Sunday, July 17, 2011

The 'Rules' of Communication

Over the last year or so, my husband and I have had some challenging miscommunications. He's accused me of being disrespectful ~ I'm not even sure what that means. He's accused me of being defensive ~ I say that I'm just sharing a different point of view. I perceive him as impatient ~ he says that I never get to the point. Recently, however, we've realized what's been happening. The key lies with the training we received from our families of origin.

I'm referring here to the spoken or unspoken expectations for communicating in the family in which you were raised.

• How did you have to speak to be heard? Loudly? Softly? Passionately? Persuasively?

• How did you have to organize your thoughts in order to be accepted and validated? Stream of consciousness? Logical progression?

• How did you have to behave or act to be respected? Deferential? Confrontational?

• Was interrupting always allowed, never allowed, or only under certain circumstances?

• How were disagreements handled, and what did you do when you wanted to convince someone of something?

In order to gain the approval of our parents, and survive within the family structure, we must learn our parents' rules. To be truthful, however, given that these rules are often unspoken, the best we can do is to glean our own perception of them. No two siblings are likely to have adopted a matched set of expectations. Additionally, being a rebellious youth makes no difference. Whether we follow them or flaunt them, we are still acting in relationship to our perception of 'The Rules.'

I propose that this training, as long as it remains undistinguished as such, becomes an invisible context for all communication within our lives - largely unconscious rules that we observe or reject almost unerringly, and by which we reflexively judge others.

For example, Q was raised in a household with a military father. When it came to the realm of interpersonal communication, he perceived his parents' primary directive as follows: Silence is Golden. What this meant was:

1) If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.

2) Think silently before you open your mouth to respond.

3) Get immediately to the point.

Anything else was considered a sign of disrespect. Additionally, unspoken within this construct was the understanding that the person on the lower side of the power dynamic (EX: Child has less power than Parent) could never win - they could only survive without losing.

On the other hand, the only child of an English professor, I grew up in a household in which I perceived the primary rule for communication as: Understand & Be Understood. This meant that successful disagreements followed a logical progression:

1) Explain your thought process so people can understand how you arrived at your current position.

2) Ask and listen to understand how others arrived at their current positions.

3) Identify the misunderstanding that caused the upset in order to avoid the same mistake in the future.

The result of this process was the agreement that no one was wrong - it was just a misunderstanding or a learning opportunity - so everyone wins in the end.

Perhaps you can see the inherent disconnect between these two approaches! One of us gets upset and I start explaining my reasoning and asking about his. Since I didn't think silently first, and I'm clearly not getting to the point, this is seen by Q as a sign of disrespect. However, the inquiry IS the point in my world, and a sign of respect in itself since I'm searching for a way we can both come out winners. The more I inquire and explain, the more he perceives defensiveness, which he's driven to exploit so that he can gain control of the power dynamic and be the one who wins.


All hope is not lost, however. Recognizing our Rules has given us some leverage against them. Q is now able to realize, during some arguments, that I don't intend any disrespect and to modify his emotions accordingly. I have been able, on occasion, to keep my mouth shut while he's silently processing his response as an intentional sign of respect, knowing how important that is to him. It's not perfect, and it has made an appreciable difference.

Are either of our background contexts likely to change dramatically? Probably not. They're deeply ingrained, automatic, and I actually like my method! It works beautifully with most of the people I've known. However, sometimes it runs me instead of the other way around, compelling me to ask more questions and explain my position when understanding what happened is really not the most pressing matter.

As with all areas of life, the more conscious I can become, the more control I'll achieve over my reflexive reactions. When I'M the one in charge of my response, my partners get to communicate with the real me, and my relationships benefit. The best I can do for now is to keep practicing!

M. Makael Newby, 2011 - All Rights Reserved -