Communication Practices: History and Plans

by John S. James, January 2000

I started Communication Practices in 1999. These ideas developed through a personal quest which began almost 40 years earlier, when I heard a talk by Aldous Huxley, who spoke at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1960s.

In an aside from his main talk, Huxley noted that many different fields (for example, different sports) had found training methods which worked well for them. He suggested a project of collecting and studying successful training methods from various human endeavors.

I dreamed of such a project as a way to improve human potential, a warrior path to apply sophisticated training like that of martial arts to broader areas of life, perhaps to create a life focus separate from the corruption of the world, through a discipline for survival and success, and a support community of people working together toward this end. But until a year ago, I could not find a practical way to proceed.

The key to moving forward was the concept of "practices" that completely integrates training with everyday life. By "practices" we mean training methods which work entirely through everyday life and ordinary human interaction, and require no special equipment or other resources. Also, practices integrate training and life in exactly the same actions.

This definition may seem like a constraint which limits the possible range of these educational methods--and it is. But what you get in return is that the practices which meet these requirements can go anywhere. Money doesn't matter (since no resources are needed except everyday experience and human interaction, which all of us have), so this training is equally accessible to rich and poor, no matter what one's station in life. Also, you don't need free time. And the seamless integration of training and life encourages low-stress practices which can be used hour after hour without strain.

All of this also applies to ordinary learning by experience, which all of us already do. So what's different?

What's different is that learning through experience is seldom designed and cultivated; practices can be. We all learn from experience, but we learn on our own, with only hit-or-miss help from the culture around us: some guidance (good or bad) from our parents, or an exceptional teacher; some "philosophy of life" ideas from friends; perhaps help from therapy (but that's usually problem-oriented, and therefore less effective than it might otherwise be, since without a problem focus, therapy usually wouldn't take place at all).

So during the 20th Century, while science and technology advanced exponentially, learning through life experience advanced little or not at all; we never expected it to. (Athletics also advanced greatly during the 20th Century--closer to our point, since much of the improvement in performance came from improvements in training methods.)

Computer technology progresses very rapidly because it is strongly cumulative; each successful new advance quickly becomes routine, and then it can be a foundation for further advances. (Unfortunately one part of the computer field--making the machines easier for people to use--has been much less cumulative so far, and much less successful.)

The goal of Communication Practices is to establish a discipline for cumulative development of better methods for teaching and learning certain interpersonal skills--skills which today are usually learned (or not learned) by happenstance through life experiences. Of course this personal training will never be a cumulative as the engineering of computer hardware. But it can become more cumulative than what prevails today.

Practices provide "scaffolding" for assisted-performance education, and they can be developed and improved in many ways. Talented people in any culture can devise new ones. Suggested practices can be tested and refined by trial and error. Also, competing practices could be tested and compared in scientific trials (where volunteers would be randomly assigned to use one of two or more practices, then tested later to see how well they had learned certain skills).

We make no claims for the examples of communication practices which are listed on this site; we wrote them in a hurry, because we needed to illustrate what this project is. What counts is not these specific examples, but a modular system which is completely open to better ones. You can look anywhere in the world, and if you find better practices, put them in; if some of these practices don't work as well, toss them out. Neither I nor anyone else decides which practices are authorized. There can be any number of different lists, and they can compete in this marketplace of ideas.

Even the early-draft practices in the examples worked well for me. My greatest lifelong problem has been a kind of essential isolation--being an automatic outsider from every group and scene. After three weeks of testing several of the examples, that problem was basically gone. I had made more progress in three weeks than in decades with other methods--and without even trying to address the problem, since nothing had ever worked and I was resigned to living with the isolation for the rest of my life. Then one day it was gone. Social skills I had missed for decades still need to be developed, which takes a lot longer than three weeks, but that's the kind of work these practices are good for.

Yes, the current examples of practices came together around my needs, and we all have different needs. But clearly many others could benefit, also. And new practices can be designed for other needs.

This movement is just beginning; so far about 20 people have expressed interest. We are now organizing monthly meetings (starting in San Francisco), and also a worldwide conversation by email.

The next milestone for Communication Practices is "proof of principle" beyond one individual. Through the discussion groups, both face-to-face and online, we want to develop a wider range of practices, and show that they can be a major benefit to more than one person. Future milestones are to make the movement self-sustaining (no longer dependent on its founder), through competing centers of initiative--and to make this activity at least as accessible to people as most other skills, disciplines, or hobbies.

Ultimately, I believe that in addition to direct benefits to individuals, Communication Practices or similar movements could contribute to the development of more workable, humane institutions. For example, practices might be developed to help make schools and formal education work effectively for people for whom they do not work for now. Or in economic development of poor regions, practices could be custom designed to teach certain important skills regardless of financial resources, and regardless of the existing industrial base or other hardware--and also to facilitate relationships between activists there and activists elsewhere who have access to needed resources and privileges. (I suspect we will learn that a major cause of endemic poverty is one we don't much talk about--that power elites maintain their position by imposing unworkable rules which make it unlikely or impossible for others to succeed.)

And perhaps we could develop, test, and improve practical ways to move the mainstream cultural focus more toward friendship, human potential, and joy, and away from greed, hostility, and violence.

[Return to home page]