How to communicate

with humans

⚠️ Content warning ⚠️

Discussion of communication without much attention paid to the hypothesis that it is impossible across a power differential

The skill of communicating in the highly artificial situations of the modern human. Such crucial skills. Often not taught. Worse, we systematically fail to realise we lack them.

Here are some resources I use to work on my skills in this area. Analysis of these in a broader social context is something I consider in e.g. speech standards.

Assertive communication

Back and Back’s classic (and cheap) Assertiveness at work is short, clear and has practical exercises. I buy copies of this in bulk and give them to friends with workplace friction challenges. This book is really, really good and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Not least because the downside risk of a $5 second-hand book is low Back, Back, and Bates (1991):

We use the word ‘assertion’ … to refer to behaviour that involves:

  • Standing up for your own rights in such a way that you do not violate another person’s rights
  • Expressing your needs, wants, opinions, feelings and beliefs in direct, honest and appropriate ways

We will demonstrate this with an example. Suppose your manager asked you to complete some additional work by the end of the month. You are the best person to do the work, but your time is already fully committed to other work. An assertive response in this situation would be:

“I appreciate that you would like this work completed by the end of the month. However, I don’t see that I can fit it in with my workload as it is at present, so can we discuss it?”

So assertiveness is based on the beliefs that in any situation:

  • You have needs to be met
  • The other people involved have needs to be met
  • You have rights; so do others
  • You have something to contribute; so do others

The aim of assertive behaviour is to satisfy the needs and wants of both parties involved in the situation.

This is one of those things where it is not rocket science when you read it back to yourself, but which in my experience is poorly taught everywhere.

I really like their framing. They discuss assertive speech as a standard of communication that you can mutually agree upon, which if we all accede to it, will lower overall stress. It is kind of an emotional lingua franca.

Not yet read:

Negotiation trainer Misha Glouberman has some stuff to say on the Dave McRaney podcast: How to have better conversations with loved ones (and just about anyone) about difficult topics (and just about anything). His work seems to be based upon Stone and Heen (2011) and Ury and Fisher (2012).

Non-aggressive communication

Dave Bailey summarises of Marshall B. Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication, whose key advice is similar. Looks similar to the FBI Behavioral Change Stairway Model, (Vecchi, Van Hasseltb, and Romano 2005) which they use for hostage negotiations and suicide threats, so it is a literally battle-tested system in that regard.

Positive intent

The misanthrope is robbed by the world

Nate Soares, Assuming Positive Intent

I believe that the ability to expect that conversation partners are well-intentioned by default is a public good. An extremely valuable public good. When criticism turns to attacking the intentions of others, I perceive that to be burning the commons.

Negotiating communicative styles

See also personality tests; IIRC there is some communicative stuff there.

Academic writing is not so much brusque as verbosely passive aggressive. We do not talk inside the ivory towers the same style in which we declaim from them, or at least my teams do not.

I find Piper Harron’s post Why I Do Not Talk About Math troubling: “Nobody was mean to me, nobody consciously laughed at me. There’s just a way that mathematicians have been socialized (I guess?!) to interact with each other that I find oppressive. If you have never had someone mansplain or whitesplain things to you, it may be hard for you to understand what I’m going to describe.”

I personally find the way that mathematicians discuss things invigorating, myself, usually, and if I don’t enjoy it I change it. It sounds like there are roles for various communication styles; Is what we really need better ways to negotiate communication styles?

NB Harron’s science communication is seriously innovative and top-grade, a real level-up to people reading it, and it would have been a loss to the field if she had given up. See her thesis for wonderfully comprehensible deep algebra explanations.

Crocker’s rules

Here is a name for a norm I notice and enjoy sometimes in academia: Crocker’s rules.

Declaring yourself to be operating by “Crocker’s Rules” means that other people are allowed to optimize their messages for information, not for being nice to you. Crocker’s Rules means that you have accepted full responsibility for the operation of your own mind — if you’re offended, it’s your fault. Anyone is allowed to call you a moron and claim to be doing you a favor. (Which, in point of fact, they would be. One of the big problems with this culture is that everyone’s afraid to tell you you’re wrong, or they think they have to dance around it.) Two people using Crocker’s Rules should be able to communicate all relevant information in the minimum amount of time, without paraphrasing or social formatting. Obviously, don’t declare yourself to be operating by Crocker’s Rules unless you have that kind of mental discipline.

Note that Crocker’s Rules does not mean you can insult people; it means that other people don’t have to worry about whether they are insulting you. Crocker’s Rules are a discipline, not a privilege. Furthermore, taking advantage of Crocker’s Rules does not imply reciprocity. How could it? Crocker’s Rules are something you do for yourself, to maximize information received — not something you grit your teeth over and do as a favor.

By framing these as a consensual communication strategy, it defangs one of the problems with brusque communication which different people interpret differently (for some it is aggression and for others it is respect for the value of another person’s time).

I am in many academic email correspondences that are cleanskin Crocker exchanges and I find it effective.


Important to me. For an example, see A Deep Dive into the Harris-Klein Controversy, and for some background, see Decoupling revisited. Question: Is decoupling possible in conflict theoretic worldviews?

Helpful insight: Decoupling as a Moral Decision

Workplace in particular

See workplace habits.

As a manager

See managing

…with me

Here are my current communicative preferences, affordances and commitments.

I would like to work with people to learn true things, because truth is beautiful and because truth can be used to make the world better, and thus in turn make the truths about it more beautiful. To that end I invite your disagreement and criticism and collaboration on knowledge, and I guess on life itself.

Disagreement is one of the hardest things to do in conversation. Here are some tricks and background to communicate with me generally, esp with regard to disagreement.

  • Native English speaker.
  • Sociable, but too busy to act on that as much as I would prefer.
  • Generally interested in people and their wonderful weirdness and variety.
  • I attach a high value to kindness, empathy, equity, truth and respect for other humans, and do my best to model that, or at least fake it until I make it.
  • My preferences are valid. So are yours. Let’s negotiate.
  • My metamorphosis from asker to guesser is complete and I am having trouble even remembering how guessers work.
  • Going by my history, my opinions about lots of things are wrong.
  • I attempt to not believe many things but I assign a high certainty to some things.
  • I do my best to welcome and learn from your criticism of my opinions (If I know you well enough, I am game to play by Crocker’s rules).
  • I think every topic is open for discussion, although not in every context. I can provide content warnings about sensitive topics etc.
  • Regardless, we need to discuss stuff with care and compassion, because speech can indeed be violence of a sort, sometimes.
  • I believe the force of an argument is dictated by its logical and observational content, not who makes it (which is not to say that who you are does not influence the observations you make, or the discussions we might have).
  • I start from the assumption of positive intent, and in particular…
  • I do my best to take your statements at face value rather than as memetic warfare, unless you make it clear you intend otherwise.
  • I would possibly enjoy debating with you in a contrary and contentious fashion, in the Rational Style if you were game for that.
  • If you tell me that something will burn me, I will probably touch it.

In short, I am a stroppy, empathetic bastard who aspires to the positibility of reasonable discussion, who would probably like you if you have interesting opinions and positive intent.


Online comment moderation advice (I would like this to be data-backed): A Pragmatic Approach To Thorny People Problems.

Ian Leslie, Ten causes of breakdown in communication. The top one is excellent, believing you have communicated.

Gaël Varoquaux on Technical maintenance discussions.

Ozy Brennan on covert contracts.

no hello is a handy webpage about why one should not start chats with “hey”.


Acemoglu, Daron, Victor Chernozhukov, and Muhamet Yildiz. 2006. Learning and Disagreement in an Uncertain World.” Working Paper 12648. National Bureau of Economic Research.
Back, Ken, Kate Back, and Terry Bates. 1991. Assertiveness at Work: A Practical Guide to Handling Awkward Situations. 2nd ed. London ; New York: McGraw-Hill.
Cheng, Justin, Michael Bernstein, Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, and Jure Leskovec. n.d. Anyone Can Become a Troll: Causes of Trolling Behavior in Online Discussions.”
Goel, Sharad, Winter Mason, and Duncan J. Watts. 2010. Real and Perceived Attitude Agreement in Social Networks.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 99 (4): 611–21.
Grant, Anthony M. 2017. The Third ‘Generation’ of Workplace Coaching: Creating a Culture of Quality Conversations.” Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice 10 (1): 37–53.
Stone, Douglas, and Sheila Heen. 2011. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. New York: Penguin.
Tan, Chenhao, Vlad Niculae, Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, and Lillian Lee. 2016. Winning Arguments: Interaction Dynamics and Persuasion Strategies in Good-Faith Online Discussions.” In Proceedings of the 25th International Conference on World Wide Web, 613–24. WWW ’16. Republic and Canton of Geneva, Switzerland: International World Wide Web Conferences Steering Committee.
Ury, William, and Roger Fisher. 2012. Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in. 1st edition. London: CENTURY - TRADE.
Vecchi, Gregory M., Vincent B. Van Hasseltb, and Stephen J. Romano. 2005. Crisis (Hostage) Negotiation: Current Strategies and Issues in High-Risk Conflict Resolution.” Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (5): 533–51.

No comments yet. Why not leave one?

GitHub-flavored Markdown & a sane subset of HTML is supported.