Communication in a Participatory Organisation / Society

"After ten years of involvement in the subject I am as committed as ever because it has grown with me from a set of communication skills to certain beliefs which are very important to me personally.  This does not mean I will always behave or even think assertively but it offers me, and others, a way of being in this world.  For me assertiveness offers hope.  Because it is based on self-esteem, it offers a new way of relating to other people.  The power that is released when individuals stop hating themselves is a potentially remarkable force for change."
– Anne Dickson

There has been some discussion on the topic of communication styles within IOPS.  Many members seem to see this as an important issue, and I tend to agree.  So the following question naturally comes to mind:

What is an appropriate communication style for an organisation like IOPS?  

Given that IOPS takes a prefigurative approach to organising – by which I mean we draw on our vision to help inform our current organisational efforts – we can also ask the following question:

What is an appropriate communication style for a participatory society / socialism?  

One possible and I think valid response to such questions is that there is no one appropriate style.  On the contrary, we should be accommodating and celebrating diversity of styles!  After all the last thing we want is for IOPS / participatory society to be even more stifling than the various oppressive system we all endure today.  

So diversity of communication styles is something I think we should all get behind – even when we personally don't like that particular style.  But does this mean I believe anything goes?  No!  There are some styles of communication that I don't like and that I don't feel are in keeping with IOPS and our visionary commitment for a participatory society / socialism.

I should say, before I go on any further, that my understanding of such issues is not particularly sophisticated.  However, I would like to share my thoughts with you to see what other members think and as a small contribution to the discussion.  And of course I would also like to hear from members who have additional ideas regarding communication styles for IOPS / participatory society as a collective effort to formulate some guidelines for the forums etc.  

To be honest, although I have undertaken some formal training in counselling (as part of my job as a nurse), which obviously deals with communication in some depth, I have only ever come across one book that has had a lasting impact on my views on this subject.  And interestingly, this book was not part of my development as a nurse but instead was part of my role as a trade union organiser.  

The book that I am referring to is by Anne Dickson and is called "A Women in Your Own Right – Assertiveness and You".  Clearly the target audience for the book is women.  My region use it as a training tool for working class women who are interested in becoming trade union activists but don't feel confident enough to take on the role of negotiating with management etc.

Anyway, despite being so clearly targeted at women, for some reason I read it.  What I found was that the message contained in the book was not specific to women at all (although i understand why the book is marketed towards women) but instead had a more general application that transcends gender differences – something that is also acknowledged by the author.    

For example, there are four different types on behaviour identified in the book.  The first is aggressive, the second is passive, the third is manipulative and the fourth is assertive.  

In today's society aggressive behaviour is often celebrated (think – war).  Passive behaviour is actively encouraged (think – voting every five years = democracy) and manipulative behaviour considered the height of sophistication ( think – PR / spin doctors).  

These first three types of behaviour are all quite self-explanatory and I am sure that IOPS members would all agree that they are not the style of communication that we would want to duplicated in our organisation / future society.  But what of the fourth?  What does it mean to be assertive?  

Assertiveness is often misunderstood to mean being bossy or even aggressive.  But this is a mistake, and according to Dickson is one of the reasons why many people don't opt to develop assertiveness as a way of communicating – they just see it as yet another undesirable form of behaviour.  It could also be that some people see assertive behaviour as aggressive and in so doing associated it with a macho / patriarchal form of communication.  But again, this is based on a false association between assertive and aggressive forms of communication – at least according to Dickson (and people like me who agree with her).  

Assertiveness, then, is most definitely not aggressiveness.  Assertiveness is about being open and honest and therefore represents a positive alternative style of communication to those of passive, manipulative and also aggressive forms (something that applies equally to both men and women).  Assertiveness seems to me to be the most in-keeping style of communication for a participatory society / socialism and therefore also for IOPS.  

Of course, we all stray into bad habits and engage in aggressive, manipulative or passive forms of communication from time-to-time.  My intention here, in highlighting these good and bad forms of communication, is not to arm each other with conceptual bludgeons to beat each other up with every time a member adopts one of the negative forms of communication – although I do think we should all be actively discouraging such behaviour.  Rather my motivation is to help clarify what I think is a good form of communication for IOPS members with the intention of raising awareness between members and hopefully, with that, develop a culture of communication within IOPS that is conducive to our aims.  

In summary here is what I think our communications culture should be based around for a health participatory organisation / society:

  • Celebrate diversity.
  • Discourage passively.
  • Reject aggressiveness.
  • Discourage manipulation.
  • Foster assertiveness.  

That is my small contribution to the on-going debate regarding an appropriate communication styles for IOPS.  I hope it helps and I look forward to hearing what you think – this is as good a place as any for members to start practicing their assertiveness skills!  As I have suggested, the development of such skills is an important part of the transition towards a functioning participatory organisation / society. 

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