Four Styles of Miscommunication
- Friday, June 20, 2003
A cartoon depicts a grumpy husband reading the paper, his aggrieved wife standing in front of him, arms folded. He is saying, "Do we have to try to save our relationship while I'm reading the sports page?"
Whenever a relationship is disintegrating, the partners conclude that "We just can't communicate" or "We just don't talk to each other anymore." They believe the failure to talk is the cause of their problems. Actually, the non-talking is not a lack of communication but a form of communication that sends a surplus of negative messages.
Silence, however powerful, is not the cause of poor communication - the fear of pain is. It is basic human nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain. But people actually avoid pain first and then seek pleasure. This point is crucial to understanding breakdowns in communication. Noted therapist Virginia Satir talks about four styles of miscommunication that result when we feel threatened: 1) placating, 2) blaming, 3) computing, and 4) distracting.
The placater is a "yes" man or woman: ingratiating, eager to please, and apologetic. Placaters say things like "Whatever you want" or "Never mind about me, it's okay." They want to keep the peace at any price, and the price they pay is feelings of worthlessness. Because placaters have difficulty expressing anger and hold so many feelings inside, they tend toward depression and, as studies show, may be prone to illness. Placaters need to know it is okay to disagree.
The blamer is a fault-finder who criticizes relentlessly and speaks in generalizations: they say "You never do anything right" or "You're just like your mother." Inside, blamers feel unworthy or unlovable, angry at the anticipation they will not get what they want. Given a problem, blamers feel the best defense is a good offense, because they are incapable of dealing with or expressing pain or fear. Blamers need to be able to speak on their own behalf without indicting others in the process.
The computer is super-reasonable, stays calm and collected, never admits mistakes, and expects people to conform and perform. The computer says things like "Upset? I'm not upset. Why do you say I'm upset?" Afraid of emotion, he or she prefers facts and statistics. "I don't reveal my emotions, and I'm not interested in anyone else's." Computers need someone to ask how they feel about specific things.
The distracter resorts to irrelevancies under stress, avoiding direct eye contact and direct answers. Quick to change the subject, he or she will say, "What problem? Let's go shopping." Confronting the problem might lead to a fight, which could be dangerous. Distracters need to know that they are safe, not helpless, and that problems can be solved and conflicts resolved.
The next time you find yourself communicating with your partner by placating, blaming, computing, or distracting, remember that you are probably feeling hurt or stressed out about something. Also, if your partner is resorting to one of these styles, you can ease his or her tension by being sensitive to what might really be at the root of it. The upshot is that you need to find a way to make it safe for both of you to talk. This is done by laying down a solid foundation for effective communication.
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