The Personalist Project

I'm a sucker for call-in radio shows. My favorite is probably "The Doctor Is In," with Dr. Ray Guarendi. I also like "More 2 Life," with Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak.

They take very different approaches to certain things, which is fine with me. As I wrote here, not everybody who has good ideas on offer has to become your guru. There's no reason you can't pick and choose.

The disagreement is this: The Popcaks will often recommend--or at least take seriously--techniques for interacting with people that are jus that--techniques. Like using "I statements" instead of "you statements"--for instance, "I feel disrespected when you raise your voice at me," rather than "You're always yelling at me." Or trying to have a good ratio of positive to negative statements with your kids. For example, make sure there are at least four "Good job washing the dishes without causing a flood!" for every "Would you please quit sticking the scotch tape on the cat?"

Dr. Ray, on the other hand, sees such techniques as ways of complicating something very straightforward. People have been talking to each other for millennia without self-consciously employing these methodologies. A little common sense is a fine substitute for lots of this stuff.

I'm generally on Dr. Ray's side here. Sarcasm is my love language, and I have no patience for artificiality and affectation.

But I've come to take a brighter view of techniques, templates and scripts than I used to. Sometimes, in a conflict, it's both comforting and effective to not have to start from scratch. Not every word that comes out of your mouth needs to be spontaneous and "authentic." Sometimes, (especially if, like me, you don't really think well on your feet and are way more articulate in the seventh draft of a letter than you'll ever be in the heat of argument)--it's nice to have a game plan, a template--some way to move the conversation in a certain direction and help you remember not to take the bait, or get waylaid by irrelevant details or hot-button topics.

It occurs to me, too, that maybe it's not usually a question of authentic, spontaneous communication vs. rigid, artificial scripts anyway. The fact is, lots of us already revert unconsciously to our default scripts, our usual, inertia-driven patterns, whether they work or not. So maybe it's not really a question of shifting from spontaneity to script, but from one script to another.

Lack of spontaneity, then, is not necessarily a problem. 

The second misgiving I had about such techniques is that they seem manipulative. But my friend, Teresa Reimers Stringham, has helped me take a closer look at that assumption. What do I even mean by "manipulation"? Is every instance of trying to get someone to feel or do something "manipulation"? Or only when you have ulterior motives? When we use these techniques, are we inevitably acting like advertisers, trying to evoke the desired response in a person so that they hand over their money, or something else that I want to get out of them?

Teresa points out that "I statements" reflect the truth that "we can't control what others do, but we can control and own how we respond to it." Using such techniques "is manipulative in the sense that we want to affect behavior." But it need not be devious or malicious. Seeking to affect other people's emotions--or even your own is not necessarily a bad thing.

Then, too, a conversational technique can be good for your self-knowledge. For example, if I were to decide to start aiming for four positive statements for every negative one in my conversation with my kids, I would no doubt be shocked at my current ratio. 

So I'm sure you'll still find me spontaneously telling my kids what I think of the way they put their socks in the fruit bowl. But theoretically, I've gotten very open-minded.

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