Communication between people is a multilayered process. Because of this fact, many of us feel inadequate in our attempts to understand others and be understood. Whenever any two people try to communicate, there are at least two levels to that communication: the overt, conscious message and the covert, hidden message. The overt message consists of the words we hear and the gestures we see. The hidden message has more to do with the intent behind the words.
Most of us do not have the knowledge, the skill, or the confidence to address the often hidden intent of another’s communication—especially if the intent has something to do with trying to control an unknown outcome or trying to mask one’s anxiety about feeling ‘not in control’. People try to manipulate the outcome of their interactions all the time. And if they’re not doing that, they’re trying to bolster up their egos by acting more in control or ‘on top of’ the situation than is actually the case. In my research, I discovered that almost 90 per cent of all human communication comes from the usually unconscious intent to control. Most of us are not aware of when we are communicating with the intent to ‘control’ versus when we are expressing our feelings and thoughts simply to relate, ie, to exchange feelings or information.
The intent to control reveals itself in many disguises:
- denying that you feel pain when you’re hurting
- trying to impress others
- manipulating to get what you want
- being nice or agreeable to avoid a hassle
- lying to protect someone’s feelings
- assuming you know something that you really cannot know, instead of living with the uncertainty of the situation (eg, jumping to conclusions or making assumptions about what someone else’s behaviour means)
- keeping silent to avoid conflict
- trying not to rock the boat
- trying to appear more ‘together’ or composed than you really feel
As you look down this list, you’ll notice that all of these things have something to do with avoiding uncomfortable feelings (eg, anxiety about feeling not in control) or avoiding an unwanted outcome. Perhaps you recognise yourself in one or more of these examples. We may cling to the illusion of control and try to predict or manipulate the outcome—for example, we may try to make ourselves feel more comfortable by assuming we know how someone else is going to react to us. But we can’t; such things are unknowable until they are revealed in time. On the other hand, when you relax your grip, allow things to unfold, and pay attention to what is actually going on (vs. your wishful thinking or your fears), you are naturally more confident.
Controlling is largely unconscious
Most people’s communications are tarnished by unconscious defence mechanisms designed to protect them from feeling hurt, rejected, abandoned, controlled, or not in control. All of us have been hurt by other people at some time in our lives, and we learned various strategies to protect ourselves. In my own case, I learned to judge my father for how easily he was provoked to anger rather than simply feel my fear of his anger at me. So now, when someone I love gets angry at me, I have a tendency to judge rather than feel.
If you are focused more on avoiding the discomfort of not-knowing than on communicating and really listening to others, you are not present. You’re in your head or in the future—as if you’re playing a game of chess: ‘If I make this move, my opponent will have to make that move’. This sort of strategising keeps you in a state of chronic fear or anxiety.
Controlling vs saying what’s real
Here is an example of how the intent to control might show up in an intimate relationship. Georgia tells her husband, ‘Since you’re going out with your friends tonight, I think I’ll call my ex and see if he wants to come over. He still enjoys my company.’ Instead of telling her husband how she feels about his going out without her, she sends the not-so-subtle message that if he chooses not to be with her this evening, she’ll find someone else who will. If her husband, Howie, knew how to say what’s real, he would reply, ‘Hearing you say that, I feel…’ (followed by a feeling such as disappointed, threatened, angry, or insecure). Without such tools, he’ll probably do what most unskilled communicators would do—he’ll try to act unruffled or in control: ‘Sure, honey… whatever’. The phrase, ‘Hearing you say that, I feel…,’ supports relating.
This phrase helps you bring your awareness to this present moment. When you can do this, you’re more connected to yourself and to the overall context, so you feel more confident and powerful. Fear of an unwanted outcome recedes into the background and is replaced by trust, the most basic kind of trust there is—the trust that no matter what the outcome, you will be resourceful enough to deal with it.
Ten Truth Skills
1. Experiencing what is: noticing and speaking about what is rather than identifying with your mind chatter (ie, judging, rationalising, interpreting, defending, explaining). Example: You notice your date is not looking at you when he speaks. Instead of assuming you know how he feels, as in ‘I see you’re feeling uncomfortable,’ you’d say, ‘I notice you are looking at the floor as you speak, and I’m thinking that maybe you’re feeling uncomfortable…are you?’
2. Being transparent: sharing your feelings, wants, and self-talk, trusting that being transparent usually makes you even more loveable because you’re more juicy, spontaneous, and natural. Example: Instead of hiding the fact that your feelings got hurt or you got triggered by something your date said, you say, ‘Hearing you say that, I notice I’m feeling hurt’ or ‘I notice I’m getting triggered.’
3. Noticing your intent: noticing when you are communicating with the intent to relate vs the intent to control. Example: Instead of thinking that all your communications are simple and direct self-expression, you humbly acknowledge the fact that sometimes you are trying to get approval, to avoid conflict, or even to manipulate the other person.
4. Taking back projections: knowing how to learn from situations where your buttons or fears get triggered; taking responsibility for the fact that your buttons belong to you. Example: When you find yourself judging someone’s actions as ‘inappropriate’, you realise that one of your buttons just got pushed.
5. Giving feedback and asking for feedback: being able to let the other know how his actions affected you and being open and curious about the other person’s impressions and reactions. This is different from being dependent on the other’s reactions. Example: If you imagine you may have said something that was offensive to your date, you ask, ‘I’m wondering how that remark came across to you. I got the impression that you didn’t like what I said.’
6. Asserting what you want and don’t want: expressing what you want clearly and energetically without having to get everything you want. Example: Instead of complaining about your date arriving an hour later than the agreed-upon time (‘You’re late again’), or instead of pretending it didn’t bother you (if it did), you state, ‘I felt hurt when you got here an hour late. I want you to call me next time if you are going to be more than 15 minutes late. Is that agreeable to you?’
7. Revising an earlier statement (also known as ‘going out and coming in again’): being able to re-visit an interaction if your feelings change or if you later discover some deeper feelings. Example: After telling your date that you’d be interested in going out with her again, you later realise that you aren’t attracted to her, but were afraid to hurt her by telling the truth. You tell her, ‘I realised after you asked me about getting together again that I didn’t feel safe to tell you the truth about my feelings. I was afraid of hurting you. What’s true for me is that I’m not feeling attracted to you. I want to respect you by being truthful with you.’
8. Sharing mixed emotions: communicating your multiple feelings or seemingly contradictory feelings about a situation. Example: In the example in #7 above, if you want to tell her the truth but are also afraid to hurt her, you’d say: ‘I want to be honest with you, and I also like you and don’t want to hurt you. My truth in this moment is I do not want to go on another date with you.’
9. Holding differences or multiple perspectives: having the ability to listen to and empathise with opinions that differ from yours without losing touch with your own perspective. Example: If you and your date disagree on whether to tell your children that you two have a sexual relationship, you might say, ‘I respect that you don’t think I should be completely honest with my kids just yet, while I, on the other hand, want to tell them anything they ask about.’
10. Embracing silence: allowing space between your words and the other person’s, sensing the connection that occurs during the silences before and after speaking. Example: You ask a question that you imagine your date will feel uncomfortable dealing with. And instead of adding explanations or justifications after the question, or filling the space after the question with nervous chatter, you allow the other to feel whatever she feels and to answer when and if she is ready. You simply feel what you feel during the silence and be with the energy between yourself and the other—even if this is uncomfortable for you.