When I say changing frames, this is what I’m talking about. I dislike rhetoric as much as the next man, but it is the only thing that will work against someone trying to dominate.

Do you have any examples of people trying to dominate conversations? I’d love to hear them, leave me a comment.

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One thought on “The one thing most people don’t know about human communication

  1. Pingback: How to deal with people: Power-seekers and bossy assholes | Becoming Overhuman

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