Communication Currents

Current Commentary

Conflict and Communication: The Good Will Hunting Technique

February 1, 2007
General Communication Studies

In the self-help section of bookstores, there is abundant advice for communication in everyday situations–with bosses, parents, children, lovers and even animals. Worthwhile advice is to be found, but there also exists a prominent strain of advice that offers solutions that actually worsen the problem. Regardless of the situation, conflict is assumed to be negative in this strain of self-help advice (an oxymoronic label unless the reader is also the author). This assumption supplants the common-sense goal of any strategy—success—with the goal of avoiding conflict. Because conflictual communication is often productive, avoiding conflict only defers it and fails to move toward success. The unstated goal of “better conflict avoidance” eliminates the stated goal of “better communication.”

Three major deficiencies contribute to the ineffectiveness of conflict-avoidance communication strategies. The first and worst deficiency arises from the unquestioned assertion that only positive utterances promote successful communication. One should, so the logic goes, “reward the good, and ignore the bad.” Such theories warn against the use of the negative words like “no” because “no” can hamper the creative development of a child, boss, or dog. For, example, instead of saying “no” when a child wants to play with a dangerous object (such as a butcher knife or handgun), the positive-statements-only school of parenting advice instructs the parent to provide a constructive alternative – “here, play with this fun, safe, educational toy instead!” This way the child's healthy “play instinct” is not damaged and its positive self image is preserved.

The second deficiency resides in the promotion of discussion as the main and often only avenue to successful communication. This means hard-and-fast decisions are to be avoided. Indecisiveness becomes a virtue because it allows one to avoid taking a stand for an unpopular point of view, and thereby avoid conflict. Parents who have been relinguishing authority to their children since corporal punishment became taboo often prefer to discuss the pros and cons of a child's antisocial behavior – for example, hitting the neighbor child with a hammer – rather than conclusively naming the behavior “bad” and deciding to punish the child. In this way the parent may defer decision (and conflict) and thereby deflect assuming the status of unpopular parent.

The third deficiency is inherent in the conflict-avoidance strategies' lack of emotion—whether positive or negative. Even though these strategies emphasize the importance of “talking about feelings,” this is done in a rational way that seeks to give unquestioned approval to “openness” or “honesty” and disapproval to things like “contempt ” and “anger” (all of which are psychological states that can be neither confirmed nor denied through communication). This rationalizes emotion and ignores the fact that emotion does not follow rules of logic—and that this may be used to rhetorical advantage.

Failure to account for disagreement, decision, and emotion renders conflict-avoidance strategies of little use in difficult everyday situations. The Good Will Hunting Technique (GWHT) takes a realistic, pragmatic view of conflict. People disagree—even when they do so in the most agreeable terms. People acquire and exercise power through decisions--even if they offset the decisive force with a rhetorical device stating “things are always open for discussion.” And people are emotionally invested in their communication--and the rules governing this investment are extra-rational or irrational. Instead of being conflict-shy, GWHT is forceful and negative when necessary, makes (and marks) decisions, and emotional states are enacted with physical behaviors.

The 1997 Gus van Sant film, Good Will Hunting, provides the model for both the theory and practice of the GWHT. That is, a theory guiding Will's actions becomes apparent through those actions. Will, a janitor and the movie's protagonist, goes with his friends to a Harvard bar. Will's best friend, Chucky, approaches a girl, Skyler, drawing the attention of a first-year graduate student, who is also competing for Skyler's attention. He tries to gain her favor by humiliating Chucky with his superior education--which, to one who knows the books the grad student is citing, consists merely of pretentious name dropping. Will recognizes this and, due to his love for Chucky, decides immediately to intervene. Will demonstrates a broader understanding of the cited texts, making the grad student look foolish. After this, with menacing nonchalance, Will tells the grad student that if he still has a problem, they “can step outside, and figure it out.” The grad student declines. Throughout the discussion, Will has been exchanging meaningful glances with Skyler, who later gives him her phone number.

In terms of the theory behind GWHT, this scene illustrates how rational, non-conflictual argument should be pursued as far as possible. Will and the grad student discuss the facts of the books they have read and their significance. If the situation remains one of unresolved antagonism, a decision for its resolution is necessary. Since Will and the grad student remain at a face off, this proves to be the case. If positive statements are not deemed as effective as negative ones, a negative statement is selected. Will decides that a negative utterance --“let's step outside”--will be more effective. To emphasize the seriousness of this statement, he includes the emotional register of “menacing nonchalance”: Smiling, he crowds the grad student as he suggests the more forceful continuation of their discussion outside.

Conflict-avoidance strategies discuss the incorporation of power, force and intimidation – as outlined here – with much trepidation. Such strategies conceive of power as oppressive by nature, something to which only oppressors have access, and something that silences the oppressed. But in this scenario, it is the grad student--as a student at one of the nation's most prestigious and influential universities--who wears the signs of power, of the oppressor. Will – a self-educated genius and janitor – is cast in the role of the oppressed. So in using power to acquire power, Will balances the scales to an observable degree (the grad student withdraws; Will gains the girl's favor).

Contemporary conflict-avoidance communication advice found in the self-help section pays little heed to the rhetorical dimension of force. The status of force as a statement is ambivalent--and an overview of the reasons for this ambivalence is not the issue here. But theories that favor explicit discussion of force posit use of force as a form of communication. The speaker expresses willingness to assume bodily risk for a given purpose (willingness to “take it out side” out of loyalty to a friend). Silence too is a message, interpretable from a variety of perspectives (from the grad student's: “you are not worth my effort”; from Will's: “I win”). With all this said, the fact remains that Will does not use force, but talks about using force.

While better communication is sometimes an end in itself, it is also often means to an end. For the former, managing conflict is not necessarily the chief objective. But for the latter, conflict will arise, whether one is seeking a higher wage, fairer recognition in the eyes of authority, or improved obedience from a dog. If the objective resembles these examples, then a communication strategy that does not account for conflict is remiss. Such a strategy will not do what it says it should do because when an obstacle arises, evasion--through positive statements – is the prescription. Conflicts arise. Facing them head on is not always bad and can even be exhilarating. In any case, GWHT is a technique for practicing forceful, decisive, affective communication.

About the author (s)

Todd Cesaratto

Indiana University

Doctoral Candidate