A Twist in Communication The Power of the Oasis
Abstract In Chile, the so-called Santiago School has produced an important trend of thought in the area of social disciplines, stemming from the tradition of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. In this paper, Mauricio Tolosa presents some simple distinctions in communication, related to the Santiago School cognitive matrix and also derived from his extensive practice as an international consultant for major public projects. This is the kind of text can be interpreted from different perspectives, and may prove useful for anyone interested in communication issues.
A TWIST IN COMMUNICATION The Power of the Oasis
Communication is in vogue. Today, the election of a president, the ratification of an international agreement, the failure of a government, the explosive success of a company, conflicts among parents and children, the dialogue for the development of a country, the coldness between a couple, the implementation of State reforms or the classification of a football team to the World Cup, are all considered to be “communication problems”. The above is somewhat justified by the fact that communication processes traverse and comprise every aspect of community life, and determine the beginning, the path taken and the attainment of community objectives. To solve the so-called “communication problems” and design effective and transforming interventions to facilitate people’s and communities’ attainment of objectives in harmony, it is essential to
understand how communication takes place among human beings. An important part of my experience as a communicologist has dealt with identity, change and crisis management for Latin American governments and large institutions and companies. A certainty that has transpired from that experience is that deep and stable communicational solutions are not easily achieved, and cannot be implemented “from without” the organization, or through brochures, television ads, or costly advertising or lobbying campaigns. Productive and long-lasting solutions are achieved by creating communities (here, I am invoking the deepest and primary meaning of communication), with an identity and culture attuned to the organizational objectives. This requires strengthening and developing communicational capacities and skills in the organization’s key individuals and sections. These people and sections, together with their systems of coordination and meanings, constitute the heart that clusters different communities around a project. From the humbleness of a reflective practitioner, I define and propose basic boundaries and distinctions for communication’s “oasis domain”, which will serve as a framework to determine the most efficient capacities and skills that must be developed and implemented to achieve effective communication. 05
I use the term oasis as a metaphor for a territory that has been traveled and visited by different disciplines, all of which have left their traces of concepts, paradigms, and models: from engineering to psychology, from anthropology to semiotics, from sociology to biology. The fact that visitors are multiinterdisciplinary is further complicated by the superimposition of a second layer of techniques such as advertising, journalism, public relations or films. The oasis is traversed by scientists and artists, scholars and ingenious individuals, entrepreneurs and poets. In 1992, I participated in the creation, as well as headed the first postgraduate program on strategic communication in Latin America, the International Communication Strategies Diploma imparted in ITAM, in Mexico. One of the first and perhaps the most important trilogies came to light in these classes, in an attempt to explain the communication-learning process: that of “Distinguishing, Naming and Validating”. This simple and modest metaphor guides the observation of knowledge construction through the evolution of “words” that become intertwined to contour a community’s universe of possibilities. Take the word communicology, for example. The distinction between communicating and explaining how we communicate, is quite evident.
In this multicolored world of communication at the Southernmost end of the World, scented by incense (alluding to José Hormazábal’s characterization in his article “Communicology and Strategic Management”) and cognitive sciences we have built a particular, pragmatic and creative approach, eclectically assembled by bringing together an assortment of sciences and multiple trades and practices from the four cardinal points. This paper synthesizes my participative observation in this process and articulates some fundamental distinctions derived from the Mayanadia think tank’s practice, reflection and learning.
Distinguishing, Naming and Validating
Subsequently, the need arises to identify “the process of explaining communication” with a different term from “communicating”. The name emerges almost “naturally” by associating “communicating and logos”: communicology. Thus, the distinction has been named. However, its validation is not automatic, nor does it respond to pure logic. Are we entitled or authorized to propose a name and a distinction? In this matter, Mr. Eulalio Ferrer, a publicist, thinker and writer, as well as member of the Real Academia de la Lengua Española (Royal Academy of the Spanish Language) included the word communicology in the RAE Dictionary, the Spanish language’s supreme authority, a fact that was extremely helpful. Inclusion in the dictionary provided the required endorsement to the cognitive process that differentiates “communicating” from “explaining communication”.
Distinctions are not static; they evolve in concert with the experience of the community that uses them. Communicology, for instance, appeared in the RAE dictionary in 1992 as: “f. interdisciplinary science that studies communication in its different means, techniques and systems”, and then in the amendment dated June 2004 it appeared as “f. Science of an interdisciplinary nature that studies human communication systems and their means”. The name is preserved but the field included by the term distinction is further specified as “human communication”. It preserves the validation conferred by its inclusion in the Spanish language’s maximum authority dictionary. A doctor distinguishes bones, organs, temperatures, fluids, and symptoms, to make the best possible representation of the patient, and so perform a better healing intervention. A greater number of finer and more precise distinctions improve the possibilities of an intervention on a situation. For example, a gardener who is acquainted with types of soils, humidity, buds, and types of growth, can care for a garden very competently, even if he/she does not have a name for each of those distinctions. Further distinctions in the progressive development of an activity, extended and validated in a broad community, will enrich the process and its products and add to their value. For example, the manner in which someone may value a piece of jade, a game of baseball, a Persian rug, a cup of coffee or 11
service at a restaurant, will be closely related to that person’s capacity to observe a greater number of distinctions in each of those objects or activities. Becoming a doctor, a jade carver or a baseball player does not depend exclusively on each person’s determination; it depends on interacting with, being immersed in, conversing and practicing within the community of doctors, carvers, or baseball players. One of the global community’s characteristics is that the possibilities of attaining a personal identity are increasingly independent from the immediate context or the context of origin.
The Santiago School:
the Cognitive Dimension
We do not develop on our own; we are determined by our communication with other people, the communities that we have belonged to in the course of our lives, which have led us to perceive certain elements, to express our emotions in a particular way, to develop representations –to a larger or lesser extent - of the worlds we inhabit. Because Chile is a small country, a prolific creative promiscuity takes place amongst peoples of various disciplines – and even amongst some undisciplined ones like me -. For example, a significant number of individuals have had the privilege of interacting, in a relatively natural way, with prominent world-level vanguard cognitive thinkers, such as Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela.
This association has caused a strong impact on those of us engaged in reflection and practice in the areas of communities and people, and has been extremely productive: Susana Bloch, in emotions; Rafael Echeverría, in the ontology of language; Fernando Flores in systems and organizations, Mónica Herrera in education and learning, to name but a few, who have materialized and brought to life in their respective areas of interest the strong influence of the new cognitive and biological paradigm developed by Maturana and Varela In 1997, I had the privilege of participating in the Human Ecology Diploma imparted by Humberto Maturana at Universidad de Chile. In these exciting sessions, the professor embodied and conveyed with elegance and clarity the concepts that he elaborates so aridly in the written text. His explanations and presentations left us in a deep state of openness and enquiry vis-à-vis the certainties and understanding of the world. In the search for a better interpretation of the communication processes, this seminar prompted new ideas in me; I consolidated intuitions, and re-articulated concepts that deeply influenced my approach to communicology. I abandoned the simple and charming, yet totally insufficient telephone model the “sender-message-receiver” repeated in the schools of journalism and communication as sacred truths,
to go forth to live and understand communication as a dynamic and constitutive process amongst human beings. It was the time to strengthen the cognitive dimension of communication. Exploring the concept of the observer and how we live the possible world according to our cognitive field, we state that people make the world that they inhabit by interacting in the multiple communicational processes in which they take part throughout their lives. The “world” in which each person moves will depend on the areas that enlighten the actions and conversations, direct or mediated, in which they participate. Metaphorically “we are what we communicate”. Following the same line of thought, the distinction of the neuronal configurations as articulations “reflexcreator” of the nervous system and it’s interactions with the environment opens up a broad field for reflection. Projected toward the communicational phenomena, it allows us to imagine that a determined configuration of representations, emotions and behaviors define and enable a particular successful coordination among people or communities, which we can call communication.
For example, to buy a pumpkin flower quesadilla in a market in Mexico, you need to be in the market and have enough money, feel confident and excited about the purchase and at least have heard of and be able to identify pumpkin flower quesadillas. Of course, you need someone who knows how to make them, who has actually made them and offers them in an inviting and reassuring way. The “quesadilla transfer” will only take place in the community of participants if this configuration of behaviors, emotions and representations occurs. Communication is a process of interactions, where the beliefs, emotions and behaviors that make up the universe of participants’ possible actions, individual and shared, are modified. In this approach to the communication processes, the system of communicational products and actions acquires a different dimension, a symbolic, emotional and biological fabric that underpins the interactions of the community and the continuous transformation of each participant in the process.
Head, Heart and Hand
It was a cold autumn afternoon in Santiago, in the late nineties. After teaching a Strategic Communication class at Universidad Finis Terrae, I was meeting an itinerant friend I had met years before on a rainy Chiloé afternoon. She had just returned from a trip to India, where she had participated in a meeting of educators with Sai Baba. The distinctions related to what she had learned by listening to the wise Hindu had impressed her deeply and, among other things, she told me about the metaphor of the “3 H’s: head, heart and hand”. At the time, I was obsessed trying to overcome the dualism imposed by the revolutionary discoveries made some years before about the right and left sides of the brain. The caravan of studies on the brain had traveled through the communication oasis, expanding and validating the idea that communication 21
was not merely reason, logic and precision, but also emotion, imagination and intuition, and all this was not “bad”; in fact we have a whole half of the brain devoted to that function,. Today, this sounds so overly schematic that it can even be considered comical, but it was not that evident when we needed to go from a linear, certain, reflection, to a dimension that would at least incorporate a confusing emotional, creative and uncertain aspect. At the beginning the duality expand the oasis territory in a surprising way. Nonetheless, dualism started to rapidly acquire the rigidity of the previous linear model, and thus lost its capacity to shed light on the territory it had contributed to develop. It was difficult to incorporate to this model the influence of Maturana’s and Varela’s biology with the body and the nervous system as a knowledge seeking system that was much more extensive than the brain, or Susana Bloch’s research describing emotions as something corporeal and concrete. In this obsession, I was open to and eager for an answer or an explanation, when Sai Baba’s 3 H’s metaphor came along, resounding clearly and with certainty, breaking through the false dilemma between the rational and the emotional. In Spanish, projecting it to the communication field worked out even better “las 3Cs: cabeza, corazón y cuerpo” (: head, heart and body). It could become a broad reference, with
superimposed boundaries, for the various fields that involve communication among people. We certainly do not want to fall once again into the rigid simplification that in the long run prevents us from moving forward in the path of knowledge. When we say “head”, we are referring to a linguistic, symbolic field of concepts, ideas, representations and beliefs; by “heart” we refer to everything related to the emotional, attitudes, emotions, moods and feelings; and by body we mean the corporeal, behaviors, gestures and senses. It is a great metaphor that invites to contemplate these variables within the complex flow of communication. A labor environment or an emotion will no doubt also involve “head” and “body” elements, just like a representation will be tinged with emotions and perceptions.
listening to the community
The act of listening does not merely depend on a specific text and moment, it also depends on the existing connection of the listener with the surrounding context, which inclines us to accept, receive or judge a particular proposal. Perhaps I listened to and incorporated Sai Baba’s 3 Hs as a possible explanation not only because it was a practical and simple reply to the question I needed an answer to at the time, but because of my openness to its context of origin, based on my high regard and affection for Eastern thought. Not only to way of thinking: I lived in Bangalore for a couple of years, there I got married, formed a family and made dear friends. I worked with exploited and working children in the suburbs of that city in Southern India, which would later become one of the epicenters of the world in information and communication technologies.
Living in a cultural reality so different from the Western and Latin American ones gave me the chance to observe the communication mechanisms that configure the occurrence of certain behaviors and the “arbitrariness” of the cultural-communicational fabric that makes “things” be one way and not another, almost as if they were illustrative schemes or examples. Just like I was marked by Maturana regarding the understanding of human beings in their biological cognitive dimension, my sojourn in India was a way to “concretely” understand how cultures can determine even the most “natural” actions in a person: eating, defecating, bathing or sleeping, and of course, the more social or collective ones, such as celebrating, relating with the elders or the gods. The emergence of these behaviors is the result of a configuration translated and reinforced by a complex intertwining of communication products and actions. To observe my Western and Latin American everyday reality from the East made me realize that everything can be different according to the communicational fabric that we create and live in. In Hinduism, a culture that has have evolved for over 5,000 years, many everyday gestures follow very precise rules and standards: what to do and when to commence a journey, how to build a house taking into account proportions and directions, or the complex sequences related to the rituals of birth, marria27
ge and death. Underlying each of these instructions are representations and mental maps, which have been instilled in texts and behavior, passed on from generation to generation, for thousands of years. At another scale, it is what a communicologist pursues by designing a system of communication actions and products to model the culture of a government or company, with the aim to attain the proposed identity. The presence and valuation of emotions and moods are different from those in the West, in different situations. There is no doubt that every individual reacts in a particular way, but the community has an emotional beat that has been forged throughout centuries, of what is considered to be acceptable, “normal”. Another important difference between India and the West – which offers a wide range of observation possibilities for communicologists – is thinking from the perspective of the community or the individual. That macro representation permeates the different decision-making spheres and assumption of a certain stance in the world, tinting the density of the social communicational fabric, and thus determining emotions, behaviors and representations in each person and in the different communities.
For example, it is not the same to observe and assess child labor from the rationale of an urban and Western society that talks of the child-individual’s rights to education “to become whatever he/she wishes”, than to experience it from the perspective of a community of potters where the path to become a potter – i.e., to fulfill a life destiny – is to learn to make pots as a child. In the former, the individual creates the world and the community, in the latter; it is the community that creates the person. To understand communicational processes between people and to design better interventions, I believe it is relevant to find the common elements in the different communicational situations regardless of the size or identity of the community under observation. Living in the mega community – a civilization that determines the everyday and “natural” gestures in people - allowed me to learn to observe how delimited communities, such as governments, companies or institutions, forge invisible threads in the same way, which are expressed in a fabric of communicational products and actions, which guide people’s broadest and more specific actions.
By communicating, people build communities where their representations, emotions and perceptions are constantly flowing and being affected, originating new possibilities and extinguishing others. The exchange between people in one community takes place through a dense fabric of communicational products and actions, where the threads that each of them establishes with other different communities, become intertwined.
Creating, Preserving, and Destroying
Communities are in constant movement. Protagonists, actions and products, distinctions, beliefs and values are constantly appearing and disappearing within a community. This process modifies the way in which people live together and the space of possibilities in that community and in the people who comprise it. Let us imagine, for example, the communicational universe associated to slave drivers: the beliefs about human beings, the prejudice, emotions, rights and duties, the objects and their connotations, the laws and rules. Let us imagine them, not in general, but from the perspective of the different people that made up that community: the slave hunter, the dealer, the merchant, the “lord and master” of the land. Today, this system is unimaginable. But not too long ago, it was commonplace among human beings 33
who are biologically the same as us. Enslavement was possible because some people believed there were different categories of human beings. These beliefs and practices gradually disappeared. We can trace that evolution through the laws that abolished slavery and the much subsequent extinction of enslaving behaviors and it would probably not be hard for someone to trace the whole path until our present times. For this process to take place, beliefs had to be challenged, the emergence of different values, emotions and alternative behaviors was required to replace the dominant paradigm. While those ideas were being conceived and died away, others were preserved and maintained, in the community’s slow transformation alchemy. This same accelerated change may be noticed in governments, companies, or regions subjected to rapid development processes. Communities are in permanent and complex movement; they open up to and intertwine with diverse and strange communication product and action fabrics, originating from distant, alien and enquiring cultures and places. The world of linear change acknowledged a before and an after, a good and a bad, a yes and a no, “Change” was a switch that was activated or deactivated according to the instructions of an almighty will.
The catch in the enthralling focus on results concealed the inevitable challenge in the path to attain it. To anchor the observation of change processes, as a permanent movement where various emphases co-exist, we will borrow another metaphor from India. In the cycle of Hinduism, the three most important gods are Brahma, the great creator; Vishnu the preserver; and Shiva, the destructor. They alternate supreme power and also cohabit in the different cycles of life. The creation and destruction of Brahma and Shiva are relatively familiar aspects in Western rationale. I find the emergence of Vishnu quite attractive, because it highlights the aspect of preservation, of all that remains constant, which is where a community’s identity is best interpreted. This trilogy helps us to break the before and after, creation and destruction rationale, to effectively incorporate the reflex of observing the process and caring for what must be preserved at times when everything is in movement. The alchemy of change needs to work simultaneously in the three movements of creation, destruction and preservation in the community and guide them specifically toward the desired objective. Even though it is a long known fact that everything flows and moves, our way of living seems to assume the paradigm of the immutable and the solid. Complementing the awareness of movement with the 35
observation of the simultaneous three processes, gives renewed power the perception of change and assures that the representations, emotions and behaviors that comprise the community’s or people’s identity are identified. This is the only way I can preserve the indispensable and use it as the basis for transformation and resistance vis-à-vis the difficulties that are inherent to the creative imbalance caused by destruction.
Communicating in the forefront
As I mentioned earlier in this paper, the purpose of my communication practice and reflection is to support and leverage communities and people more efficiently in the achievement of their goals and objectives, and in the attainment of their identities. In these pages I have presented some basic distinctions and didactic tricks aimed to help those who implement and practice them, so that they have a better understanding of communication. The mere fact of achieving a better understanding of what we mean when we say “We have to improve communication!” or “There is a communication problem here!” or “We need a communication strategy!” is an important step in the path to resolving it. Understanding how people and communities communicate will connect us, foster greater empathy with our environment, and avoid a revolving chair effect, i.e., rapidly spinning 39
around our own axis, while feeling that what is moving is the world. For whoever wants to direct or implement changes, more than half the job is done by listening, building the communicational situation, and getting in close touch with the way the scenario is moving. Every project, change, company or government, starts off with the creation of a community, whose members decide to undertake a task, either by obligation, seduction, conviction, or any other motivation. At times, the community is built around a special objective, with people contributing their experiences and belongings that provide them with a common scope and style. Often, they are people who have each had very different experiences from the others, who are forced to integrate and mingle with each other, aiming to achieve an understanding between them. From an identity management perspective, communicating is building and managing a community that is created and evolves in the pursuit of a mission, while being attentive to the shifts needed to re-focus or change. This implies, as we have seen, identifying the specific and necessary representations, emotions and behaviors so that the actions conceived in the designed plans and projects will actually take place. Planning, team work, people development, media relations, and internal and external strategic communi-
cation are all tools used to shift the community toward a pre-determined goal. The fundamental aspects of a synergic approach that integrates these tools with the aim to foster processes and achieve results are: constant listening, identity and change management, and integrating the communicational action and production fabric that supports strategic interactions. Something seems to underlie this text, and I would not like to end these lines without making it explicit: “communication problems” are far too important and fundamental to be left in the hands of traditional communication teams, which are not typically part of strategic decision-making spheres and who are required to do dissemination work, which is very far from what we have described here as communication. Communication skills and capacities must be embedded transversely at core and decision-making levels, which is where the main capacity to shift the community toward achieving their strategic objectives should be, and where the community’s identity with its clients and allies should be managed. An organization with solid and integrated communicational skills can survive a bad communication team, but a good communication team will be of no use to a confused management team that lacks the competence to build and guide communities. 41
The communicational oasis is faced with the challenge of consolidating its identity, by being open to the transit of scientists, practitioners, and experts from various territories and horizons that enhance the understanding of communication amongst human beings. But, above all, it must be hospitable and generous with those who have important communication and leadership responsibilities in a dynamic and challenging global community. To quench one’s thirst in this oasis, one must practice listening as a path to knowledge, become skilled in actually implementing proposed dreams and projects, continuously exercise respect and empathy, value diversity as a wealth that multiplies possibilities, and be committed to employ the power of communication in an ethical and responsible manner.
ForFor a more in-depth study a more in-depth study
Those who wish to know more about the Santiago School’s communicology can explore the following authors who offer concepts and related and complementary ideas to expand and/or focus on some of the specific aspects outlined in these pages. Susana Bloch Biología del Emocionar y Alba Emoting , Bailando Juntos, Susana Bloch and Humberto Maturana; Dolmen Ediciones, Santiago de Chile, 1996. Al Alba de las Emociones, Editorial Grijalbo, 2002. Alba Emoting. Bases Científicas del Emocionar, Editorial Universidad de Santiago, 2003. Web: http://www.albaemoting.cl/ Rafael Echeverría Ontología del lenguaje, Dolmen Ediciones, Santiago de Chile, 1994 El Búho De Minerva : Introducción a La Filosofía Moderna, JC Sáez Editor , 1997 La empresa emergente, la confianza y los desafíos de la transformación, Editorial Granica, Buenos Aires, 2000
Actos de lenguaje. Volumen I: LA ESCUCHA, JC Sáez Editor, 2007 Web: www.newfieldconsulting.com Fernando Flores Creando Organizaciones para el Futuro, Dolmen Ediciones S.A., Santiago de Chile, 1994. Ser en el Mundo, Editorial Cuatro Vientos, Santiago de Chile, 1996. Inventando la Empresa del Siglo XXI , Dolmen-Granica, Chile, 1997 Web: www.fernandoflores.cl Humberto Maturana De máquinas y Seres Vivos, (con Francisco Varela), Editorial Universitaria, Santiago de Chile, 1972 El Árbol del Conocimiento, (con Francisco Varela), Editorial Universitaria, Santiago de Chile 1984 Emociones y Lenguaje en Educación y Política, Ediciones Pedagógicas Chilenas, 1990 El Sentido de lo Humano, Hachette Comunicaciones, 1991 Desde la Biología a la Psicología, Editorial Synthesis, 1993 La Realidad ¿Objetiva o Construida?, Editorial Anthopos, 1996 • Volumen I: Fundamentos Biológicos de la Realidad. 45
• Volumen II: Fundamentos Biológicos del Conocimiento Objetividad: un argumento para obligar, Dolmen Editores, 1997 Transformación en la Convivencia, Dolmen Ediciones, 1999 web: www.matriztica.org Mauricio Tolosa Comunicología, de la aldea global a la comunidad global, Dolmen Ediciones, Santiago de Chile, 1999 (Reedición ampliada, Bravo y Allende Ediciones, Universidad UNIACC y Fundación de la Comunicología, 2006) web: www.fundacioncomunicologia.org Francisco Varela De Maquinas y Seres Vivos, (con Humberto Maturana), Editorial Universitaria, 1972 El árbol del conocimiento, (con Humberto Maturana), Editorial Universitaria, Santiago de Chile, 1984 Conocer: Las Ciencias Cognitivas, Editorial Gedisa, España, 1990 De cuerpo presente, Editorial Gedisa, Barcelona 1992 Etica y Acción, Dolmen Ediciones, 1995
Un puente para dos miradas. Conversaciones con el Dalai Lama sobre las ciencias de la mente, Editada con Jeremy Hayward; Editorial Dolmen, Santiago de Chile, 1997 Dormir, Soñar, Morir. Nuevas conversaciones con el Dalai Lama, Editorial Dolmen, Santiago de Chile, 1999 El Fenómeno de la Vida, Editorial Dolmen, Santiago de Chile, 2000. Eduardo Yentzen Hacia Una Democracia Creativa, Editorial Universidad Bolivariana, 2007 There are several thinkers, consultants and activists from various human discipline spheres, linked directly or indirectly to different networks of the Santiago School, originated by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Quoting any of them has the risk that some may disprove the quote. On the other hand, those not referred to may feel left out and become upset. Without going into an extensive list, I assume the risk of mentioning some names for those readers who like to surf the web: Fernando Coddou, Cecilia Dockendorff, Antonio Elizalde, Mónica Herrera, José Hormazábal, Julio Olaya, Carlos Vignolo, Alex Visic, and Luis Weinstein. 47