by Fayad Raphique
Besides being a great Zeppelin song, communication breakdowns are key contributors to a plethora of issues in our daily lives. We’ve all been in arguments where that though pops up; “Why are we even fighting”. It’s easy to get pulled into arguments and even easier to escalate and lengthen those arguments. In this article, we’ll explore a small way to improve your communication and hopefully reduce the conflicts you experience in your day to day.
Making the Familiar Strange: Creating the enemy
Making ourselves vulnerable goes against every instinct. We open ourselves up to pain and embarrassment. Our society teaches that emotion equates to weakness. The less you reveal about yourself and your feelings, the stronger you are. This mystery is seen as strength, but it is also a tool that we have used throughout our history to harm one another. Emphasized famously in Orwell’s iconic, dystopian, 1984; strangefying the familiar is an amazing way to brew hate and fear. We can see examples of this in the propaganda posters of the World Wars. It was a common enough image, hanging in shop windows; soldiers covered from head to toe in foreign colors, rifles aimed at helpless civilians. More often than not, the enemy faces were absurdly caricatured, shadowed or completely hidden. We human beings are naturals at relating, at finding the familiar elements within each other. By making the enemy strange, propaganda artists and ultimately, governments, are able to reduce our ability to relate to our assigned enemies.
A similar Phenomena takes place on a smaller scale when we argue with one another. We hear a phrase or accusation that boils our blood and immediately lose sight of the other person, we place a shadow on their face and the individual with all their complexity, disappears. We are left with a physical manifestation of the problem at hand. As we know from our history, this can lead to a decreased ability to relate to the other person, which can in turn lead to a sense of justification in their harm.
YOU YOU YOU
How can we get around this? During my time as an in home family therapist for New York City’s Juvenile Justice Initiative, I utilized a toolkit comprised of evidence based techniques as well as communication and emotional regulation skills. One of my favorite skills was “I Statements” AKA “I Feel Statements”. I would often walk into a home, and after the first few weeks had gone, what we called the honeymoon period, I would start to observe real arguments between family members. Tension would thicken, faces reddened and the “you’s” started flying. “You are always late!; You always choose your friends over your family!; You don’t respect anyone, Youdon’t take me seriously” and the list goes on. The “you’s” poison the conversation, placing blame on the individual and producing an accusatory or condescending tone. This way of speaking,while ripe with emotion, fails to address the speaker’s feelings about the situation.
Owning Your Feelings
A more efficient(and you may find, more effective) way of communicating issues, is through I statements. An “I statement”, in contrast to the above “you statements”, shys away from blame and puts the spotlight on the speaker’s feelings. The structure of an I statement can vary, but it is basically as follows : I feel ____ when you____. So instead of “You are always late!, we can say “I feel upset when you come to dinner late”. We can further explain by saying something like: “It makes me feel like you don’t think my time is valuable”. Instead of saying “You never clean the apartment, you never do your part around here.” we could say “I feel so pressured to do all the cleaning when you don’t do your chores”. Instead of “You never talk to me unless I call you. I bet you don’t even think about me during the day.” we could try ” I feel really unloved and unappreciated when you don’t reach out”.
All of the I Statements used above, require a level of vulnerability that most of us are not used to. Talking to someone regularly in a safe environment, free from judgement can help us to open up enough to feel comfortable enough to utilize this communication skill. Most therapists are familiar with I Statements and can guide you in learning and practicing them.