you are already a communication skills trainer!

By Dennis Rivers, MA. Adapted from from a talk given at the Santa Barbara
Community Counseling and Education Center.

Communication training for a transformed world
using a chambered Nautilus model of skill development, 
emphasizing self-help and peer support.

The chambered Nautilus model is a radical alternative to the normal way people think about learning new skills and teaching new skills to others.  Please allow me to explain some of the ways in which the self-help and peer support model of learning new skills differs from the professional training model.  I’m going to call the professional training model “the normal way” because it is so widely used in schools and colleges around the world.

The normal way

  • makes a strong distinction between teachers and learners,
  • marks the path of learning as a series of clear steps of limited duration,
  • celebrates the completion of the steps with the awarding of certificates and licenses, and
  • restricts who can teach to those who have licenses.

Someone other than the learner is in charge of the learning process. The people at the top of this pyramid earn money by providing services to the people at lower levels of the pyramid.  The normal way is as much about excluding incompetent practitioners as it is about recognizing competent practitioners. These are two sides of the same licensing process.  Because there is not enough room at the top of the pyramid for everyone, in an economic sense, and because not everyone can become high competent within the limits of existing training programs, the normal system must necessarily fail a large percentage, often a majority, of its participants, must declare them to be incompetent.  

Every now and then someone observes that any training scheme that fails to produce competence in many of its participants is itself a failure. This is the growing edge of educational thinking around the world.  Institutions that intend to help people learn, must themselves learn.  Unfortunately, the goal of the normal system right now is not to get everyone across the finish line of competence and excellence, each person receiving whatever help they need in order to make that journey.  I think it is important for us to be realistic about the fact that the normal system is set up in such a way that it serves some people well and fails many people.  Right now, I simply want to acknowledge that as a fact, and not go into all the arguments about whose fault it is, or about how competition creates excellence, and so on. (I accept that competition creates excellence among at least a few of the competitors.  My concern is the ratio of how many become excellent versus the total number who participate.  I am also interested in how many become permanently discouraged, because that is part of the cost of any training scheme and needs to be looked at and compared with open eyes. Gasoline that destroyed the engine of every third car would not be considered a great success, only something with great potential.)

There are some areas of human activity in which the normal way works tolerably well.  Accounting and brain surgery come to mind. So my purpose here is not to stir up a general rebellion against the normal way (although perhaps we could talk about that on another day).  The point I want to emphasize now is that there are certain areas in human life where our normal way of encouraging and recognizing competence seems to serve us well, and other areas where it does not serve us well.  In fact, in some areas the process of excluding and discouraging people is really damaging to society.

Communication skills training is one of those areas where everybody needs to be involved and everybody needs to succeed.  As outlandish as that might sound, please bear with me for a moment.  Every person on planet Earth is already a communication trainer.  From the moment we are born, we send out a complex stream of signals to the people around us.  As we do this, we provide the people around us with a model for communicating.  It may be a good example or a bad example, but our behavior is always a model for the people around us, whether we want it to be or not.  From this “systems” perspective, we don’t really have a choice about whether or not we are going to be communication trainers;  we only have choices about how well or how poorly were going to do it.  I am deeply convinced that Planet Earth needs each of us to embrace our communication-trainer-ness, and embrace the challenge of doing our all-the-time training better.  

I call this the Chambered Nautilus model.  Some of us might appear to be at the earlier rounds of the spiral shell, and some of us might appear to be on one of the later rounds, but we are all participants in the spiral of evolving communication modeling and competence.  Everyone has room to grow, and always will. From this point of view, there is absolutely no room for excluding a single person, no justification for flunking anyone.  The truth is, a lot of people flunk out of our current way of teaching communication skills.  And we have developed giant, shadow institutions to try to deal with them and the people impacted when they get flunked by failing institutions.  The shadow of our competitive success story is a system of jails, prisons, reform schools, foster care systems, and divorce/family custody courts.

I am deeply convinced that we need an alternative model for teaching communication skills, a model organized along completely different lines than the current professional pyramid, a model that empowers lots more people.  You have heard it  said of old…  “Someday you will pass your board exams and become a well-paid doctor.”   But I say unto you, folks, “We are all communication skills trainers this very moment, and will always be so! Therefore, how can we work together to do it better?”  You can see how different this is from the normal way of talking about skill development.  

As it happens, there are already several large training programs for people who want to become professional communication skills trainers, and there are thousands of psychotherapists and social workers who include some sort of communication skills training as part of their counseling.  So the path of professional training has been well explored over the past half-century. As wonderful as these activities are, I do not see that they have made much of a change in global communication culture.  (Both entertainment and sports have gotten more violent, giving us lots more bad examples to follow.)  I think there are four reasons why current institutional arrangements are not helping us to communicate with each other better:   

First, help is needed in literally hundreds of millions of families, businesses and communities around the world, but there are not, and probably never will be, hundred of millions of professional expert communication skills trainers.

Second, even if there were millions of training professionals available, there are very few people on the planet who can pay $50 to $100 an hour to be trained by an expert. So the “hotel conference room” model of training is always going to reach only a limited audience.  

Third, the economics of offering classes for pay pushes teachers toward the “brief intensive” model rather than the ongoing support group model, because the brief intensive model generates enough money to pay for the staff and the building.  If the skill one is trying to teach requires ongoing support, than the brief intensive model will not provide very good learning results.  

Fourth, paid teachers of communication skills struggle to reconcile two radically different roles they play in relation to their students (as do psychotherapists and social workers in relation to their clients).  One role is the role of the peer encourager: “I’m human and your human, so if I can do this, you can do this, too.  I walk beside you as a fellow learner.  There is no shame about having more to learn about communication, because we all have more to learn about communication.”  The second role is the role of the paid expert.  “I am so smart and so well trained and educated that you should pay me $100 an hour for my help, even if you only earn $10 an hour.  I have lots more information about the art of living than you do, and I’m not going to share it with you unless you pay me, because I still have student loans to pay, kids to send to college, etc., etc.”  I don’t have any easy solution to offer for this role conflict.  It seems to me that the second role cuts the ground out from under the first.  It is very difficult to both emphasize a person’s capacity to learn and ability to take the initiative, and simultaneously claim to hold a special knowledge that the learner really needs and can’t get anywhere else.  

As a result of these many considerations, I have reached the conclusion that the professional model doesn’t fit communication skills training very well.  That is why I am committed to exploring an alternative model, one that emphasizes self-help, peer support, open source training materials and wide participation.  I find strength in the fact that Carl Rogers, the originator of much that is valuable in communication training, saw his approach as belonging to everyone.  Rogers was convinced that the essential qualities of life-enhancing (developmentally-supportive) communication: honesty, caring and responsive empathy, could be embodied, with effort, by any and all of us, regardless of our occupation or social circumstances.  He did not intend for these life-enhancing qualities to become the exclusive possession of a licensed elite, whether psychotherapists, social workers or communication skills trainers.  Rogers may have underestimated our tendency to turn each new skill into a limited guild.  It is probably way too optimistic to expect people to stop making guilds any time soon.  One transformational approach to this would be to declare that communication skills training belongs to every guild, because it belongs to every person.  So wherever people get together to try to cultivate some specific human excellence, let them also cultivate the cooperative communication skills that will make a more compassionate world in which those specific excellences can unfold.

I look forward to participating with you in the evolution of a mutual support community that would help us all get further down the road of communicating consciously, creatively and compassionately.  There is a good deal of thought and research going into the “guide by the side” model of mentoring.  I hope to apply it to the development of communication skills.

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