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.

Comments (6)

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#1, Dec 5, 2016 9:53pm

I do think conscious manipulation is usually a bad thing--that is, if you're spending a lot of time crafting your words because you want the other person to follow your script, feel or respond a specific way without consciously being aware of why they are doing so, then it doesn't bode very well for your assumptions going into that conversation and your relationship with the person you are conversing with.

That said, I don't think the sorts of conversational techniques you mention here necessarily fall under that umbrella. "I" expressions are primarily about reframing things for your own sake and for communicating clearly a level of awareness of where you end and the other person begins. Crafting a request to a moody pre-teen that avoids riling him up unnecessarily--something I find I have to do a lot these days!--is not so much about trying to influence his actions without his conscious assent, but is about trying to remove obstacles to communicating my true esteem for him so that he can hear and respond to my request MORE freely, rather than acting from an emotional response to a turn of phrase or tone of voice. 

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#2, Dec 5, 2016 9:53pm

On the other hand--and this is something I would like to write about here, if I had the stomach to do the research--there are all kinds of people who teach and market real manipulation, usually under the guise of "charm." The more blatant write directly to the "PUA" (pickup artist) community. These are people whose message is that you can influence people to like you, sleep with you, make your life more pleasant, hire you, promote you, etc. by what amount to psychological and social "hacks" that take advantage of unconscious biases and weaknesses.

Perhaps what we need, then, is a more clear understanding of what manipulation is and why it is offensive, so that we can differentiate manipulation from forms of conscious communication and relational tools.  

Devra Torres

#3, Dec 5, 2016 10:02pm

Yes, the point about the teenager--partly, it's a matter of saying things in such a way that a person can even hear them--it reminds me a lot of translation. It involves MORE respect for the particular person, not less--taking into account who he is, your common history, and so on. 

But the other kind--as practiced by advertisers or pickup artists--is a matter of generic hacks that bypasses respect for the person altogether.


#4, Dec 6, 2016 12:46am

I think it makes sense that you would see particular scripted ways of conversing as a possibility for manipulating others because manipulation is premeditated and lacking in spotaniety- usually. 

Also if I may point out- in the Buddhist tradition and belief of  non duality and certain belief systems influenced by that idea there is a danger to not recongnize sin. In some cases the sinner can in a sense get off the hook by not taking responsibility and mistakenly put responsibility on the one effected by sin. In this way, the way of conversing that you spoke of CAN be a tool of manipulation. Does that make sense? Just thought I would ad that. Intersting topics.

Rhett Segall

#5, Dec 7, 2016 8:14am

I think what we're dealing with here is the art of conversation.  Conversation can be banter, therapy, deep sharing, etc.  So much depends on who's doing the conversing-peers: parent-teen, colleagues and where it's occurring-at dinner, while driving etc.  I have found help with technique (I/you, reflecting, etc) but agree that these methods can get in the way of that spontaneity which is the heart of conversation. Very important too for good conversation is learning to be comfortable with silence.  I also think sin, as Alice points out, can definitely enter in to a conversation. and we should be alert to that and if the situation calls for it express our apology.  But conversation is a gift and and an art, constantly needing honing.,

Rosie Herreid

#6, Dec 7, 2016 8:13pm

I have found techniques super-helpful in preventing misunderstanding between me and my husband. That's a great point about them keeping you from reverting to your default script. My husband grew up in a family where people only talked when they had some particular information to convey, so he often doesn't respond when I make some little comment or small talk. It doesn't come naturally for him to respond, but I tend to feel like I'm being ignored if he doesn't respond. So for him to follow a script and just say "uh-huh, that's cool" or "oh, that's too bad" is extremely helpful to me and prevents me from feeling hurt unnecessarily.

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