Phenomenological Psychology

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Review of “Messages – The Communication Skills Book” by Matthew McKay and Martha Davis

October 24th, 2009 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

The premise of this book is that communication skills are not intrinsic or innate. Rather they can be developed with conscientious effort and practice. Doing so will improve one’s ability to speak and listen to others. The combination of these two elements in turn will improve one’s personal effectiveness as well as the caliber and quality of one’s relationships.

In principle communication skills are desirable. I did not find this book however to be particularly informative or useful. There is little that distinguishes it from the vast horde of other new-age self-help books. The written exercises in particular were annoying. Reading a book is a commitment to participating in the authors’ vision and bringing oneself into a condition of alignment with their goals and objectives. The authors in turn must reciprocate this commitment by writing a book that is empirically grounded, uses sound logical reasoning to move from premises to conclusions and has therapeutic usefulness. Absent a high degree of mutual attunement or resonance both the reading of the book and the writing of the book are futile exercises.

Properly understood the subject matter of the book – interpersonal communications – is a sub-branch of social psychology. The subject matter of social psychology is how individual cognitions and behavior are affected by other people and by group dynamics. The book, however, does not take into account any of the extensive research that has been done in this area. To illustrate this point I will consider two broad topics: compliance techniques and the interpretation of “body language.”

Many communications strategies in fact conceal tacit compliance techniques. Here are some examples:

1. “Foot-in-the-door,” which is the process of using a small favor to induce the respondent to accede to a larger request.

2. “Low-balling,” which is getting the respondent to make a decision based on one factor (e.g. low price) even after that factor has been changed (e.g. the price has been increased. It is based on the observation that having made a commitment, the respondent will tend to behave consistently with it, rather than attempting to modify the underlying agreement.

3. “Door-in-the-face,” which is making a large request, which the respondent turns down. The respondent then is more likely to accede to a second, more reasonable request. The respondent may feel guilty about having turned down the first request. The initial request also may set a reference point for construing the second request as being more reasonable.

4. “Bait-and-switch,” which is when a product is advertised at an artificially low price but then becomes unavailable so the respondent is directed to a higher-priced substitute.

5. “Camel’s Nose,” which occurs when the respondent is told that permitting a small, undesirable situation to occur will permit its gradual and unavoidable worsening. (1)

You would not learn anything about these tactics, discussion of which is pervasive in the social sciences literature, from reading the book. Instead the book adopts a generic “how to win friends and influence enemies” approach. It implies one can deploy persuasive techniques to convert one’s counterparts to one’s own point-of-view even if one is insincere and does not really believe in what one is saying. This ends up having vaguely Machiavellian undertones. A better policy simply is that people should say what they mean and mean what they say.

Social psychology also has done considerable research into body language, which is non-verbal communication based on pose, gestures, eye movements, flips of the hair and the like. Other paralinguistic cues are subtler, such as proximity. Much of the time body language is strongly determined by cultural conventions. For example, people from eastern cultures tend to require less overall space in elevators then people from western cultures (i.e. the latter require more “personal space” to buffer and insulate themselves). People from eastern cultures also tend to define themselves more strongly in terms of group identity, whereas people from western cultures focus more on individual autonomy. Most of the time these types of signals are transmitted (and interpreted) unconsciously. Body language projects a message as to the content of further explicit language or action. It also reveals important aspects of a person’s attitude or intention. (2)

The book makes many observations about how to use body language in social contexts, for example, to get somebody to like you or how to get your boss to give you a pay raise. However these are presented more like Jedi mind tricks, without any theoretical foundation.

In conclusion, it is disconcerting to think there are masses of readers walking around trying to “spin” their own personal circumstances, the intentions underlying their communications, and the bases for their actions. These developments also are concernful from a cultural policy standpoint. We have come to expect (for example) that politicians and celebrities basically are insincere (if not dishonest) about who they are and what they say. It corrupts the process of social discourse to think these stratagems should apply generally. Nobody would be able to trust what anybody else is saying, it all would need to be filtered for evidence of improper or inappropriate use of mental persuasion techniques. This leads to an ironic problem for the authors of the book. In the process of trying to teach people how to be better communicators, they actually teach people how to be worse communicators, or at least more disingenuous ones.


(1) Examples taken from Nisbett, R., Gilovich, T. & Keltner, D. (2005). Social Psychology. New York, NY: Norton & Co.

(2) Examples taken from Aronson, E. (2007). The Social Animal. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.