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Communication Pitfalls: Beware of the Switcheroo!

  • Dr. David B. Hawkins Director, Marriage Recovery Center
  • 2009 23 Jun
Communication Pitfalls: Beware of the Switcheroo!

Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family?  Dr. David Hawkins, director of the Marriage Recovery Center, will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to  

Have you ever begun a serious discussion with your mate, and just as soon as you express your feelings, they turn the tables on you? You’re sharing your emotions, making a clear and heart-rending point, and suddenly they shift the focus.

It might sound like this:

“I’m really upset about the way you’re talking to me. You sound angry and critical of me, and I don’t like it.”

You pause, hoping your mate will take ownership of the tone of their voice and the way they are expressing themselves. But instead of empathy, ownership and a change, you get the dreaded ‘Switcheroo.’  

“It’s not me talking in any kind of tone,” they shout, (obviously oblivious to their actions) “but the way you’re talking to me. You ought to hear your tone of voice.”

You stand there dumbfounded, feeling confused and wondering what just happened. The ‘switcheroo’—where your mate takes what you said, puts a spin on it, and then turns it back against you—is another form of crazy-making I discuss in my book, Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life.

Here’s another example:

“I want to talk about needing more support from you about visiting my parents,” one mate says to the other. “I really miss them and want to spend more time with them.” 

“I hope you’re not going to talk about wanting to spend more time with your parents,” they say, (again oblivious to the impact of their actions) “because you know my feelings about that. I already think you spend way too much time with them.”

Stunned in disbelief, you can’t decide whether to launch into a counter-attack or withdraw in silence—both ineffective, but common responses.

“What just happened?” you ask yourself as you feel jerked around. Instead of ‘a safe place for your feelings to land,’ you feel the harshness of criticism, blame and rejection. You’re reeling from ‘the Switcheroo.’ It’s no longer about you, but about them. Unable to attend to your feelings, or listen to what you need, instead your mate turned your feelings around, making it all about them.

Consider this recent email describing symptoms of ‘the Switcheroo.’

Dear Dr. David,

I feel like I can’t talk about anything heated with my wife. Whenever I say anything critical, she becomes defensive and begins to attack me. I try to bring things up in a clear, calm way, but nothing seems to work. She doesn’t want to hear what I have to say, but instead wants to talk about how bad things are for her. It’s always about her, no matter what I say. I feel shut down, scolded and am beginning to give up hope of ever communicating effectively. Am I doing something wrong, or are there people who are just too fragile to ever listen to things they don’t want to hear? Do you have any suggestions for how we can communicate more effectively? ~ Tired of Trying

As a matter of fact, there are people who are quite fragile and have a very low tolerance for hearing anything they don’t want to hear. When confronted, one of their defensive mechanisms is to make you feel like the villain, while claim to be the victim. You are struggling in a situation all too common---attempting to communicate with a mate who is insecure and likely has little insight into her patterns of communicating.

While no one wants to hear criticism, we must recognize that there will be things we say and do that will offend others. With maturity comes the ability to recognize this and listen to challenging information. Those less mature may resort to turning the tables on you and doing ‘the Switcheroo,’ making it all about their feelings rather than attending to you. There are solutions, but they aren’t easy. Consider the following course of action.

First, share your frustration with your mate. Make it clear to her that you want to create an environment where both of you will have an opportunity of airing your complaints. Together you must create “a soft place for our feelings to land.” However, there must be rules for how you will talk to each other. See if your mate is willing to create some guidelines that work for both of you.

Second, agree to have one speaker, and one listener. Each person has a turn, but agree that ‘the Switcheroo’ is unfair, and cannot be part of healthy communication. Even if you have experienced the exact same concern as your mate, they get their chance to share the world from their point of view. Your task is to listen intently to how the world appears to your mate—setting aside temptations to engage in debate or argument.

Third, agree to share what you feel, which stems from what particular need, leading to a positive request. Using this recipe for communication will alleviate any tendency to blame or criticize. This recipe allows you to own your feelings, and ask for what you desire in a positive way. Make your requests positive and specific.

Fourth, listen for the kernel of truth in what your mate is saying. You don’t have to agree with everything, but must listen for “the heart of the matter.” Your mate would not come to you if they didn’t have something important to say. It is also highly likely that there is at least some truth in their concern. Listen for it and acknowledge it.

Finally, after listening to each other and acknowledging the validity of their concern, seek solutions you both can live with. Have some fun in exploring ways to not only meet your mate’s needs, but dedicating yourself to more than meeting their needs. Be a hero/ heroine, a champion of your mate. Eliminate any anxiety they have for the future by developing clear plans to address their concerns.

The ‘Switcheroo’ is a very destructive tactic too frequently used in communication. Agree with your mate to eliminate it, noting the beneficial result of fully attending to each other. I’d love to hear how these strategies work for you. 

Posted June 23, 2009

Dr. Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You, Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. His newest books are titled  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt.  Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.