(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is his control-addicted inner monkey.
Once upon a time a dad brought his fourteen-year-old son to Steve for family counseling.
He said he wanted the two of them to be closer, to talk more.
The session started this way:
DAD: Go ahead, buddy. You can say anything here.
SON: I want to go home.
DAD: No. We’re doing this, dammit. Now open up.
(He actually said that.)
Steve was professional. He took a breath, fought down the urge to roll his eyes, and tried to explain to Dad how he was sending what Steve called a “mixed message.”
My reaction was simpler. I wanted to strangle Dad.
He reminded me, I suppose, of all the times I’d witnessed some adult coerce some kid into something for their “own good.”
And all the times some wife or husband sat on Steve’s sofa and demanded “openness” from their partner, only to wither them with criticism when the other finally dared open up.
And all the times one partner justified withering another with “I’m just expressing my feelings.”
And all the times I saw teachers coax students into participating in discussions, only to reward them with humiliation.
And all the times I saw parents demand honesty from their kids, only to punish them for telling the truth.
All the times, in short, I watched one person verbally mug another and call it “communication.”
Hear that? I’m getting mad again.
Steve, give your professional opinion.
I think you can have communication, or you can seek control, but you can’t do both at the same time.
And I think that, to the extent any party to a conversation seeks to control it, healthy communication becomes impossible.
Which makes healthy communication pretty rare.
What’s “healthy” communication?
The sort that permits people to give up control — to risk being honest, emotional, vulnerable, authentic — without fear of the consequences.
Not easy at all.
And it can be terrifying.
Why is that?
Because we’ve all been burned by unhealthy communicators.
If, for example, you grew up in a family where words were used to coerce, wound or manipulate — forget it. Not only would opening up scare you, you might not even believe that safe communication is possible. Why should you?
That’s the case with many people I work with. When I talk to them about “healthy communication” I might as well be speaking Martian. They simply have no internal model for what I’m describing.
What do you do about it?
I help them learn a new model.
For example, most people don’t know how to listen. I mean, really listen. (Often they mistake listening for merely waiting their turn.)
So I may teach a couple Monologuing, which asks one partner to sit and pay attention while the other describes their feelings for five minutes. Then the listener plays back what he/she heard. (Which always contains surprises.) Then they switch roles.
Another problem: Most people don’t realize how often and how casually they hurt others with their words.
So I teach them to distinguish between You- and I-statements — how, for example, there’s a world of difference between saying “You’re an idiot” and “I’m mad at you.” Then I teach them to abstain from the former and practice the latter. Which most people find really difficult to do.
Not easy, as I said.
No, it’s not.
Just our only hope.
For really connecting with another human being.