Irene Dempsey

the practical psychologist


About Irene


Rewriting the Psychology of Women

Notes on Communication

An Outline of Underdog Psychology


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Notes on Communication

The challenge of communication - whether with one's lover, one's children, or one's boss - is something everyone faces every day and is central to Irene Dempsey's thinking.  In her view, the ideal for communication requires, first, that one knows what one wants and, second, that one has the skills to represent it effectively to others.  Because these two conditions so rarely apply, most communication is not only not direct and not transparent, but often not even representative of the communicator's true wishes.  As a result, listening requires as much skill as talking, to sift through, interpret, and react to what is being said.  The combination of knowing one's wants and having the skill to move toward them is at the core of Irene's approach.  In the summer of 1985, Irene wrote a collection of notes to herself about the challenge of communication.  The resulting Notes on Communication not only illuminate communication, but also illustrate many other elements of Irene's approach.  Below is an excerpt.


In the course of time working with people, I have observed recurring difficulties in communication. Very different people have similar problems. Confusion and mystery abound.  I wish to alter both.  Complexity there is, but mystification there need not be.  I think it impossible to read another’s mind or to know directly another’s experience.  Imagination has limits, however convincing the coincidences may be.  The wish to be free of one’s limitations I understand.  Mysticism and psychic mystification may provide that freedom, but may only make everyday exchanges even more puzzling and frustrating.  There is another kind of freedom that comes with being able to manage the day to day.  “To dig into the actual,” as Henry James said, “is the right way to live.” But there is a need for conceptual simplicity to make that possible.

Although I have been thinking about psychology since I was a child, it was not until I happened upon a graduate seminar in learning theory my senior year in college that I identified my professional interest in psychology, and my specific interest in learning.  From that time on, learning and change through learning have been my central intellectual interests no matter what I did.  As may be expected, in the course of time, observation, and reflection, I began to detect patterns.  The more I came to know the people I worked with, the greater the detail of their lives shared with me, the more similar the patterns of frustration and continuing confusion appeared to be.  All the difficulties involved other people and getting along with them, of course, but what became clear over time was the extent those difficulties depended on the way people expressed and defined themselves and on the way they listened and thought they understood. On problems of communication, if you will.

* * *

The most complex part of communication is knowing what one wants to say or to express.  Certainly how one communicates makes a difference, a great difference. And ideas are changed when represented by different media so that in a sense the medium is the message, for the two cannot be truly separated.  Still by and large the how gives way when there is a clear sense of what is to be expressed.  If one focuses on the how of communication, the difficulty often seems insurmountable, and one gets stuck.  For example, in everyday life a person communicates primarily through words, once language is acquired, and if one attends to the how before knowing the what, most likely nothing gets said.  If I want to say it right, or not annoy, irritate, or anger another to avoid criticism, I probably won’t say anything.  For unless “what I want to say” has clarity or dimension, it will be stifled by the fear of error, of doing it wrong.  The how is in the future, the what is now. 

* * *

If we think that people say what they mean in a precise and intentional way, then there will be surprises and disappointments.  If we expect people as a general rule to stand by or to follow through on their words, then we will need to account for their not doing so (by deciding they’re nuts, jerks, non compos mentis, etc.).  The notion that people should “do as they say” doesn’t make them do as they say.  Instead, this notion of “how one should be” merely encourages further discrepancies between word and deed through denial and disassociation.  If the idea of communication as a moral matter is replaced with the idea of communication as a highly developed set of skills, then we will have very different experiences around social interchanges.

© 1970-2003 Irene Dempsey