How to communicate

with humans

April 2, 2019 — November 6, 2022

bandit problems
bounded compute
extended self
faster pussycat
Figure 1

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.

1 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 a proposal for an emotional lingua franca.

Occasionally I get pushback from people who don’t like the asertiveness ideal. What about people who are raised in a culture where you can never assert your own needs? What about people who have particular communicative challenges that make it hard to be assertive? What about toxic environments where assertiveness is punished? What about minorities who are punished for assertiveness?

Yes, fair enough. Some people have barriers that make it hard to express themselvs, for internal or for external reasons. I do not wish to make a claim that you are a bad person if you are not assertive. I do, however, argue that is a good ideal, and the concepts it is built in are useful for analysis.

  1. Naming communication styles is a good idea, so whe can be aware there are communications styles and what each of these style imply
  2. The authors taxonomy of assertive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive communication is a useful vocabulary to discuss different communicative moves
  3. The assertive communication style is a good lingua franca, which is not to say they only language anyone should speak. As with any cross cultural communication situation, if there are some other dialects in play we can negotiate to speak them too; learning dialects can be a worthwhile price to pay sometimes.

Not yet read:

Negotiation trainer Misha Glouberman is of course eloquent 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 stuff such as Stone and Heen (2011) and Ury and Fisher (2012).

2 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.

Figure 2

3 Principle of charity

Ethics Explainer: The principle of charity

The principle of charity suggests we should try to understand ideas before criticising them.

Arguments should aim at finding the truth, not winning the fight.

Figure 3: 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.

Obviously some people in the world do not want positive things, and it is necessary to be aware of that. However, importing the communicative norms of, say, political twitter, or some other such weaponised battlefield environment, into a intimate communication will kill trust before it is born. Cooperate first in iterative games.

4 Negotiating communicative styles

Figure 4

Trust dancing is one fun term here, due to Malcolm Ocean.

The term here is supposed to highlight a meta-protocol for negotiating the actual communicative protocol you will use, rather than assuming that everyone can work with whatever system you are used to. Observationally, successful multicultural societies seem to be good at this.

Resonates with me especially because I have recently had a falling out with a flatmate who found my classic conversational gambits triggering — for her, what I thought was active listening and non-violent communication felt manipulative and/or patronising. How to progress a discussion in such circumstances?

I find Piper Harron’s post Why I Do Not Talk About Math troubling. Is this a parable about failure to negotiate a satisfactory communicative style despite great effort?

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 do find it hard, but I want to understand this example.

For me, personally, the norms in the field of mathematics are kinda fun. I find the tone-deaf and argumentative environments homely, at least, most days. If I don’t enjoy it on a particular day I can usually negotiate something different. Some people feel there do not feel they have scope to do that, and for all I know they are correct. How to fix?1

4.1 Asking

An important norm worth making explicit. See ‘Askers’ vs. ‘Guessers’ which credits Metafilter user tangerine from MetaFilter:

This is a classic case of Ask Culture meets Guess Culture. In some families, you grow up with the expectation that it’s OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.

In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t even have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.

A recent discussion about this in podcast form was Spencer Greenberg’s Guess culture vs. ask culture (with Will Eden and Sam Rosen). I take issue with that podcast, though, which I feel weak-manned the cause of asking. The partisan of asking seemed to advocate asking culture in the sense of cultivating an expectation for tendentious and provoking questions in situations of marginal psychological safety. For me, the central idea of asking is that an efficient way of negotiating psychological safety is to ask about things, even one that seem like they might be taboo, and to take the answer at face value, and contrariwise, to understand that when in doubt ambiguous needs can be clarified and the explanation will be taken at face value. This is much simpler and to my mind, less exclusionary than, e.g. communication systems that require high degrees of in-group-tacit-knowledge.

Asking can be taken to excess — asking someone about a recent traumatic experience is not being an Asker, it is being a tactless in a context where asking is not safe. However, in the general day-to-day world, I think it is the way. I feel better when you assume less about me, and I feel better when I assume less about you. This means that when talking to someone I don’t know I can reduce my dependence upon stereotype and prejudice and increases my scope for taking people as they are, rather than reducing them to a caricature of their group. Guessing culture is for closed in-groups, psychotherapy sessions, social workers amongst fraught populations, and so on. That is, I hew close to Jonathan Chait’s opinion, Ask, Don’t Guess:

Guessers are wrong, and Askers are right. Asking is how you actually determine what the Asker wants and the giver is willing to receive. Guessing culture is a recipe for frustration.

What’s more, Guessers, who are usually trying to be nice and are holding themselves to a higher level of politeness, ruin things for the rest of us. I’m not a super hospitable guy, but I frequently find myself offering things to other people that I’d like them to take—say, leave their kids at my house to play with my kids—but they refuse to take because they think I’m a Guesser, offering hospitality I secretly hope will be turned down. Guessers are what forces people with poor social discernment, like me, to regard all kinds of interactions as a minefield of awkwardness.

4.2 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.

5 Decoupling

A term scribing dealing with arguments based on their contents rather than their context. For me, this is a thing we need to do to make progress. I respect that decoupling is thing that mused be accomplished rather than assumed.

Much as been written on this theme. 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.

The Motte is a miniature subreddit spinoff which attempts to be all-decoupling, all the time. It is hard work, especially in an open public sphere where people are constantly coming in and fucking it up. Also kind of addictive.

6 Workplace in particular

See workplace habits.

7 As a manager

See managing

8 Compliments

10 Intimately

See relationships

11 …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 good 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 is some background to communicate with me generally, esp with regard to disagreement.

  • Native English speaker.
  • Obligate extrovert.
  • 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 guesser to asker is complete and I am having trouble remembering how guessers work.
  • Going by my history, my opinions about lots of things are wrong, and I can be persuaded to change them, although it usually takes a few tries.
  • I attempt to not believe many things but I assign a high certainty to some things; probably more than I would prefer.
  • 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).
  • We do not need to get it right first time. I am happy to have do-overs, and for either of us to revoke what we said last time.
  • I think every topic is open for discussion, although not in every context.
  • At the same time, we need to discuss stuff with care and compassion, because while disagreement is not violence, speech can indeed be violence of a sort, sometimes. If you don’t agree with that, then you do not know anyone who has been in an abusive relationship, and you are blessed.
  • I believe the force of an argument is primarily 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.
  • I am always ready to play stag before rabbit.
  • My weak suit is the silent treatment. If you decide to freeze me out, I will have trouble assuming you mean well. A short explanation of what is going on would probably help, if you can manage it.

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

12 Incoming

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”.

Cooperative Overlap.

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.

  • The meta-protocol for human trust-building

  • Reveal Culture

  • “You know nothing”: a conversational mindset

  • Good conversations have lots of doorknobs

    Givers think that conversations unfold as a series of invitations; takers think conversations unfold as a series of declarations. When giver meets giver or taker meets taker, all is well. When giver meets taker, however, giver gives, taker takes, and giver gets resentful (“Why won’t he ask me a single question?”) while taker has a lovely time (“She must really think I’m interesting!”) or gets annoyed (“My job is so boring, why does she keep asking me about it?”).

    It’s easy to assume that givers are virtuous and takers are villainous, but that’s giver propaganda. Conversations, like improv scenes, start to sink if they sit still. Takers can paddle for both sides, relieving their partners of the duty to generate the next thing.

Jeff Guenther:

8 really vulnerable questions to ask your partner that will deepen your connection.

  1. What was your first impression of me, and how has it changed since we’ve been together?
  2. What is something you love about our relationship, and what is something you think we could work on?
  3. Can you share a moment in our relationship when you felt especially close or connected to me? What made that moment special?
  4. What is one thing you wish understood better about you, or something you’ve hesitated to share with me?
  5. How do you feel about the balance between giving and receiving in our relationship? Are there areas where you’d like to see more reciprocity?
  6. What’s a fear or concern you have about our future together? How can we address it as a team?
  7. Can you tell me about a time when you felt truly supported or understood by me? What made you feel that way?
  8. What is your favorite memory of us, and what do you hope for our future together?

13 References

Acemoglu, Chernozhukov, and Yildiz. 2006. Learning and Disagreement in an Uncertain World.” Working Paper 12648.
Back, Back, and Bates. 1991. Assertiveness at Work: A Practical Guide to Handling Awkward Situations.
Cheng, Bernstein, Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, et al. n.d. Anyone Can Become a Troll: Causes of Trolling Behavior in Online Discussions.”
Goel, Mason, and Watts. 2010. Real and Perceived Attitude Agreement in Social Networks.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Grant. 2017. The Third ‘Generation’ of Workplace Coaching: Creating a Culture of Quality Conversations.” Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice.
Schulman. 2017. Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair.
Stone, and Heen. 2011. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.
Tan, Niculae, Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, et al. 2016. Winning Arguments: Interaction Dynamics and Persuasion Strategies in Good-Faith Online Discussions.” In Proceedings of the 25th International Conference on World Wide Web. WWW ’16.
Ury, and Fisher. 2012. Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in.
Vecchi, Van Hasseltb, and Romano. 2005. Crisis (Hostage) Negotiation: Current Strategies and Issues in High-Risk Conflict Resolution.” Aggression and Violent Behavior.
Weitzel, and Center for Creative Leadership, eds. 2019. Feedback That Works: How to Build and Deliver Your Message. The Ideas into Action Series.


  1. NB I am not qualified ot assess Harron’s research for novelty, but I can say that her science communication is seriously innovative and top-grade, and it would have been a loss to the field if she had given up. See her thesis for wonderfully comprehensible explanations of deep algebraic weirdness that any normal human would consider inscrutable.↩︎