Monday, 29 December 2008

Now there’s passive aggressive for you.

Had a priceless example yesterday of dysfunctional intrafamily communication.

You know how it is. The family are around, doing that “Family time together” thing. Everyone is being ever so ever so. No-one wants to be criticised. Everyone wants to be loved.

So Gramps asks “Can I have the news on at ten past six, please?”

“Of course,” I say, “What time is it now?”

“Ten past six”

Arrrgh! Just ask me to turn the TV on!

What would he have done if I hadn’t asked the time?

In asking the time, was I playing into his game? Was I being played?

Resentment follows.

What passive aggressive exchanges have you been tickled by this Christmas?

Friday, 5 December 2008

Deliverance and the Duelling Banjoes

The famous duelling banjos scene in Deliverance can be seen as a metaphor for conflict communications.

In John Boorman’s 1972 film, Deliverance, one of the central characters, Drew, plays music with a complete stranger, a seemingly mute boy. The city professional and the rural adolescent are able to create a whole improvised song between them.

The music develops by a process of answer and call. One of them plays a riff, or a short section of music, which is then followed by the other. They react to one another responding to and developing upon the riff they have just heard. By doing so they produce this amazing music in a memorable scene that is part of cinema folklore.

It represents a rare moment of optimism in what is an otherwise unbearably dark, oppressive film.

In the process of exchanging these riffs the protagonists are effectively collaborating. They are communicating. We can see their riffs as an analogy for talking. The riffs work where the spoken word does not. Drew and the Banjo boy clearly develop and enjoy a relationship while they are playing.

All of this is despite an atmosphere of intense mistrust and power imbalances. The scene starts as one of conflict. The city professionals have got lost on their way to the river where they are hoping to enjoy a canoeing expedition. They come across a local community who are referred to as “rednecks”. The locals suspect the visitors of being businessmen intent on damning the river, flooding the valley and evicting them from their homes.

The scene bristles as Burt Reynolds and his colleagues swagger about making demands for assistance ("I don't think you understand...). The presumed economic, cultural and intellectual dominance is all theirs. This is demonstrated when Bobby, another of the touring slickers, is heard to mutter “Talk about genetic deficiencies.” with regard to the banjo playing adolescent. Another example, this time of economic dominance is seen when, a couple of minutes later, Bobby suggests the relationship between the two musicians can be reduced to Drew giving the banjo player “a couple of bucks”.

There is no respect or trust between the two camps.

It is no surprise therefore that communication is not working. The visitors’ requests for help sound like peremptory demands and only seem to aggravate and alienate. When Bobby’s offensive comment about “genetic deficiencies” is overheard by one of the locals it is met with the response “Who’s picking the banjo here?”.

In the immediate context of the scene this is an observation that the local boy is holding his own in the transactions with the guitar playing Drew. Over the rest of the film though it becomes a potent foretelling as the local community wrestles back control and power in quite awful ways.

Throughout all of this however a unique rapport and relationship is building.

Slowly at first, Drew and the boy playing the banjo create a platform of mutual understanding and respect. The exchanges are brief, tentative, guarded.

The momentum builds. Both players start to give a little more and relax. There is then an explicit recognition that they are safe to continue; Drew exclaims “Come on, I’m with you!”, and the piece and scene takes off. There is a meeting of minds and cultures which is suddenly optimistic, and shown to be highly contagious.

Towards the end, Drew stalls in his guitar playing dazzled by the banjo player’s virtuosity and the giddy euphoria they have created between them. He gasps out “I’m lost!” He is safe to show this failing, this lack of understanding, or guitar playing ability on his part because they have established a framework within which to communicate and build a relationship. It is a relationship where each of the players are recognised as contributing to the dialogue.

The music ends with drew catching up and co-performing once again to bring the tune to a natural and satisfying conclusion.

UPDATE 3rd June 2014
Wow.  I had not realised that this article I wrote back in 2008 was still getting attention.  It is and lots of it. If you are reading this and want to catch up then please pop along to where you can find me and more of my conflict resolution work and writing.  Go well and do good work.