We’ve seen the difficulty of constructing coherent action hierarchies and developing the competence to make them real; the challenges of conveying information to others; and the limitations of convergence – even when these efforts are undertaken with integrity, skill, and energy. Genuine pursuit of truth and improvement is responsible for much progress. Candid communication presupposes their value and seeks to enable their advancement. And most communication at least pretends to strive for truth, coherence, and objective betterment.
But there are at least three motivations to converse. One certainly is to candidly pursue truth and cooperatively converge towards optimal solutions: to cohere. Another is to advance predetermined goals: to conquer. And the last is to engage intellectually, emotionally, or physically with others: to connect.
These motivations are not mutually exclusive: we may hope to connect with others to conquer obstacles towards shared, truth-based, coherent goals and to be recognized for our efforts, contributions, and values. Yet one motivation dominates at any specific time. Even if not deliberately chosen, it biases expectations towards integrity, effectiveness, or kindness at crucial points in the conversation – or redirects towards establishing their importance.
These conflicting motivations add a dimension to misunderstandings and layer jumps that I previously simplified away. It is not enough to get the conversation to a shared part of an action hierarchy and constrain context changes. We need to also converge on, and constrain, the mode of engagement.
The goal is truth: to contemplate it, comprehend it, convey it, cohere it, and construct with it. It is an ostensible goal in all communication. The importance of relaying truth, whether of the objective world or of subjective experience, underlies the sacredness of communication and counters the costs of its misuse.
In this mode you steelman interlocutors’ arguments, focus on the weakest part of your argument, and are thankful for revealed flaws. Goals are cooperative, but the process isn’t kind. The priority is to get to the truth. Politeness, modesty, and kindness obscure and misdirect as much as brashness, pride, and selfishness. Manipulation, social pressure, and equivocation are grave dangers. Cohering is brittle to bad faith, sensitivity, fear: it rests on trust in genuine commitment to the truth above everything else.
The essential challenge is to overcome the innate, often subconscious, pull of your own self-interest and emotion as well as to distinguish yourself from ubiquitous conquerors and connectors who also claim a commitment to the truth. The most obvious way to do that is to treat integrity as a matter of honor; to maintain a spotless record of commitment to the truth; to attack even the slightest appearance of manipulation, selfishness, or emotional weakness.
Pointed speech assures that any psychological effect disadvantages one’s position. Exposure of vulnerabilities and ugliness presents the position at its weakest. Commitment to undesirable consequences disavows ignorance. Looking past ostensible insults validates focus on rational engagement. Steadfastness in the face of emotional, social, and practical costs shows commitment.
To coherers, these are signs of integrity, honesty, and good faith rather than of meanness, foolishness, incompetence, ignorance, or selfishness. The harder they are to do the more they establish trustworthiness. And not doing them signals prioritization of victory, connection, or comfort over coherence.
If communication could take integrity for granted it would not require displays of either the self-serving or the self-sacrificing variety. The more coherence and truth are advantaged, the closer the conversation can approach effective engagement with model and action hierarchies rather than their shadows. Such idealized environments are the goal of intellectual safe havens, though they can also emerge organically through repeated interactions or be approached temporarily by constraining the conversation.
While pragmatism may initiate or enable such engagements, and emotion may energize or illuminate them, significant portions of them could be done by purely rational robots: dispassionately sharing information, assigning probabilities, deducing possibilities, validating hypotheses. This is as true for topics concerned with external reality such as those in science, engineering, and medicine as for ones concerned with internal state of humans such as those that occupy writers, psychiatrists, and teachers. Keep your identity small. Learn how to disagree. The goal is always to produce the most accurate depiction of reality, neither inhibited nor advantaged unnecessarily by biases, habits, or self-interest.
That such robotic engagement appears impossible or undesirable is a testament to how much of ostensibly cohering communication is devoted to protection from abuse, advancement of agendas, and accommodation of emotional weaknesses. But even in its defensive, constrained, obfuscated forms cohering is still most directly responsible for intellectual and technological progress as it is the only mode that is primarily concerned with objective reality.
The conquering approach can involve cordial debate, aggressive attacks, sophisticated rhetoric, emotional appeals, threats, public pressure, coalition building, Overton window shifting, and countless other tactics. The engagement may seek decisive victory or lay the groundwork for a long war. The attacker may appear disinterested and truth-seeking or sympathetic and cooperative or harsh and pragmatic. The strategies and skills may vary, but the goal is always to advance your side. Interlocutors are either enemies to be defeated or raw materials to be manipulated.
While conversation in conquering mode is not directly concerned with truth, such competitive, adversarial engagement has proven a surprisingly robust and effective method for moving towards some truths in a scalable – though imprecise, indirect, and infuriating – manner. It underlies debate, adversarial justice system, prediction markets, and separation of powers – to name a few.
Nor does the self-centered, conquering engagement prove the individual corrupt and untrustworthy, or prove the underlying position incoherent or disingenuously supported for profit and convenience. A position developed with utmost care, integrity, altruism, and honesty will still end up in an adversarial competition between groups. Such conflict is an inescapable consequence of impossibility of agreement and engagement in it cannot, by itself, discredit either the person or the position.
Only if the person refuses to grapple honestly with contradictory arguments in the confines of trusted company or their own mind can their integrity be confidently doubted. Only if they choose positions to serve their interests before those interests have evolved from genuinely developed positions can their ethics be legitimately questioned. But such evaluations depend on access to the true amount of effort and an untainted sequence of intentions which cannot survive the conquering mode of engagement.
Positions and goals are inexorably connected, but the direction of causation is inscrutable without trust. Connections will be presented as evidence of integrity and ethics even when causation runs in the opposite direction. And even the truest and best supported sequences of events and intentions will be challenged, obscured, and smeared by competitors. The inevitable connection between positions and actions can usually be framed as honorable or as self-serving.
Conquerors can thus attack the integrity of anyone who enters the battle, no matter their intentions or the care they took to construct or select their positions.
But they can also reliably attack those who don’t enter the battle. They can claim either that the target is a cunning enemy conqueror who has entered the battle subtly or that, while they might have entered it inadvertently, they are nevertheless responsible for how their position empowers despicable enemies. In either case, the target is pressured to rapidly take a position in a war they may have scarcely thought about.
The options are unenviable: they can acquise to a natural desire to disassociate from whatever lowlifes they are being compared to, rebel against being pressured by associating with them, attempt to cohere the original position with however it is being used and misused, or validate the attacks by ignoring them. In all cases, with the framing chosen and timeline forced by conquerors, the clarity and impact of the target’s position are likely to suffer along with their reputation.
In conquering mode truth, empathy, and coherence have no inherent value. They may be necessary to assess situations accurately and attack enemies effectively, but they are tools, not goods. They may be acknowledged as powerful ways to forge alliances and engage energy and loyalty of useful idiots, but their perception will do as well as reality. They may underlie end goals and fundamental beliefs, but those cannot be revealed lest they expose weaknesses. In conquering mode everything is negotiable except effectiveness.
The goal is a sense of belonging: a feeling of recognition, understanding, worth, care, solidarity. The approach is genuine sharing of beliefs, feelings, concerns, experiences, goals, and fantasies. A connection is formed when there is genuine agreement. But it is also formed when shared content is sympathetically accepted as worthwhile despite potential mistakes, falsehoods, and misinterpretations.
Sharing frequently includes imprecise, emotional, impromptu stream of consciousness. It exposes vulnerabilities. A connection is strengthened when weaknesses are deemphasized while further exploration and engagement are encouraged. Comfort with sharing is an essential component of connecting.
The perception of a genuine connection may be as important as genuineness itself. This could be because the feeling of acceptance has itself grown to paramount importance, as with the comfortable path to happiness. Or it could be because this maintains the connection and thus enables more genuine relationships to develop, truth to illuminate, and agreement to advance.
Manners, interpretations, associations, and tone can thus be more important than content. Judgements, insults, and insensitivity can permanently damage the connection regardless of their defensibility. Conversely, displays of solidarity, concern, and validation can lead to truer, less defensive, more vulnerable communication regardless of their genuineness.
A genuine connection is always preferred, even if it isn’t always required. Truth is important, and often necessary, for connecting. But justification and coherence aren’t. Statements only need to be true in the sense of being genuinely felt. Requests to justify not only withhold validation, but attack the feeling. Even when motivated by connection around better understood beliefs, the willingness to endanger authentic feelings rather than connect around them is off-putting. Neither is a superior way to connect.
Similarly, it is sufficient for coherence to be genuinely felt. Requests to resolve contradictions are as distasteful as requests to justify. Magic is a great enabler of connections. But the importance of consistency doesn’t even need to be accepted. Conflicting premises that are all genuinely felt to be true present no problem for connecting. Inconsistency can be treated as a test of faith, a proof of freedom, an unconquerable reality, a source of connection. It can be seen as evidence of honesty or wisdom rather than of error, deception, or danger. It does not have to strain connections or constrain action.
The approaches are interdependent. Each is frequently a prerequisite or a consequence of the others though the conversation partners may be different. Each can be interpreted as goal, strategy, or execution in most action hierarchies by varying the scope despite differences in hierarchies themselves.
Cohering begins with a need to conquer puzzles. These puzzles may concern anything from nature to machines, from social systems to individuals. The search may be motivated by anything from pragmatic necessity to open-ended enablement of progress to satisfaction of curiosity. Execution requires accurate information which is enabled by trustworthy connections and conquered pressures to sacrifice accuracy. Connections are forged with those who find similar puzzles valuable or interesting; those who put truth above pragmatism, kindness, interests, or appearances; and those who endure together.
Conquering begins with a goal found worthy by the standards of coherence or connection. Execution depends on coherent assessment of reality and successful forging of connections. Participation connects with those who share end goals; those who put effectiveness above honesty, kindness, or comfort; and with comrades-in-arms who endure together.
Connecting begins with a desire to understand, or be understood by, another. Genuine connections presume the desire and ability to truthfully assess yourself and others. They depend on an environment that is safe and prosperous enough to be conducive to the process. The connection may be pursued for advantage in competitive endeavors; to advance cooperative pursuits like the search for truth; or simply to maintain an individual sense of purpose, identity, goodness, or sanity that enables action of all sorts.
The three approaches are roughly analogous to dialectic, debate, and dialogue. Real pursuits have each of them somewhere on the critical path. A connection is required to engage truthfully and productively despite conquerors and incompatible ideas. Truth is necessary for genuine connections and effective action. And pragmatic battles are unavoidable, whether they are fought for resources, truth, progress, status, freedom, or belonging. Attempts to blame problems on existence of one of these modes of engagement is naive perfect world building.
Real conversations prioritize each approach as needed. An ideal conversation moves seamlessly between maintenance and development of rapport, truthful assessment of reality and possible actions, and pragmatic engagement to advance past stalemates and secure covered territory. But while an expert leader, or a sufficiently attuned group, may make this process appear natural and continuous, each goal requires a distinct mode of engagement.
Conversing in different modes brings issues similar to discussing different levels of the action hierarchy, but more fundamental and even more debilitating. A conversation on different levels is still ostensibly engaged with the same reality in coherence mode. But this reality scarcely matters in other modes, being merely the means to conquer or the medium through which to connect. If they are not engaged in separately, the discussion will degenerate into talking past each other. Furthermore, each mode makes incompatible assumptions and thus gives ammunition to the others.
This ammunition isn’t equally potent and, if used, will tend to leave conquering as the only viable mode of engagement. When coherers identify irrational connectors or manipulative conquerors, they can only disengage and warn other coherers. When connectors identify uncaring coherers or selfish conquerors, they can only disengage and perhaps unite in righteous anger. But when conquerors identify trusting coherers and naive connectors they can manipulate them forcing attempts, however inept, at defense or retribution in conquering mode.
Legibility for Truth and Manipulation
What is ultimately required for coherence or connection is legibility: an accurate and understandable model of objective reality or subjective beliefs for coherers and of genuinely felt conception of identity for connectors. This goal is advanced by exposing true thoughts and emotions. But it is precisely the lack of such an accurate map of deep beliefs and desires that makes espousing compatible goals, ideas, and behaviors a signal for trustworthiness. The person becomes perfectly manipulatable once such beliefs and desires become known accurately. And once unambiguously exposed, they can never be hidden again.
Aware of the danger of conquerors, coherers and connectors develop an immunological response to them. Politics is the mind killer. Communicate non-violently. Follow the money. But the immune system turns overactive. Anyone who appears incompletely committed to truth or kindness, anyone who has ever had a potential interest or agenda, anyone who seems to have sympathy for competitors becomes a potential conqueror in disguise. It becomes safer and easier to condemn than to engage. Paradoxically, the immune system attacks the most principled and committed allies while empowering conquerors adept at fitting in, defending themselves, and discrediting others. It becomes an enemy of genuineness, independence, competence, and sophistication.
Aware of the reach of conquerors and unreliability of allies, some attempt to protect themselves by approaching truth indirectly. Clarity is replaced by equivocation, deniability, abstraction, complexity. Conversation partners attempt to pass information without committing to it, or at least walk through a maze of reversible statements until trustworthiness seems sufficiently likely. This isn’t merely inefficient, but incredibly difficult. Candidness and clarity are hard even without obfuscation. Few people can create or process equivocal content in a way that still advances towards truth. Few can even see the approach for what it is. And there are no inherent reasons why conquerors can’t be among them.
While candidness and clarity are most effective for approaching truth, they are always risky. They can be encouraged with values and rules that ultimately get enforced, like other absolutes, by guardian conquerors. Or they can be made viable by armies of competing conquerors equal enough in strength to either keep each other sufficiently in check to enable cooperative engagement or create an environment so full of accusations, threats, and noise that those cease to be informative, actionable, or dangerous.
Regardless of what initiates and enables the conversation, it is essential to ascertain whether the unstated goal is to cohere, conquer, or connect; to match it with a compatible mode of engagement; and to remain cognizant of shifts in purpose or approach. Accidental mismatches between the three types of communication are a sure way to talk past each other. Deliberate mismatches are a powerful way to confuse, control, and conquer.
3 thoughts on “Cohere, Conquer, Connect: Goals of Communication”
This is post is incredibly ambitious considering its length. The ratio of ideas to words is astronomical. And yet there’s a ton of nuance here. The model rings true to me in almost all respects, and seems important and non-trivial. One area I’m tripping over is the suggestion that “one motivation dominates at any specific time.” I understand that this is often true, but I don’t see why it always needs to be true. You also describe the modes as “interdependent” in various ways, which seems right but which does not require the conclusion that one mode necessarily dominates at each moment – and could even be read to conflict somewhat with this notion. Why can’t someone calibrate a remark or series of remarks so that it might accomplish two, or even three, goals at once, while placing roughly equal weight on each goal? And isn’t that potentially a reasonable thing to do in some contexts?
No need to trip over this unless you see it affecting the core points somewhere. Dominant motivations are often like revealed preferences that only become apparent when push comes to shove. So while individual statements can, and sometimes should, support multiple goals, the compulsion to advance integrity or effectiveness or kindness over the others appears soon enough. One could argue that this is latent dominant motivation revealing itself or that a new dominant motivation emerged out of the conversation. Until I see how it affects the core points, I am happy to stipulate either one.
Thanks. That answers that. I don’t think it affects the core points. I wasn’t sure whether you would agree.