Where does communication go wrong? Often, I find that when clients tell me about their communication struggles what goes unsaid is often more important that what is said. In addition, I find that saying what is being experienced in the moment is very powerful, but it often goes unmentioned. Most people speak only of content and facts from an emotionally safe distance, not how they are reacting to the situation.
One trick we use in therapy is to speak about what is happening right now in the room. I observe a client pausing for a long time and reflecting, and state: “You seem hesitant to speak. What is going on right now in your body to make you hesitate?” Or a person who is normally quite staid, suddenly gets more animated telling a specific story and I observe: “I noticed that your story really made you excited/upset/animated. It makes me wonder what about that story caused that, since you are normally fairly low key.” Or: “You are telling me about your husband deciding to spend $2,000 on a vacation just for himself and that you are angry, but I don’t see or feel you getting very angry. How are you actually feeling inside?”
This technique is about the process of communicating, not the content, and helps a client develop develop self-awareness and mindfulness by highlighting emotional experiences of their behaviors in the moment.
I sometimes specifically train clients on this skill so that they can use it themselves in conversations to build social skills. Depending on the situation, it can be used to either improve emotional intimacy or build a sense of empowerment. My first example is of the former.
A client I’ll call Mike is often accused of being uncommunicative or indecisive by his wife. He is a conflict avoider who shuts down and procrastinates when problems arise, which by default forces her to make decisions unilaterally. Recently, she asked him his opinion on a complicated parenting decision that had no obvious answer. He was thinking about his response and turned away from his wife in silence, which caused her to get upset because it seemed to continue his pattern of being uncommunicative and indecisive. She did not want to be making this decision on her own.
I asked him to consider a different response: What if he had told her just exactly what was going on for him in that moment? “Honey, that’s a really complicated situation for us to think about and make a decision on. I might need a few minutes to think or maybe we could bat that around a bit before we both decide? I’m leaning toward doing X.” Notice here he uses “us” and “both” and “bat that around”, signaling he’s not just leaving her alone to make the decision. He’s actually talking and he’s communicating why he’s not making a decision immediately. She would probably feel included in his thinking, rather than shut out, which would reverse the narrative that he was indecisive and withdrawing.
Mike was raised by overbearing narcissistic parents, so he learned to not share his feelings or thoughts because they would often be met with harsh judgment or strong, dismissing opinions. But his internalizing his experience was leading to emotional disconnection in his marriage.
This tactic of speaking the truth about what is happening in the room can also be used when dealing with narcissists who use a confrontational form of communication to put their victims “on the back foot,” and make them uncomfortable. The victim then does not know how to respond, may either withdraw in silence or get angry, and the narc can accuse the victim of being uncooperative or uncaring or emotional.
Speaking into what is happening “in the room” is a move of confidence that can strengthen the victim’s position and reclaim power from a coercive or manipulative person.Narcissists really dislike being called out on their coercive tactics, so only do this if you are in a safe situation or know that the narcissist is not violent.
For example, one patient was in an important conversation about a legal and financial issue when she was told a blatant and refutable lie by a person in power. She was, appropriately, shocked. She stumbled in the conversation and did not know how to respond. Often, people caught in this situation will then later criticize themselves for not knowing what to say or for being socially awkward, when this was actually the exact response the narcissist wanted.
What I recommended was to say exactly what she was feeling or experiencing, which was shock or surprise. “Wow, I’m actually pretty surprised here right now because what you just said seems to be completely untrue based on the facts that we both know.”
Narcissists often do egregious things to paralyze their victims into inaction or at least not calling them out. Victims often are in such disbelief about the narc’s anti-social behavior that they do nothing — which disempower them and plays into the abuser’s hands. Speaking truth in that situation is a way to say to the narc: “I see what you are doing here. My emotions are telling me that this is wrong.”
Both of these examples also give the responder time to think, gather themselves and perhaps come up with additional comments or decisions.
In therapy I sometimes turn this tactic on myself to model openness and vulnerability. For example, if a person’s retelling of their traumatic life history makes me emotional, I’ll reveal that in an appropriate way (not attention seeking!). This signals to the client that their story had an impact on me and I can empathize with them. I sometimes become tearful when a couple in therapy is finally tender and vulnerable with each other because I can feel this emotional connection in the room. Rather than ignore my tears or deny them, I mention them to highlight that the couple has reached a level of emotional intimacy that even I can feel from across the room (or even in the “Zoom Room”). We then explore their new experience of being warm and tender, rather than angry and defensive.
I find that many people today talk about their feelings, but it is really only a talk about a thought or belief. The best way to express feelings is in the moment as they are happening. This brings a real and authentic experience to both people in the communication process which can either build vulnerability and emotional connection or call out coercive behaviors.
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